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Sketches of three girls side-by-side as if walking on a ramp.
Caste and SexualityCategoriesVoices

General and not so General

The relationship between caste and sexuality has always been a complicated one, one that is performed through socially sanctioned practices, which enables the privileged and punishes the oppressed. In India, Brahminical practices of oppression are practiced in various ways. One doesn’t need to look too far, to understand how identities are oppressed, excluded and discriminated against through modern ways of inclusion and exclusion.

“This sub-division of a society is quite natural. But the unnatural thing about these sub-divisions is that they have lost the open-door character of the class system and have become self-enclosed units called castes. The question is: were they compelled to close their doors and become endogamous, or did they close them of their own accord? I submit that there is a double line of answer: Some closed the door: Others found it closed against them. The one is a psychological interpretation and the other is mechanistic, but they are complementary and both are necessary to explain the phenomena of caste-formation in its entirety.” – Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Castes in India: Their Mechanisms, Genesis and Development, 1916.[1]

At Nirantar, we believe that to critically understand and address lived realities, one needs an in-depth understanding of gender and sexuality and their intersections with caste, religion and dis/ability. We conduct trainings and workshops on gender and sexuality, for NGOs, government programmes and other agencies and organisations on these issues. We have a positive and political approach towards sexuality, enabling us to acknowledge desire and pleasure, while engaging with structural issues.

Nirantar’s Action Research Team engages in discussions on Gender and Sexuality using theatre as a methodology of participatory action research.[2]Using several theatre activities, we engage in conversations on gender and sexuality and its links to early and child marriage. We seek to explore and analyse the nature of decisions around marriage which reinforce and reproduce structures of gender, class, caste, religion, and patriarchy. Young people’s sexuality, desires, and aspirations are strongly governed according to these structures, by families, communities, and the state. The focus of our research is to understand how young people make sense of their lived realities within various structures of power, such as caste, religion, class, gender, sexuality etc. and how they affect them. As part of this project, we are working with six organisations based in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi.

I want to share my reflections as a facilitator of a training we conducted to initiate discussions on gender, sexuality and caste with 35 young girls between the ages of 16 and 21 years through a field-based organisation that works with them in Fatehnagar in Rajasthan on empowerment, education and gender.

On the first day, after doing some regular warm up activities, we asked the girls to get into pairs and tell each other a story and then relate their partner’s story to the larger group, as though it were their own, to help participants and facilitators get to know each other. As it was a big group and everyone wouldn’t have been able to share, we asked people to volunteer. Participants shared interesting stories about mobile phones, mobility, gender-based discrimination and more. In the discussions on mobile phones and mobility, participants shared how most of them had a mobile phone that their parents did not know about. We asked the participants what they do with these phones. Most of them said that they use the phones to speak to their friends. When we probed further to ask if they could speak to any friend, or only to certain friends, the participants shared that they can speak to anyone, it doesn’t matter if it is a girl or a boy. Then the discussion moved to friendship, from where it rapidly went to caste, when my colleague asked if they were allowed to be friends with people who belong to a caste other than their own.Some participants quickly responded that there was no problem in their family with regards to caste. Some of the others were initially quiet but soon started raising their hands to say that there was no caste-based difference or discrimination in their households and that their parents did not have any problem with their inter-caste interactions.

On our way back from Fatehnagar, my colleague and I felt strange about what had happened in the session and we sensed that there had been a discomfort around talking about caste. It felt as though because of a few participants, everyone suddenly felt pressured into saying the same thing and they couldn’t be open about caste. From the next day onwards, we decided to do more trust building activities so that the girls would be able to open up and honestly communicate their feelings. We also conducted a mirroring activity in which participants work in pairs, with one of them making a bodily movement and the other duplicating it; later they switch roles. This allowed the participants to move around, think about what they wanted to do and work with their partners to show that.

