Caste, patriarchy, and its gripping manacle on women in India

By Devi Rahul K 

The worth and virtue of any civilization can be judged by the place given to women in their society. The Indian societal structure is an arrangement whereupon multiple caste groups,  individuals, families, and kinship groups are constructed by caste-based hierarchy. The inner structure of the patriarchal family is constituted by relations of authority, domination, and dependency, which both reflect and are reflected in the structure of social relations (Femea,  2003). As the Indian family structure was primarily governed by patrilineal families,  women's role was subordinate to men. Women are presented as gender subjects, and socially attributed roles are entrusted to them within the institutions of family, caste, and kinship.  Therefore, this essay is an undertaking to analyze the influence of caste and gender-based norms on women in the patrilinear Indian family structure. Further, this essay concludes by showing the way forward to exterminate the social evils impairing women in India. 

Walby (1990) defines patriarchy as a “system of social structures and practices in which men  dominate, oppress, and exploit women.” The upbringing of a girl child in a patrilineal family has its implications. The social arrangement is such that women and men are unequal in their rights, rules, positions, and it was regarded as the arrangement of nature. The resultant  

constructed patterns of masculine or feminine behaviour are used to validate men holding powerful positions and to justify the demotion of women to subordinate roles. According to  Brian Martin (1990), masculinity is naturally seen to have dominance, confidence, strength,  competition, and rationality as its differentiating features. In contrast, femininity is linked to submission, nurturing, caring, sensitivity, and emotionality. 

The most potent and negative expression of patriarchy has been the tradition of male superiority and heroic leadership and the value structure they generate (Coulter, 2003). The birth of a baby boy is celebrated, whereas a girl child is regarded as a liability. It is  communicated through various phrases like "Bringing up a daughter is like watering a plant  in another's courtyard." A greater value is attached to sons, and daughters are demanded to hold special prayers and vratas to have sons. However, the value attributed to the girl child may change concerning her prepubertal and pubertal stage.


The feminine character assigned to the girl child emerges with the pre-pubertal stage. They are worshipped as Devi from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and employed in purification procedures of wedding ceremonies. Through these rituals, a girl child is introduced to their feminine role, and she is made conscious of it. The onset of puberty is considered as the attainment of her full body. It will be celebrated with rituals, new clothes, jewellery, and a  feast. Symbolic gifts are presented to her to make her conscious of her body. She will be kept under restrictions on food and playing harsh games to care for her reproductive organs. 

The celebration of these events is a faculty to socialize her and conveys a message that the girl is ready to get married. This contradicting treatment of girl child pre and post-puberty exposes her to the degrading ideologies of the patrilineal society. The commencement of puberty also imparts that she will be confined from movement and close interaction with males. This phase is attributed to withdrawing the girl child from domestic work and an increased dropout from schools. Thus, the restrictions and repressive attitude toward women will slowly begin to increase in this stage, and such measures are well-established within the caste system. 

Besides, the girl child's feminine roles are communicated to her through songs, poems,  stories, and metaphors. Shyness and modesty are accepted, and they are deemed natural feminine qualities. Bartky (1977) notes that the feminine body itself is a mark of inferiority and the body-discipline is deeply insidious. The girl is expected to possess the capacity to adjust and learn to bear pain and deprivation. Such notions of tolerance and self-restraint are deliberately cultivated from childhood. Through this, a girl's sexuality is knotted to her future as wife and mother, and it depicts women as a tool for marriage and motherhood while everything else falls secondary. 

Hindu society is formed on the pillars of the caste system. The inseparable boundaries of  Caste make the women more prone to its stringent customs and rules. Leela Dube (2009) has rightly remarked that the composition of a family reflects the rules of marital recruitment and residence, as well as the normative and actual patterns of rearrangement of family structure in the replacement of one generation by the next. As the membership of the Caste is acquired by  birth, women are accorded the role to preserve the barrier because of their reproductive capacities, and her role is to process the replacement of an older generation with the new generation. 

Furthermore, these deep-rooted norms and gender-specific roles have hampered women's participation in the economic milieu and it still continues. Despite numerous efforts by governments and NGOs, the representation of women in the workplace is very minimal. This prejudice is further exacerbated by the cultural biases and domestic responsibilities attributed to women. For instance, in India, women's unpaid work amounts to 3.1% of the GDP.  Women spend 312 minutes per day in urban areas and 291 minutes per day in rural areas on such unpaid care work. In comparison, men spend 29 minutes in urban and 32 minutes in rural areas on unpaid work (Dutta, 2020). Paradoxically, paid work attracts fewer earnings for women compared to men due to the existing wage gaps. Consequently, it hinders women's access to financial resources bearing their individuality. 

Suggestions & Conclusion 

As Dube (1988) rightly stated, Caste imparts a special character to the process of growing up female in Indian society. Through its institutions like kinship and family, Caste not only imposes restrictions on women but also attempts to own their self-worth and identity. The greater emphasis imputed to the male child through vratas and rituals erodes the desirability to have a girl child. While attributing culturally driven feminine characteristics to women,  forcefully inculcating these ideals since childhood through multiple approaches undermines the role of women in the patrilineal family structure. 

It may seem like a matter of the past, but even today, patriarchal theories and perceptions are ingrained into the heart and soul of Indian society. While sustaining the prevailing inequalities, the 21st century has supplemented some more to them. Women are undergoing socially driven problems like, forceful dropouts from schools, barriers to their formal employment, and even restraining the right to voice their opinion through social media. Further, violence-ridden issues like honour killings, female foeticide and infanticide, gender-based violence, and acid attacks are still prevalent. 

To blow the shackles of gender discrimination and uphold women's human rights calls for a constructive approach. A multidimensional understanding of women's issues and formulating policies accordingly will alienate these prejudices. First, continuous efforts to break the stereotypes and myths around gender will showcase women's importance and their role in society. This will decline the gender-based role of assigning and commodification of women. Secondly, the existing mechanisms for encouraging girls’ education should focus on eradicating the root cause. Though current policies such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao have brought in significant changes in the enrolment of girls, there are limitations in addressing the rate of dropouts due to lack of facilities in schools over and above gender stereotypes. Ergo, I believe that change must begin at the grass-root level by creating awareness among parents on the vitality of their girl child’s education. Further, the school curriculum must be gender-neutral, inclusive, and it should be effective in eliminating the hackneyed gender-norms. Third, women should be encouraged to seek their careers and financial independence. An increase in women's job prospects will enhance their sense of equality and build a sense of identity. Additionally, it reduces dependency on their male counterparts which allows them to fight against the patriarchal system. I believe that to truly understand the nature of women's position in a society, one must study the role they play in the production process and the control they exercise over the means of production. Finally, the government should reserve parliamentary seats for women to enhance their representation and participation in decision making. India’s female politicians bring greater benefits to their constituencies when compared to men (Dhillion, 2018). The historical battle against objectifying women can be achieved by empowering them in the social, economic, and political milieu. 

Therefore, I believe that the impact of patriarchy and the caste-based regulation of women's individuality will not just affect their social position adversely, but also has broader implications on empowerment and their accessibility to rights and freedoms. In contemporary times, patrilineal vantages come into the picture while compromising the education of girls,  confining them to domestic work, disallowing women to work after marriage and birth of children, and denying them the opportunity to express their opinions freely, etc. It is noteworthy that these constraints may still be limited to privileged sections of the society while, on the other hand, female foeticides and child marriages are still hailed in many parts of the country and across caste groups. Thus, as caste and gender-based rules still dominate the present Indian society, it demands a powerful alliance against the abominable norms to  'break the glass ceiling' of patriarchy once and for all.


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