The Second Caste

Wikipedia page, 10 March 2013.

It is generally accepted that the term caste as applied in India was introduced by the Portuguese when they established their first colonies there. The word is derived from the Latin castus which means pure or unmixed. According to some linguists, however,  caste is actually derived from the Sanskrit kastha  which means limits or circumscriptions. Whatever the case may be, the requirement for  purity, the imposition of limits and accession exclusively by birth are the common denominators of any caste system anywhere in the world. The best-known example of a caste-fossilized society is that of India, where the caste system has survived for millennia and in spite of the Indian constitution and modern legislation, is alive and thriving in the largest electoral democracy in the world. Thriving in another reincarnation, of course, in keeping with the times.  Plus ça change…  However, it is known that leopards cannot change their spots and  even if they did, they would still remain predators.

Scholars often describe the intricacies of the Indian caste system, with its pure Brahmins at the summit and its unclean untouchables in the trenches. But scholars, that is non-feminist scholars,  which means the overwhelming lot of them, often forget the most egregious example of the universal caste system: that of women who comprise a sub-caste by mere accident of birth.  Whether women are born into the so-called higher castes or amongst the lowliest of the marginalized, their lives will be circumscribed, their behaviour expected to be “chaste” –castus– and their level of welfare at least one  notch below that of their male counterparts.

By virtue of the fact that they are the product of two whole X chromosomes instead of  one X and one Y chromosome (which, by the way, is actually a truncated X) women are forever condemned to  have no legal parity with men, to be married off young, to be more likely victims of foeticide, to enjoy fewer educational opportunities, to earn a lower income, to suffer rape as citizens or civilian victims during war, to be victims of the slave trade, to live under the guardianship of their male relatives, to be subjected to sex-segregation, to have fragile property rights, to suffer discrimination under immigration policies, to be denied positions of power, to be genitally mutilated, to have their sexuality strictly controlled, to have ridiculous dress codes imposed on them and  to generally lead a miserable existence.

These are gross generalizations, of course. But they highlight the facts of life that any young girl must confront by the time, if not before, a spot of blood stains her underwear for the first time.  Enough said.  So women are a sub-caste ipso facto. But the writing on the wall says that they are tired of being chaste and circumscribed, or … circumcised, for that matter.

Maya Khankhoje firmly believes that if people don’t get it, it is because they have bought into the gender caste system.