Jun 162008

It is not, I feel, the irrelevance of caste that has allowed me to live here for three months without ever hearing a mention of it; but a sense of discomfort among supposedly egalitarian Muslims that their society has such relatively rigid, named and ranked social stratifications
A fellow foreigner recently mentioned, while relating an anecdote to me, that his driver is of a low caste. Hang on a minute, I thought. Caste? Isn’t that a Hindu thing?

I can hear the creak of the tin opener now, as I force open this particular can or worms. It is of course no surprise, thinking about it, that there exists a narrative of caste in Pakistani society, riddled as it is with status anxiety in the manner of fat marbling a rich slab of beef.

It does still seem incongruous to me though; not the sort of image a Muslim society likes to project for itself. Yet caste perceptions are very real, as witnessed by the example of Mukhtaran Mai, a low caste woman from Punjab’s Muzaffargarh district whose uncle eloped with a high caste woman; in 2002, Mukhtaran was abducted and gang raped as a form of honour revenge by a high caste family.

Or the lohar (blacksmith) from Poonch district of Azad Kashmir, who in 1989 — again like the proverbial beef steak — was riddled with over 80 AK-47 bullets because he married a higher caste woman.

I have heard it claimed that in contemporary Pakistan, such ideas are restricted to a few rural badlands and are not held by the majority of forward-thinking Pakistanis — the expansion of the media, with far more reporting of caste-based violence, is allegedly causing people to take note and to put pressure on the government to deal with the problem.

I have to say, this is not something I believe. The government has made no noise about caste whatsoever, even under post-election-flurry-of-promises conditions. The Mukhtaran Mai case received wide publicity mainly because of its challenging of the Hudood Ordinance; an aspect of the case not related to issues of caste.

The case was probably elevated to such heights of fame mostly for its intersection with the contemporaneous battle over Hudood between Musharraf and some Islamist parties, rather than for its intrinsic injustice.

This may show a reluctance in Pakistani society to discuss caste; a perception of caste as the country’s guilty secret. It is not, I feel, the irrelevance of caste that has allowed me to live here for three months without ever hearing a mention of it; but a sense of discomfort among supposedly egalitarian Muslims that their society has such relatively rigid, named and ranked social stratifications.

One source I came across tried to claim that the various named caste groups are simply ‘social classes’ or ‘occupational statues’. B R Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, criticised what he saw as Muslims in India trying to gloss over caste divisions with false euphemisms of ‘Islamic brotherhood’. Is there a national sense of embarrassment that a Muslim society should have such a ‘Hindu’ feature as a caste system?

One young blogger certainly feels as much, writing with disdain that there should not be a caste system here as “we are not Hindus”. However, as pointed out by one Jahangir Ahmad Satti in a letter to the New York Times in 1990, the caste systems of Pakistan and India come from the two countries’ shared cultural roots, rather than by direct transfer through Hindu converts to Islam, as many people assume. Ideas of caste were introduced by the Aryans thousands of years ago, with occupational aspects being added by ‘native’ Dravidians and Najas.

Some scholars have even tried to proactively reconcile Islam and “Qur’anic egalitarianism”, as Indian sociologist Yoginder Sikand puts it, with caste. This often seems to involve the claim that caste divisions exist simply to delineate between people with different customs and lifestyles — as one internet forum voice says, “these tribes etc are just so we can identify each other.”

But another advocate of this view talks in the same breath of not “spoiling the blood” by marrying into another caste — clearly a great many ‘egalitarian’ views of Islam and caste are indeed smokescreens for something less pretty.

So is caste viable in a modern Muslim society? Will current trends erase or enhance it? Mr Satti claimed in the New York Times that, “while the caste system has religious approval under Hinduism, it has no future in an industrialising Muslim society. In an industrial era, castes are replaced by classes.”

A quick trawl around the internet seems to support this assessment: the vast majority of contributors to net forums on the subject say caste is not an issue for them in choosing a marriage partner. However, these statements may be unwittingly highlighting a bigger truth than they realise. Satti wants to replace caste with class; a startling number of bloggers said that what had replaced caste in their marriage considerations is sect. “I wouldn’t want my kid to be raised in confusion,” says one young man — religious, doctrinal confusion.

This seems to reflect a growing trend worldwide in the last few years of Sunni versus Shia versus Wahabi versus whoever else calls himself a Muslim — can this be seen, in parts of Pakistani society, as the new caste?

Although it may matter more for these people whether you are Sunni or Shia than if you are a Malik or a Chaudhry or an Ansari, the basic fact of the division of society into endogamous groups who view each other with distrust or distaste is not something that industrialisation, or Islamisation, will solve. In whatever form it uses to sidle in the back door, caste is here to stay.

The writer is a staff member at The Friday Times

Source: Daily Times, 16/6/2008

 Posted by at 9:44 am

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