Five Reads that will Help you Understand ‘Brahminical Patriarchy’ and What it Means

Earlier this week Rajasthan High Court refused to quash an FIR naming Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for allegedly defaming the Brahmin community. The FIR was filed following last month’s outrage over a picture on Twitter in which the CEO was seen posing with a poster that said “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy”.

The picture had been taken in a closed-door meeting where Dorsey met with a group of women journalists, activists and organizers, to understand their experiences with the platform. Dorsey received massive criticism from Twitterati for supposedly endorsing “hate speech” and demonising the Brahmins.

Responding to the outrage, well known anti-caste feminist activists explained that the phrase “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy” wasn’t directed at the Brahmins, and was not inciting physical violence. Instead, according to them, the phrase is a contextualization of how gender violence and oppression systemically takes place in India.

As Divya Kandukuri writes in the piece, “Caste system is thriving/being safeguarded by maintaining the ‘purity’ of blood through women’s reproduction. It is also the very reason why Brahmin women’s movement is restricted.

Brahminical patriarchy ensures that she does not get ‘polluted’ as she is the gateway /entrance of caste system.” Anti-caste activists like Kandukuri and Sanghapali Aruna were angered by the “wilful ignorance” of the people responsible for the uproar.

For a better understanding of this issue, has compiled a list of five reads that will help you understand “Brahminical patriarchy” and what it means.

Jathi, Varna, and Caste and Gender Discrimination : Cynthia Stephen

One must read independent researcher Cynthia Stephen’s article to understand the historical context of caste hierarchy and how it links to the power dynamics of gender and caste. She primarily highlights how the boundaries of caste were maintained by controlling women.

These formulations, as she says, were scripted in the Manu Smriti which is considered as one of the main texts of the Brahmin/Vedic faiths. According to her, even opposition to anti-caste revolutions manifests as violence against women, especially women of lower castes who have been ‘Othered’.

“Contrast this (atrocities against lower caste women) with the punishment of anyone perceived to have caused any slight to a caste woman by a male from a lower caste – severe retribution – usually death – is swift and sure. Not because they love or honour their women more, but because the honour of their community resides in the woman’s body.”

Letters to Jyotirao Phule: Savitribai Phule

Social reformer Savitribai Phule’s letters to her husband are particularly remarkable for its critical understanding of a system that not just endorses the control of sexuality by restricting inter-community marriage but has for ages kept women within the bounds of domesticity.

Touted as India’s first feminist, decades before feminism became fashionable, Phule along with her husband took up the fight against the oppression of the ati-shudras (untouchables) and women. In one of the letters Phule talks about an inter-caste couple, a Brahman boy and an Untouchable girl, who she rescued from a group of infuriated villagers.

In an age where these notion of purity and honour still inform a large part of our social environments, Phule’s words remain revolutionary in their outlook.

“The lack of learning is nothing but gross bestiality. It is through the acquisition of knowledge that (he) loses his lower status and achieves the higher one…. Yes, we both teach girls, women, Mangs and Mahars. The Brahmans are upset because they believe this will create problems for them. That is why they oppose us and chant the mantra that it is against our religion.”

Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development : B. R. Ambedkar

B.R. Ambedkar was one of the first theoreticians to argue that at the root of the caste is endogamy (marriage within a community). The problem, he says, arises when there is a surplus man or woman, which he surmises on the assumption that the number of men and women in a community are about the same. According to him, in this situation there is a threat of them marrying with a member of another community. Ambedkar writes that this is resolved in the case of “surplus” women either through sati or forced widowhood. The “surplus” man on the other hand, given that he is considered as more valuable, can either marry someone of an unmarriageable age or submit to widowhood. He then goes onto highlight how these customs are observed mostly in one caste – the Brahmins.

“Endogamy or the closed-door system, was a fashion in the Hindu society, and as it had originated from the Brahmin caste it was whole-heartedly imitated by all the non-Brahmin sub-divisions or classes, who, in their turn, became endogamous castes.”

Conceptualising Brahminical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State: Uma Chakravarthy

In her paper written for the Economic and Political Weekly, Chakravarthy illustrates instances within Hindu mythology that demonize sexuality within women. According to her, most of these texts talk about the women as being weak willed and fickle in matters of desire. Chakravarthy analyses that the notion of policing women arose from this assumption and was enforced through a brahminical system.

“This projection of the fear of women’s uncontrolled sexuality was the backdrop to the obsession with creating an effective system of control and the need to guard them constantly; the moment the controls are relaxed, or cannot be effectively mounted, women’s inordinate sexual appetite will lead them to adulterous liaisons.”

Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women’s Testimonies: Sharmila Rege

Sociologist and feminist scholar Sharmila Rege starts her book by writing about how ideas broached by the Dalit movement and Dalit literature was not seriously considered within the social sciences. Rege goes onto draw a history of non-brahminical modes of thought that explore questions of caste and gender through different frameworks.

She particularly illustrates the work of several scholars like Gail Omvedt, Kancha Illaiah, B.R. Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule and even the Satyashodaks, members of Phule’s Satyashodak Samaj. What we understand through her arguments and even through the testimonies of the many Dalit women mentioned, is that the question of gender and caste are inextricably linked; so is the oppression of women and the oppression of the lower castes.

“His (Phule’s) projects of education for women of all castes and his recognition of the material and sexual consequences of enforced widowhood are well known. His contestation of brahminical patriarchy both individually and through the radical organization Satyashodhal Samaj stands in contrast with the efforts of male reformers who sought to modernise brahminical patriarchy.”

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