Overcoming the patriarchy in India's caste system: Minal's story

Minal with murals of Savitribai Jyotirao Phule and B. R Ambedkar. Photo courtesy Minal.

Minal with murals of Ramabai Ambedkar and B. R Ambedkar. Image courtesy of Minal.

I met Minal at a retreat center in rural England in March 2023, and we became fast friends. We were there to attend a Buddhist course, with six other women from different parts of the world. Over the following months, I came to comprehend the depth of her conviction on the ideologies of Indian social reformer B.R. Ambedkar, particularly when life's challenges confronted her. Each time, she emerged even more resilient, self-loving, and confident in her abilities.

Minal, 33, hails from the western Indian state of Maharashtra. In 2008, she first learned about B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India's Constitution and a symbol of the struggle against the caste system.

That same year, her father died. This challenging period provided her with the opportunity to assert her leadership within the now all-female family. Liberated to pursue her studies, she appealed to her mother to trust her decision to forgo marriage.

At her father's funeral, she seized her first chance to speak out against the oppression faced by women. With four sisters and no brothers, local traditions insisted that the ritual of cremation be conducted by men. The community suggested that one of her brothers-in-law assume this responsibility.

At that moment, I stood up and firmly declared, ‘No, we are five sisters, and he is our father. We will take charge of the cremation.’

Shortly after the cremation, she asked her mom if she could go to a five-day Buddhist retreat in Bordharan. It wasn't easy to get the go-ahead. “I convinced her to let me go with five boys,” she laughingly confesses.

I was 19 years old, and it was the first time I saw boys and girls together: around 600 people attending the retreat, discussing the Buddha's teachings.

She has never forgotten the surprise she felt at seeing such a friendly environment, where the young people, regardless of gender, interacted, laughed, had serious discussions, respected each other's opinions, and knew so much about the dharma (Buddhist teachings) and B.R. Ambedkar.

It was here, during the 2008 camp, that she met Sanju, her only male friend.

She turned down 41 marriage proposals by the age of 33 and decided to only marry a like-minded man, along with whom she could keep challenging the system, fighting against patriarchy, and exploring the democratic principles of liberty, equality, fraternity, and justice. None of the suitors has yet fit her expectations.

Hinduism and caste oppression

Minal and the author dressed up for Minal's birthday. Image courtesy of the author.

Minal made up her mind that one day, she would address such a gathering, passionately sharing the teachings of dharma. When she returned from the retreat, she dove into revolutionary literature and biographies of individuals who had fought for equality in India. Despite the official abolition of the caste system in 1950, the enduring impact of 2,000 years of ingrained hierarchies persists in the Indian mindset.

Minal walks me through the Hindu caste system, which classifies India's population into four official categories dictating lifestyle, occupation, societal duties, and geographical location: Brahmins (priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (fighters and rulers), Vaishyas (merchants, traders, and farmers), and Shudras (laborers). The Shudras category also encompasses the Dalits (“the oppressed’) or lower class. In later history, these were further divided into 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes. The caste system originated in the Manusmriti, a kind of Hindu bible, published at least 1,000 years before Jesus was born.

This inflexible system doesn't allow for upward mobility, and in the rare occurrence of inter-caste marriage (constituting only 5 percent of the total and frowned upon by society), the person from the upper caste descends to the category of their partner.

Given Hinduism's belief in reincarnation, the caste system operates on the premise that the only means of ascending the hierarchy is through rebirth into a higher caste.

Minal was born in the lower caste known as Dalits, previously called “untouchables.” Since the new constitution in 1950, they are officially called Scheduled Castes, making up about 25 percent of India's population of roughly 1.3 billion people.

She tells me that the lower classes have virtually no rights, and if Dalits are the most oppressed category, Dalit women, numbering 80 million, are the most persecuted people within the most oppressed category, and are constantly victims of sexual abuse.

