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Caste is a form of social stratification characterized by endogamy, non-commensality and hereditary occupations. According to Human Rights Watch and UNICEF, caste discrimination affects an estimated 250 million people worldwide.
A paradigmatic, ethnographic example is the division of Indian society into social groups. Historically, the caste system in India has consisted of thousands of endogamous groups called Jatis or Quoms and Biradaris (among Muslims). The Nepalese caste system resembles the Indian Jāti system with numerous Jāti divisions with the theoretical Varna system superimposed for a rough equivalence.
Religious, historical and sociocultural factors have also helped define the bounds of endogamy for Muslims in India and Pakistan. The caste system in Sri Lanka is a division of society into strata, similar to the Jāti system found in India.
Yezidi society is hierarchical. In Yemen there exists a hereditary caste, the African-descended Al-Akhdam who are kept as perennial manual workers. Various sociologists have reported caste systems in Africa.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Caste in South Asia
- 3 Caste-like stratification outside South Asia
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Sources
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
The English word "caste" derives from the Spanish and Portuguese casta, which the Oxford English Dictionary quotes John Minsheu's Spanish dictionary (1599) to mean, "race, lineage, or breed". When the Spanish colonized the New World, they used the word to mean a "clan or lineage." However, it was the Portuguese who employed casta in the primary modern sense when they applied it to the thousands of in-marrying hereditary Indian social groups they encountered upon their arrival in India in 1498. The use of the spelling "caste," with this latter meaning, is first attested to in English in 1613.
Caste in South Asia
Caste system of India
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Historically, the caste system in India has consisted of thousands of endogamous groups called Jatis or Quoms (among Muslims). Starting with the British colonial Census of 1901 led by Herbert Hope Risley, all the Jatis were grouped under the theoretical varnas categories. According to political scientist Lloyd Rudolph, Risley believed that varna, however ancient, could be applied to all the modern castes found in India, and "[he] meant to identify and place several hundred million Indians within it." The terms varna (conceptual classification based on occupation) and jāti (caste) are two distinct concepts: while varna is the idealised four-part division envisaged by the Twice-Borns, jāti (community) refers to the thousands of actual endogamous groups prevalent across the subcontinent. The classical authors scarcely speak of anything other than the varnas, as it provided a convenient shorthand; but a problem arises when even Indologists sometimes confuse the two.
Independent India has witnessed caste-related violence. In 2005 government statistics recorded approximately 110,000 cases of reported violent acts, including rape and murder, committed against Dalits  ( A more recent data of year 2012 may be used to replace outdated 2007 data: The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) records crimes against scheduled castes and scheduled tribes - the most disadvantaged groups - in a separate category. These crimes are grievously under-reported, but even so the figures for 2012 are revealing: 651 cases of murder, 3,855 cases where people were hurt, 1,576 cases of rape, 490 cases of kidnapping and abduction, and 214 cases of arson. Ref http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-27774908 )
The economic significance of the caste system in India has been declining as a result of urbanization and positive discrimination programs. Upon independence from the British rule, the Indian Constitution listed 1,108 castes across the country as Scheduled Castes in 1950, for positive discrimination. The Untouchable communities are sometimes called Dalit or Harijan in contemporary literature. In 2001, the proportion of Dalit population was 16.2 percent of India's total population. The majority of the 15 million bonded child workers in India are from the lowest castes.
The Nepalese caste system resembles that of the Indian Jāti system with numerous Jāti divisions with a Varna system superimposed for a rough equivalence. But since the culture and the society is different some of the things are different. Inscriptions attest the beginnings of a caste system during the Lichchhavi period. Jayasthiti Malla (1382–95) categorized Newars into 64 castes (Gellner 2001). A similar exercise was made during the reign of Mahindra Malla (1506–75). The Hindu social code was later set up in Gorkha by Ram Shah (1603–36).
Religious, historical and sociocultural factors have helped define the bounds of endogamy for Muslims in some parts of Pakistan. There is a preference for endogamous marriages based on the clan-oriented nature of the society, which values and actively seeks similarities in social group identity based on several factors, including religious, sectarian, ethnic, and tribal/clan affiliation. Religious affiliation is itself multilayered and includes religious considerations other than being Muslim, such as sectarian identity (e.g. Shia or Sunni, etc.) and religious orientation within the sect (Isnashari, Ismaili, Ahmedi, etc.).
