Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 34, March 2014

Caste, Gender and Sexuality in Asia

K. Suneetha Rani

  1. The Asian continent is known for its diversity of landscapes, lifestyles, religions, languages and belief systems. It is equally known for its religious and social structures that influence each and every aspect of human life. The continent that has been a cradle for major religions such as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism has witnessed crucial reshufflings in its history, be it in terms of civilisations or colonisations. However, certain structures and practices have remained unchanged in their nature and implication. One such system is caste. G.S. Ghurye in his book Caste and Race in India traces the elements of caste system in Egypt, Western Asia, China, Japan, America and Rome and tribal Europe.[1] However, these elements have become history or have changed their mode of manifestation in these countries while the system has been intact for centuries in South Asia and particularly in India.
  2. India houses the most diverse and myriad number of castes which are arranged and cemented carefully like bricks in a wall. The caste system was very deftly delineated to divide societies into hierarchical layers. Like gender, caste also functions as a means of control and subjugation. As B.R. Ambedkar rightly points out, 'The caste system is not merely a division of labourers which is quite different from division of labour—it is an hierarchy in which the division of labourers are graded one above the other…this division of labour is not spontaneous, it is not based on natural aptitudes.'[2]
  3. The caste system does not divide society horizontally but divides it vertically thus making the division hegemonic. It strongly believes in creating obedience among castes thus generating fear among people for the authoritarian sections. While various castes are given various identities some castes are branded as touchable and certain others as untouchable. The system creates and implements restrictions on all forms of interactions such as interdining, intermarriage and ritual participation. The concept of pollution becomes the most convenient tool to preserve the differences among people and communities.
  4. There have been various theories of caste which examine the origin and status of caste stratification from different perspectives. The foremost among them is based on the caste-occupation connection which believes that initially people chose their occupation which eventually became their caste and hereditary identity. Similarly, there are theories that connect the caste identities with karma theory that the good or bad karma of people decides their birth into certain caste, reasserting the caste stratification. These theories not only try to essentialise the belief in caste stratification but also conveniently convince those who are branded as lower castes about their predicament in a way that does not engender protest.
  5. The caste system survives more on differences than on similarities. Emphasis on differences strengthens the oneness among the 'similar' people. M.N. Srinivas in his 'Caste in Modern India'[3] interestingly argues that the building of roads all over India and the introduction of railways, postage, telegraph, cheap paper and printing—especially in the regional language—enabled castes to organise as they had never done before thus connecting caste solidarities with the technological developments. However, it has always been a threat against one's caste that led to the emergence of movements and revolts though the technological revolution could have strengthened it.
  6. Religions like Buddhism and Jainism also originated not as mere spiritual explorations but as social revolutions against the ritualistic and the hegemonic Hindu religion. There have been several movements against the hegemony of oppressive religious practices. Especially, Hinduism witnessed the resistance of the exploited people in the name of the bhakti movement which manifested in different parts of the country in different times with a few individuals taking the lead such as Ramananda, Ravidas, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Meera Bai, Kabir, Tulasidas, Namdev, Tukaram and Chokamela. However, all these movements remained merely reformative thus not breaking their connection with Hinduism. Probably they functioned as safety valves to manage the pressure of people's protest that could have eliminated the hegemonic religion. Similarly, the non-brahmin movement led by Periyar in Tamilnadu, the Dalit Panthers Movement in Maharashtra and the Dalit movements in Andhra Pradesh, to name a few movements, were all the result of discrimination and exploitation but not the consequences of the technological revolution.
  7. Ambedkar interestingly traces the origin of untouchability to the issue of conversion in post-Buddhist times. According to him, those who converted into Buddhism and refused to come back to the fold of Hinduism were driven away from the villages and towns and were forced to live on the outskirts along with people suffering from terminal diseases. Margins became their status, literally and metaphorically from then on. 'Just as Untouchability has no racial basis so also it has no occupational basis…there are two roots from which Untouchability has sprung…contempt and hatred of the Broken Men [sic] as of Buddhists by the Brahmins… [and] Continuation of beef-eating by the Broken Men after it had been given up by others.'[4]
  8. Similarly, gender has been manipulated by religions and castes. Performativity of gender is delineated and instructed by caste identities as well. While there could be marginalised masculinities, there could also be hegemonic femininities based on the identities of caste and religion apart from those of class. Sharmila Rege rightly points out how women of certain castes are subjected to the double jeopardy of caste and gender.[5] Construction of gender, instruction about gender relations, allotment of gender roles are decided not only by the family, which is a miniature of society, but also by the community which plays the role of a major pressure group in a society.
  9. Caste not only decides the status and identity of gender but also sketches the profile of the sexuality of individuals and communities. In a society where women of certain castes are branded as 'available' for the sexual pleasures of men, the sexuality of women of other castes is strictly restricted and monitored. Similarly, religion and ritual can decide the change of sex such as, for instance, men castigated and condemned to live as eunuchs as part of a religious ritual. But, the rigid heteronormative beliefs of the same society cannot tolerate—transsexual or transgender identities or same sex preferences.
  10. Alternatively, there are restrictions on women that rule their mind, body and life. India was in the grip of social evils such as child marriage, widowhood, sati, bride selling and bride burning for centuries. There have been reform movements against such practices—most of which have targeted only the women of privileged sections. It is true that most of these evil practices existed in upper caste societies but it is also true that the reformers emerged from the privileged sections and aimed to 'reform' the status of only women of privileged sections.
  11. It is interesting to analyse the connections between caste, gender and sexuality in the process of socialisation which reiterates gender inequality. Uma Chakravarti refers to male control of female sexuality citing the religious texts such as the 6th-century B.C. Apstamba Dharma Sutra, which rules that a husband should ensure that no other man goes near his wife lest his seed get into her.[6] Chakravarti also observes that prescriptions and prohibitions for shudras and women are the same on many occasions. Caste system in India has divided people into four sections, that is brahmins, kshatriyas, vysyas and shudras in that hegemonic order. Shudras who are on the last step of this ladder are divided into several castes with occupations based on agriculture, weaving, carpentry and pottery. Goldsmiths, blacksmiths, barbers, washermen and shepherds also come under shudras. While some of these castes are politically and economically very powerful, some others are pathetically poor and deprived. Certainly, the notions of purity and impurity decide the lives of shudras and women. However, people out of the fold, that is 'untouchables,' are pushed to the margins completely where they do not even have the space to stand and speak.
  12. Although the lower castes are equated with women in their status of impurity, it does not really create a parallel as the women of privileged sections are considered impure only during menstruation and child birth while rest of the time they are considered pure. Karuna Chanana extends this argument of social interaction and female sexuality to the realm of education. She observes that:

      In South Asia, girls undergo a socialization process which is common in several of its dimensions. Further, the central concern with protection of female sexuality and the attendant notions of female purity/impurity and its links to caste status and the honour of the agnatic kingroup and familial consideration put severe constraints on the schooling of girls and women. This has to be seen along with the practice of seclusion and segregation especially around puberty to control female sexuality.[7]

  13. A similar view is expressed by Neera Desai and Maithreyi Krishnaraj while bringing together the elements of caste, gender and sexuality in terms of control.[8] They say that Caste endogamy recruits and retains control over the labour and sexuality of women, concepts of purity and pollution thereby segregating groups and regulating the women's mobility. When we are discussing caste, we are not discussing only the lower caste identities but we are talking about the caste identity, like gender identity, which positions people differently and allocates identities differently, some of them privileged and some others underprivileged.
  14. While sexuality is highly restricted and controlled—even speaking about it and expressing it—some women's sexuality is institutionally commercialised and made available for men. Caste contributes significantly to such institutionalisation, broadly speaking, in two ways—by creating a caste in which women are instructed to earn their livelihood by selling their body and sexuality; second by inflicting exploitable sexualities on certain castes, for instance some women of Dalit communities are made into joginis, matammas and basivis who are condemned as Dalit devadasis whose bodies are available for the entire male population of the village. Unlike temple Devadasis, Dalit devadasis cannot survive financially on their sexual availability and instead have to beg for survival. Several beliefs and practices unravel the way caste functions in moulding and manipulating sexuality.
  15. Sexuality in the context of caste is not a mere physical issue but a political conditioning, a religious control and a social restriction. The binaries that the system constructs forcibly push people into the system of heteronormativity thus binding people to become either men or women and nothing else. Once again to quote from Ambedkar, women, like Dalits are victimised by the Manu dharma sastra. They should understand the design of oppression and exploitation by caste and religion and should try to liberate themselves from the hegemonic religious conspiracies. His article addresses upper caste women and explains the politics of a patriarchal caste system.[9]
  16. This special issue of Intersections on 'Caste, Gender and Sexuality in Asia' brings to you a collection of papers that explore the impact of caste, gender and sexuality in different contexts in Asia, majorly concentrating on India. There are also papers which do not focus on caste but bring in an ethnic identity which is almost equal in 'status' to the caste identities from China and Philippines. It is difficult to give an overall briefing about the manifestation of caste, gender and sexuality in Asia with the help of seven papers. However these papers touch upon various issues surrounding caste, gender and sexuality in Asia. Interestingly, most of the papers focus on caste as lower caste but not as caste in general.
  17. The paper 'The Ascendancy of the Khap Panchayats in Contemporary India: Gender, Globalization and Violence' by Suruchi Thapar-Bjorkert and Gurchathen S. Sanghera on khap panchayat and the increasing monitoring on gender and caste raises the curtains for a discussion on the authority of caste assemblies that function almost as parallel governments. Caste panchayats have been designed by communities and villages in order to attain quick, relevant, grounded and fair justice and avoid external interference and misuse of power. The same khap panchayats, as the authors rightly argue, have become the revived and reinforced patterns of local authority. It is not only the behaviour of a gender and caste that is problematic but also the interaction between certain genders and certain castes that has become problematic because this violation of rules/restrictions can become the violation of caste barriers and gender hierarchies. Ambedkar called for the annihilation of caste and proclaimed that intermarriages are one of the best ways to collapse the casteist society. However, the incidents chosen for their fieldwork by the authors of this paper prove that intermarriages are being ruthlessly punished by the caste assemblies, and they argue that the elimination of caste boundaries, if not the annihilation of caste, is an unachievable dream.
  18. M. Sridhar and Alladi Uma's paper 'Well, Isn't the Well Still the Issue?' makes the argument more specific by drawing our attention to the basic facts about caste-ridden society. The well that represents water is still a crucial issue in the lives of marginalised communities and a bone of contention between two communities labelled as touchable and untouchable. A Dalit Christian woman writer, Bama, in her Sangati gives a beautiful demographic view of her village as to how it is divided into inhabitations of different castes and thus mapps the location of various castes and their relationships and statuses.[10] It is for administrative convenience that a region/place is understood to be divided in this way, but here it is for the successful carrying out of the caste differences and isolations that this map contributes to. When the village population is juxtaposed as warring camps or as the colonisers and the colonised binaries, minimum facilities also become the issues causing major battles. Vinodini effectively moulds this tension into a play where generations of exploitation is put to an end with a protest and a condition put forth by the Dalit women. Their bodies do not remain mere entities to be played with here but they become the medium of revolutions.
