The final two sessions of my work with the Pathways World School Gurgaon in India, discussed in Part I and Part II of this blog post, were nothing less than astonishing and revelatory in ways in which I (and my colleague in India, Anuradha) never expected.
Again, trying to maintain my humility while working inside of such a different cultural context, I asked Anuradha if it would be appropriate to discuss Jati with the students. Jati is the very old and ancient caste system in India.
This Hindu system is over three thousand years old and has fve major categories and then over three thousand different class identifiers and subsections. It is a vast system of control and discrimination which, while outlawed as a form of discrimination after the founding the modern state of India in 1948, still exerts itself inside of the social systems of the country. So, why did I want to integrate Jati into discussions of gender and gender equity? How was this going to help me help the students understand gender issues in a deeper, more sophisticated way?
Here are several main reasons.
Relevance: Students need something to hang their hats on when learning about sometimes abstract concepts. They are able to connect issues that they see in their cultural and social environments and then can synthesize ideas in more sophisticated ways.
The intersection of a caste system like Jati with gender discrimination is unavoidable. To give them an accurate understanding of how their society constructs gender norms, they need culturally specific references.
Identity issues are complex constructions. To imagine that we can parse out identity into neat packages, such as just gender, would be an inaccurate and ultimately false narrative.
The way in which we connected the dots was by using a typical example that we often discuss in regard to gender. In this case, the pay or wage gap. Together, we examined how the issue of pay for women and the pay for people who found themselves born into lower rungs of the caste system had more similarities than differences. The students also expressed how they saw gender, being a woman in India, as a form of universal caste which immediately put them into a different social category. They also recognized how their own caste placement could easily be ignored as long as they were women, that even inside of privileged positions, they could still be diminished and marginalized because of their gender status.
But something else happened during these two sessions which was utterly surprising to me and Anuradha that we did not expect. When I began the discussion about the caste system, most of the students had barely an understanding or even acknowledgement of it on a conscious level. They not only could not articulate any of the dimensions of Jati, but they had no idea of their own family’s place in it. Several of the students went to their parents to ask them about their own families and came back to report to the group. These social constructs did not hold important places in their mental frameworks. Jati, the caste system, appeared to be more of a curio of a distant past that would not influence how they saw their individual futures or India's.
We were both so shocked to see that, in such a relatively short period of time, perhaps three generations, such an old embedded system could be disrupted by contemporary global movements and ideas. The gift of the experience of working with these students across thousands of miles at the Pathways World School Gurgaon in India was the gift of hope: that by addressing issues of social justice, like gender, with young people, it can have such an important impact on our global futures.