Both ethnic affiliation (e.g. Pathan, Sindhi, Baloch, Punjabi, etc.) and membership of specific biraderis or zaat/quoms are additional integral components of social identity. Within the bounds of endogamy defined by the above parameters, close consanguineous unions are preferred due to a congruence of key features of group- and individual-level background factors as well as affinities. McKim Marriott claims a social stratification that is hierarchical, closed, endogamous and hereditary is widely prevalent, particularly in western parts of Pakistan. Frederik Barth in his review of this system of social stratification in Pakistan suggested that these are castes.
The caste system in Sri Lanka is a division of society into strata, influenced by the textbook Varnas and Jāti system found in India. Ancient Sri Lankan texts such as the Pujavaliya, Sadharmaratnavaliya and Yogaratnakaraya and inscriptional evidence show that the above hierarchy prevailed throughout the feudal period. The repetition of the same caste hierarchy even as recently as the 18th century, in the British/Kandyan period Kadayimpoth - Boundary books as well, indicates the continuation of the tradition right up to the end of Sri Lanka's monarchy.
Caste-like stratification outside South Asia
Balinese caste structure has been described in early 20th-century European literature to be based on three categories – triwangsa (thrice born) or the nobility, dwijati (twice born) in contrast to ekajati (once born) the low folks. Four statuses were identified in these sociological studies, spelled a bit differently from the caste categories for India:
- Brahmanas - priest
- Satrias - knighthood
- Wesias - commerce
- Sudras - servitude
The Brahmana caste was further subdivided by these Dutch ethnographers into two: Siwa and Buda. The Siwa caste was subdivided into five – Kemenuh, Keniten, Mas, Manuba and Petapan. This classification was to accommodate the observed marriage between higher caste Brahmana men with lower caste women. The other castes were similarly further sub-classified by these 19th-century and early-20th-century ethnographers based on numerous criteria ranging from profession, endogamy or exogamy or polygamy, and a host of other factors in a manner similar to castas in Spanish colonies such as Mexico, and caste system studies in British colonies such as India.
China and Mongolia
During the period of Yuan Dynasty, ruler Kublai Khan enforced a Four Class System, which was a legal caste system. The order of four classes of people was maintained by the information of the descending order were:-
- Semu people
- Han people (in the northern areas of China)
- Southerners (people of the former Southern Song dynasty)
Some scholars notes that it was a kind of psychological indication that the earlier they submitted to Mongolian people, the higher social status they would have. The 'Four Class System' and its people received different treatment in political, legal, and military affairs.
In Japan's history, social strata based on inherited position rather than personal merits, was rigid and highly formalized. At the top were the Emperor and Court nobles (kuge), together with the Shogun and daimyo. Below them the population was divided into four classes in a system known as mibunsei (身分制). These were: samurai, peasants, craftsmen and merchants. Only the samurai class was allowed to bear arms. A samurai had a right to kill any peasants and other craftsmen and merchants whom he felt were disrespectful. Craftsmen produced products, being the third, and the last merchants were thought to be as the meanest class because they did not produce any products. The castes were further sub-divided; for example, the peasant caste were labelled as furiuri, tanagari, mizunomi-byakusho amongst others. The castes and sub-classes, as in Europe, were from the same race, religion and culture.
De Vos and Wagatsuma observe that a systematic and extensive caste system was part of the Japanese society. They also discuss how alleged caste impurity and alleged racial inferiority, concepts often quickly assumed to be slightly different, are superficial terms, two faces of identical inner psychological processes, which expressed themselves in Japan and other countries of the world.
Japan had its own untouchable caste, shunned and ostracized, historically referred to by the insulting term Eta, now called Burakumin. While modern law has officially abolished the class hierarchy, there are reports of discrimination against the Buraku or Burakumin underclasses. The Burakumin are regarded as "ostracised." The burakumin are one of the main minority groups in Japan, along with the Ainu of Hokkaidō and those of residents of Korean and Chinese descent.
The baekjeong (백정) were an “untouchable” outcaste group of Korea. The meaning today is that of butcher. They originate from the Khitan invasion of Korea in the 11th century. The defeated Khitans who had surrendered were settled in isolated communities throughout Goryeo to forestall rebellion. They were valued for their skills in hunting, herding, butchering, and making of leather, common skill sets among nomads. Over time their ethnic origin was forgotten, and they formed the bottom layer of Korean society. It was legally abolished in Korea in 1894 but remained extant in reality until 1930.
In 1392, with the foundation of the Confucian Joseon dynasty, Korea systemised its own native class system. At the top were the two official classes, the Yangban, which literally means "two classes." It was composed of scholars (Munban) and warriors (Muban). Within the Yangban class, the Scholars (Munban) enjoyed a significant social advantage over the warrior (Muban) class.