  19. Elen Turner raises a more theoretical question about the publication of Dalit women's texts by feminist presses and the presses run by the privileged sections in her paper, 'Reconciling Feminist and Anti-Caste Analyses in Studies of Indian Dalit-Bahujan Women.' There is a very interesting turn in the history of feminist press in India that started a few decades ago—that is publishing Dalit women's writings. Turner's paper chooses three texts on three different contexts but all of them connected in terms of the issues that they are concerned with—caste and gender. Apart from focusing on the publishing houses and their policies and choices about the publication of marginalised sections, she also traces the development of images, icons and languages in these books. One significant question that this paper raises is the portrayal of Ambedkar which almost amounts to the iconisaiton/romanticisation of Ambedkar. However, the representation can be understood as an historical necessity for a movement that had to motivate and mobilise people who were grounded and pounded with no voice and no choice. One is reminded of Gandhi's iconic status in the Freedom Struggle of India which helped to unite and sustain people's participation in the National Movement.
  20. Smita Patil's paper touches upon a more complex issue of conceptualising Dalit Feminism. Like feminism, Dalit feminism has also been a field of major contention. Dalit women have argued that they have been negated by both Dalit movement as well as the feminist movement. They assert that they are familiar with feminism but they are also burdened by caste politics as well. Dalit women speak differently, as Gopal Guru rightly observes as their concerns extends beyond gender identities.[11] Various strands of feminism, such as global, mainstream, black, indigenous, South Asian, third world and Indian culminate in the argument that the Dalit Feminist writers are putting forth. Patil rightly points out that Dalit feminists think differently and their voices speak differently to different people. The 'Dalit Feminist Manifesto'[12] invites the solidarity of upper caste women and argues how both Dalit women as well as upper caste women are condemned by patriarchy and the caste system and how there is a need for solidarity between them. Although Dalit women are burdened not only by 'double jeopardy' as Sharmila Rege puts it, but by multiple jeopardy, they have been writing with their multiple identities and divided loyalties.[13]
  21. Moving on from caste politics towards community rituals, Sowmya Dechamma's paper 'Of Death, Rituals, and Songs for the Dead: Kodavas and their Histories' focuses on the rites and rituals of a community that appear to be revolutionary and liberating when compared to so-called mainstream society. Funeral rites and rituals have become forbidden places for women in most castes. However, castes and tribes that are generally termed as uncivilised and underprivileged have more liberated spaces that are meant for women. Dechamma's paper interestingly explores gender equality in ritualistic spaces through songs. Religion, space and articulation are very crucial points that decide the place of a person in a society. They become much more important in the case of women in marginalised societies as their space and articulation are questionable in their own community as well as in the larger society. However, women, community and rituals rewrite the dynamics of gender and religion. The paper also brings in another important aspect of language along with the issue of articulation. The language that is not considered mainstream and rather considered substandard in comparison to the dominating language proves to be more decolonised and therefore available for the women to use.
  22. The next two papers shift the focus of discussion from India to China and the Pacific. Thus, they also draw examples from other forms of caste hierarchy basing their argument on history, literature, culture and religion. Yu Zhang's paper 'Competing Representations under the Alien Rule: Women in the Mongol-Yuan China' focuses on a different manifestation of caste system by drawing examples from literary texts as historiography. 'The Four-People and Ten-occupation' caste hierarchy in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century China complicated women's lives by reiterating the patriarchal mindset of the rulers. Women of this period, like women especially of the present day hierarchical societies, had to battle with the 'dual bondage' of ethnicity and gender. Yu Zhang's paper interestingly brings together gender, sexuality, ethnicity, historiography and literary representations.
  23. Lilia Quindoza Santiago's 'Syncretic Ethnosexual Rites: Intersections of sexuality and ethnicity among Filipinos' convincingly argues that sexuality and ethnicity are consciously intertwined and manifested in ethno-sexual rites which also help in binding a community. Like Dechamma's paper, Santiago's paper also focuses on rituals but while the former focuses on death rituals, the later concentrates on sexuality. This paper also contributes to women's histories by recording the life stories of three women from three different contexts: one from a woman of an indigenous medical tradition; one from a native woman who embraced the Catholic faith; and finally one from an American teacher who became a Filipina by choice. The personal association of the author with the three women adds a subjective intensity to the paper apart from bringing together gender, ethnicity and sexuality from women's perspective.
  24. The eight papers in this issue of Intersections present a rich spread of thought-provoking discussions on caste, gender and sexuality. Choosing instances from fieldwork, literature, history, culture, language, religion and experience, they provide insights to help us understand intersecting identities of caste, gender and sexuality and the politics that connect them closely in casteist and patriarchal societies.[14]