Solitary retreat and the fear of sexual abuse

Minal used to live with a visceral fear of being a victim of sexual abuse, but she decided to face it when she had the opportunity to live in the girls’ dormitory of a hostel which was empty during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her best friend Sanju had recommended going on this two-month solitary retreat, assuring her that he would be just a phone call away.

During the first month, none of them slept out of fear: she was too afraid in case strangers came in, while he was waiting to be summoned. The campus was far from a city and isolated in a semi-jungle, with electricity often failing in the rainy season, the wind rattling the doors and windows, and huge snakes entering the building at will.

The two months spent there made her aware that, beyond the physical brutality of sexual abuse, she feared the shame that would follow. In a society that equates a woman's honor with her chastity, rape thrusts the woman into humiliation and self-blame.

Before embracing Buddhism, she, like many other Hindus, worshipped Brahman (the Hindu god). However, at the age of 19, the writings of B.R. Ambedkar, among others, profoundly influenced her with their alternative ideology. They made her pause and realize, “Wait a minute, I'm still human too. Why venerate a God who doesn't acknowledge my existence as a woman?”

In 2015, she chose to embrace Buddhism.

I realised that as a Buddhist, I could be anything I wanted and define my own identity. Otherwise, I would remain a victim of the caste system and the patriarchy in society. Being a Buddhist woman practically freed me from enslavement. Buddha's last words are said to have been: ‘Be your own light!’

Before her father's passing, he held the sole decision-making authority, but only women remained in the family after his death. She explains that in Indian tradition, families of potential husbands visit each other during marriage discussions, yet only the men engage in the final decision-making.

After adopting Ambedkarite Buddhism, I transcended this discrimination.

Minal in the rural UK, a walking distance from the retreat center. Image courtesy of Minal.

Since 2010, Minal has been volunteering for the National Network of Buddhist Youth (an organisation dedicated to young Buddhists in India, mostly from disadvantaged communities), becoming a trainer and public speaker.

She convinced her entire family to renounce Hinduism, a religion that oppresses the caste considered inferior: the Dalit caste.

The 22 vows made by B.R. Ambedkar in 1956, during the ritual of conversion to Buddhism, are very important to me, as is the moment I became a dharma mitra, continuing to strengthen my spiritual practice and develop as a Buddhist woman in India.

Challenging gender norms in Indian marriage culture

For generations, Indian marriage traditions have been a blend of customs where gender roles, hierarchy, and possession take precedence. Elders choose grooms for brides, and rituals like the bride's handover by parents and the prevalence of dowry reinforce the subjugation of women within these customs.

Recently, however, voices challenging these traditions and symbols of women's enslavement within marriage have emerged. For her sister's wedding, Minal and her family allowed her to choose her own husband, rejecting the custom of providing a dowry and other traditional rituals that symbolize the subjugation of women.

I don't want to become a perfect woman; I want to become a strong woman. I don't believe feminism should strive for matriarchy, which doesn't translate to equality, but for the equal acceptance of everyone as human beings, regardless of gender.

Inter-caste marriages

In Indian society, being born poor with only daughters is met with disdain. The situation got worse when my college-educated eldest sister, without a word, showed up at our door with her upper-caste husband when I was just three. This decision affected all my four sisters. The second one followed suit, marrying outside our caste when I turned 18. After that, talking to boys or pursuing education outside became strictly forbidden.

Minal doesn't believe that marriage should have an age limit. In the Indian system, the primary purpose of marriage is to procreate and ensure the family lineage, a mindset she considers rooted in patriarchy. Inspired by Savitribai Phule, the first female Indian teacher and a woman who brought revolutionary thinking to the social movement, Minal seeks a life partner who will fight against the patriarchal mindset.

Minal returned home in August 2023, and it wasn't easy for her to readjust to the restrictive, deeply patriarchal, and even dangerous society for unmarried women like her. The last time we spoke, she was preparing for an interview for a project manager position at an NGO dedicated to marginalized communities and disadvantaged groups in India.

A Romanian version of this article was published here in January 2024.

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