Beneath the Yangban class were the Jung-in (중인-中人: literally "middle people"). They were the technicians. This class was small and specialized in fields such as medicine, accounting, translators, regional bureaucrats, etc.
Beneath the Jung-in were the Sangmin (상민-常民: literally 'commoner'). These were independent farmers working their own fields.
The opening of Korea to foreign Christian missionary activity in the late 19th century saw some improvement in the status of the baekjeong; however, everyone was not equal under the Christian congregation, and protests erupted when missionaries attempted to integrate them into worship services, with non-baekjeong finding such an attempt insensitive to traditional notions of hierarchical advantage. Also around the same time, the baekjeong began to resist the open social discrimination that existed against them. They focused on social and economic injustices affecting the baekjeong, hoping to create an egalitarian Korean society. Their efforts included attacking social discrimination by the upper class, authorities, and "commoners," and the use of degrading language against children in public schools.
With the Gabo reform of 1896, the class system of Korea was officially abolished. Following the collapse of the Gabo government, the new cabinet, which became the Gwangmu government after the establishment of the Korean Empire, introduced systematic measures for abolishing the traditional class system. One measure was the new household registration system, reflecting the goals of formal social equality, which was implemented by the loyalists’ cabinet. Whereas the old registration system signified household members according to their hierarchical social status, the new system called for an occupation.
While most Koreans by that time had surnames and even bongwan, although still substantial number of cheonmin, mostly consisted of serfs and slaves, and untouchables did not. According to the new system, they were then required to fill in the blanks for surname in order to be registered as constituting separate households. Instead of creating their own family name, some cheonmins appropriated their masters’ surname, while others simply took the most common surname and its bongwan in the local area. Along with this example, activists within and outside the Korean government had based their visions of a new relationship between the government and people through the concept of citizenship, employing the term Inmin(people) and later, Kungmin(citizen).
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea reported that "Every North Korean citizen is assigned a heredity-based class and socio-political rank over which the individual exercises no control but which determines all aspects of his or her life." Regarded as Songbun, Barbara Demick describes this "class structure" as an updating of the hereditary "caste system", combining Confucianism and Stalinism. She claims that a bad family background is called "tainted blood", and that by law this "tainted blood" lasts for three generations.
Heidi Fjeld has put forth the argument that pre-1950s Tibetan society was functionally a caste system, in contrast to previous scholars who defined the Tibetan social class system as similar to European feudal serfdom, as well as non-scholarly western accounts which seek to romanticize a supposedly 'egalitarian' ancient Tibetan society.
Yezidi society is hierarchical. The secular leader is a hereditary emir or prince, whereas a chief sheikh heads the religious hierarchy. The Yazidi are strictly endogamous; members of the three Yazidi castes, the murids, sheikhs and pirs, marry only within their group.
Sassanid society was immensely complex, with separate systems of social organization governing numerous different groups within the empire. Historians believe society comprised four social classes:
- Priests (Persian: Asravan)
- Warriors (Persian: Arteshtaran)
- Secretaries (Persian: Dabiran)
- Commoners (Persian: Vastryoshan)
In Yemen there exists a hereditary caste, the African-descended Al-Akhdam who are kept as perennial manual workers. Estimates put their number at over 3.5 million residents who are discriminated, out of a total Yemeni population of around 22 million.
Various sociologists have reported caste systems in Africa. The specifics of the caste systems have varied in ethnically and culturally diverse Africa, however the following features are common - it has been a closed system of social stratification, the social status is inherited, the castes are hierarchical, certain castes are shunned while others are merely endogamous and exclusionary. In some cases, concepts of purity and impurity by birth have been prevalent in Africa. In other cases, such as the Nupe of Nigeria, the Beni Amer of East Africa, and the Tira of Sudan, the exclusionary principle has been driven by evolving social factors.
Among the Igbo of Nigeria - especially Enugu, Anambra, Imo, Abia, Ebonyi, Edo and Delta states of the country - Obinna finds Osu caste system has been and continues to be a major social issue. The Osu caste is determined by one's birth into a particular family irrespective of the religion practised by the individual. Once born into Osu caste, this Nigerian person is an outcast, shunned and ostracized, with limited opportunities or acceptance, regardless of his or her ability or merit. Obinna discusses how this caste system-related identity and power is deployed within government, Church and indigenous communities.
The Songhai economy was based on a caste system. The most common were metalworkers, fishermen, and carpenters. Lower caste participants consisted of mostly non-farm working immigrants, who at times were provided special privileges and held high positions in society. At the top were noblemen and direct descendants of the original Songhai people, followed by freemen and traders.