    [1] G.S. Ghurye, Caste and Race in India, Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 2004 [1932], pp. 141–62.

    [2] B.R. Ambedkar, 'Annihilation of caste,' in The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar, ed. Valerian Rodrigues, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp 263–305, p. 263.

    [3] M.N. Srinivas, 'Caste in modern India,' in Class, Caste, Gender: Readings in Indian Government and Politics, ed. Niranjan Mohanty, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2004, pp. 154–82.

    [4] Ambedkar, 'On untouchables,' in The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar, ed. Valerian Rodrigues, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002 pp 114–18, p. 115.

    [5] Sharmila Rege, Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women's Testimonios, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2006.

    [6] Uma Chakravarti, 'Conceptualising Brahmanical patriarchy in early India: gender, caste, class and state, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 28, no. 14 (3 April 1993): 579–85.

    [7] Karuna Chanana, 'Female sexuality and education of Hindu girls in India,' in Sociology of Gender: The Challenge of Feminist Sociological Knowledge, ed. Sharmila Rege, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2003, pp 287–317, p. 288.

    [8] Neera Desai and Maithreyi Krishnaraj, Women and Society in India, Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1987.

    [9] Ambedkar, The rise and fall of Hindu woman, Jullundar: Bheem Patrika Publications, 1980.

    [10] Bama, Sangati: Events, trans. Lakshmi Holmstrom, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    [11] Gopal Guru, Atrophy in Dalit politics, Mumbai: Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, 2005.

    [12] Sowjanya Raman, Ratna Velisela, Swathy Margaret Maddela and Indira Jalli, 'alisamma women's collective manifesto,' Alisamma Research Centre for Women's Studies, Hyderabad, 2002, online:, accessed 6 February 2014.

    [13] Rege, Writing Caste, Writing Gender.

    [14] I thank the paper contributors for the provocative ponderings. I also thank the reviewers, the General Editor of Intersections Dr. Carolyn Brewer and Dr. C. Savitha for their support, patience and meticulous reading.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 17 March 2014 0841