On the last day, we divided the girls into pairs and asked them to make their partners into statues of a “good girl” and a “bad girl”. We wanted to show through this exercise how the idea of the good and the bad girl is based on prejudices and assumptions about caste and women. As facilitators, we felt that how each participant worked with their partner would reflect their own understanding of this idea. This activity helps participants move away from discussion on how society perceives caste, and brings them closer to reflect on how they themselves perceive it. Most of the girls participated freely; however, some were apprehensive about sharing their opinions because it also pushed them to think about their own judgments and opinions about the characteristics of a “good girl” and a “bad girl”. Some participants were also clearly uncomfortable with the activity as it involved using the body as a tool of communication. Some also looked uncomfortable doing what their partner was making them do. When they were all moulding a statue of a “bad girl”, they kept looking at what the person next to them was doing and copied each other, which resulted in a lot of similar-looking statues.

When all the statues of “bad girls” stood in a line, most of them had unruly hair and were posing seated like a man,with bottles of liquor in their hands. Issues like anger, spirit possession and alcoholism were discussed. The statues of these “bad girls” were very explicit in the way they suggested body performance, desire and sexuality as sat “like a man,” with their legs spread open.The way their clothes were positioned, their hair was done, their bodies were moulded –all of this clearly reflected the regional stereotypes related to lower caste and class. The distinction between opening up of the legs and closing of the legs,according to the participants, reflected the “bad girl” and the“good girl”, respectively.

When all the “good girl” statues were made to stand together in a line, most of them were in a praying posture and had their heads covered with dupattas, and some of them were modelled as studying or going to school. Interestingly, one statue was shown as playing the veena[3]. At a glance they all looked as if they belonged to an upper caste and upper-class household. Most of the “good girls” were given names like Pooja, which also gave them away as upper caste.

One of the “good girls” posed as a model. She had long hair that was stylishly tied and her trousers were rolled up to her knees. When we started asking questions such as who this girl could be and where she could be from, the girls quickly started responding, saying that this girl must have belonged to a big household, and must not have done any household chores. Their answers reflected their assumption that she was from an upper caste household, since she had other individuals to do the household work. They also said that she looked really fashionable and she must have spent all her time dressing up. Some of the girls agreed that she was a “city” girl. When asked whether it was possible for this girl to live in their village, they immediately responded that no girl would wear clothes similar to hers in their village.

What came as a surprise was that just when we started discussing the statue more closely, the girls started talking amongst themselves about the kind of family this girl must belong to, and said that this girl must definitely be “general”.[4]We immediately checked with them again and asked whether they were sure that this girl was upper caste and they said that she definitely was, as one can “look” at her and tell. The girls also added that lower caste girls don’t style their hair this way and they do not wear these kinds of clothes in the village.

The girls openly discussed caste on their own even though we didn’t ask them any questions pertaining to caste in particular. Caste is deeply embedded in the ideas of a “good girl” and a “bad girl”. At the same time, while it is difficult for them to accept and reflect on their own views about caste, it becomes evident when they project their values onto someone else’s body. There is a very strong pressure to always say the politically correct thing, which sometimes leaves them with no space to negotiate and say what they think about caste, their assumptions about the caste-based practices they follow and how much power lies with the upper caste.This is where I feel that as facilitators, we need to try harder to address the conflicts and the differences that arise in discussions about caste,specially when we are talking about gender and sexuality. As facilitators and researchers, trying to understand how the community feels about gender and sexuality, it becomes imperative for us to deepen our own understanding of caste and think of ways in which it manifests and affects our daily practices of inclusion and exclusion. Our conversations on caste often revolve around discussing and addressing external structures of power but what often gets ignored is how it is deeply embodied in our performativity and how it is a part of our day to day lives, and the deep link it has with sexuality.

[1] Para 40 of a paper presented at Columbia University. Available at: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ambedkar/txt_ambedkar_castes.html

[2]To know more about the programme, you can visit- http://www.nirantar.net/early-marriage-young-people-and-empowerment/

[3]A veena is a musical instrument.

[4]“General” is a term which is recognized by the state and used by the public to refer to upper caste people.

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Article written by:

Before joining Nirantar in 2016 , Aiman did her post-graduation in Women's Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Her master's thesis was ‘A Gendered Study on Access to Public Toilets in Mumbai’. As a part of Nirantar, she is a part of the action research team, which focusses on using theater as a tool, to instrument discussion on Gender and Sexuality. Her work here includes planning theater sessions with the team, documentation, and coordination with partner organisations for the research.