In a review of social stratification systems in Africa, Richter reports that the term caste has been used by French and American scholars to many groups of West African artisans. These groups have been described as inferior, deprived of all political power, have a specific occupation, are hereditary and sometimes despised by others. Richter illustrates caste system in Ivory Coast, with six sub-caste categories. Unlike other parts of the world, mobility is sometimes possible within sub-castes, but not across caste lines. Farmers and artisans have been, claims Richter, distinct castes. Certain sub-castes are shunned more than others. For example, exogamy is rare for women born into families of woodcarvers.
Similarly, the Mandé societies in Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Senegal and Sierra Leone have social stratification systems that divide society by ethnic ties. The Mande class system regards the jonow slaves as inferior. Similarly, the Wolof in Senegal is divided into three main groups, the geer (freeborn/nobles), jaam (slaves and slave descendants) and the underclass neeno. In various parts of West Africa, Fulani societies also have class divisions. Other castes include Griots, Forgerons, and Cordonniers.
Tamari has described endogamous castes of over fifteen West African peoples, including the Tukulor, Songhay, Dogon, Senufo, Minianka, Moors, Manding, Soninke, Wolof, Serer, Fulani, and Tuareg. Castes appeared among the Malinke people no later than 14th century, and was present among the Wolof and Soninke, as well as some Songhay and Fulani populations, no later than 16th century. Tamari claims that wars, such as the Sosso-Malinke war described in the Sunjata epic, led to the formation of blacksmith and bard castes among the people that ultimately became the Mali empire.
As West Africa evolved over time, sub-castes emerged that acquired secondary specializations or changed occupations. Endogamy was prevalent within a caste or among a limited number of castes, yet castes did not form demographic isolates according to Tamari. Social status according to caste was inherited by off-springs automatically; but this inheritance was paternal. That is, children of higher caste men and lower caste or slave concubines would have the caste status of the father.
Ethel M. Albert in 1960 claimed that the societies in Central Africa were caste-like social stratification systems. Similarly, in 1961, Maquet notes that the society in Rwanda and Burundi can be best described as castes. The Tutsi, noted Maquet, considered themselves as superior, with the more numerous Hutu and the least numerous Twa regarded, by birth, as respectively, second and third in the hierarchy of Rwandese society. These groups were largely endogamous, exclusionary and with limited mobility. Maquet's theories have been controversial.
Horn of Africa
In a review published in 1977, Todd reports that numerous scholars report a system of social stratification in different parts of Africa that resembles some or all aspects of caste system. Examples of such caste systems, he claims, are to be found in Ethiopia in communities such as the Gurage and Konso. He then presents the Dime of Southwestern Ethiopia, amongst whom there operates a system which Todd claims can be unequivocally labelled as caste system. The Dime have seven castes whose size varies considerably. Each broad caste level is a hierarchical order that is based on notions of purity, non-purity and impurity. It uses the concepts of defilement to limit contacts between caste categories and to preserve the purity of the upper castes. These caste categories have been exclusionary, endogamous and the social identity inherited. Alula Pankhurst has published a study of caste groups in SW Ethiopia.
Among the Kafa, there were also traditionally groups labeled as castes. "Based on research done before the Derg regime, these studies generally presume the existence of a social hierarchy similar to the caste system. At the top of this hierarchy were the Kafa, followed by occupational groups including blacksmiths (Qemmo), weavers (Shammano), bards (Shatto), potters, and tanners (Manno). In this hierarchy, the Manjo were commonly referred to as hunters, given the lowest status equal only to slaves."
The Borana Oromo of southern Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa also have a class system, wherein the Wata, an acculturated hunter-gatherer group, represent the lowest class. Though the Wata today speak the Oromo language, they have traditions of having previously spoken another language before adopting Oromo.
The traditionally nomadic Somali people are divided into clans, wherein the Rahanweyn agro-pastoral clans and the occupational clans such as the Madhiban were traditionally sometimes treated as outcasts. As Gabboye, the Madhiban along with the Yibir and Tumaal (collectively referred to as sab) have since obtained political representation within Somalia, and their general social status has improved with the expansion of urban centers.
France and Spain
For centuries, through the modern times, the majority regarded Cagots of western France and northern Spain as an inferior caste, the untouchables. While they had the same skin color and religion as the majority, in the churches they had to use segregated doors, drink from segregated fonts, and receive communion on the end of long wooden spoons. It was a closed social system. The socially isolated Cagots were endogamous, and chances of social mobility non-existent.
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- Class In Yemen by Marguerite Abadjian (Archive of the Baltimore Sun)
- International Dalit Solidarity Network: An international advocacy group for Dalits