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How Indian Muslims Remain Caught Up In A Caste System That Goes Against Their Religion

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What? Do Muslims believe in the caste system? Which caste do you belong to?

These questions get on my nerves every time they are posed to me. Sadly though, the social stratification of Muslims into numerous castes makes them as heterogeneous as their Hindu counterparts in India.

In his influential book, “The Preaching of Islam”, Arnold argues that Islam’s perception of equality and absence of class prejudice attracted lower caste Hindus towards it. But, over a period of time, as the Arab traders (who brought Islam to India) married local women and their progenies spread, they were assimilated into the local Hindu culture and adopted many of its attributes.

Moreover, the local converts changed their faith but not their cultural traits. That is the reason why the Muslim community still retains many of the Hindu rituals. Therefore, my argument is that Muslims should abandon their traditional ‘un-Islamic’ rituals and embrace progressive values such as scrapping discriminatory caste-classification and promoting values of egalitarianism.

The Muslim community’s adherence to different status categories based on income, occupation and lineage clashes with the radical egalitarianism espoused by the Quran. The community needs to ponder over the reasons which have held it back. Why is it so that it fails to shed its age-old ‘un-Islamic’ traditions which find no mention in Islam? What is holding it back from discarding evils such as the menace of caste, endogamy, dowry, unnecessary lavish weddings and instantaneous divorce? Well, it all boils down to arrogance and hypocrisy.

Sadly, the Muslim society in India remains caste-ridden, in total contravention to the principle of egalitarianism enshrined in the Quran. Islam views equality and egalitarianism as the nonpareil ideals of the Muslim community. The Quran specifies that believers of Islam are all brothers. The Quran lays down a criterion for hierarchy among Muslims in the form of taqwa. The Quran says, “The best of you are the ones who fear Allah the most.” Taqwa, which is an Arabic word used throughout the Quran, fundamentally means doing the things which the Almighty has ordered his slaves to do, and abstaining from those ones They have prohibited them from doing.

Muslims hug each other during Bakr-Id celebrations
Is this the true picture of Muslim brotherhood, or does it hide a darker reality? (Photo by Saumya Khandelwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

This is the primary criterion Muslims should be judged by – but does it exist in practice? No, it does not. Muslims have an ingrained system of caste and hierarchy (for example, the Ashraf and Azlaf categories). Ashraf denotes the noble class (essentially those claiming to be of foreign descent). Not surprisingly, they feel superior to those belonging to the Azlaf category (denoting the not-so-noble local converts). This feeling of superiority is replete with charade and humbug, and goes against the notion of equality, which constitutes the basic tenet of Islam.

In fact, in his historic last sermon, delivered in his last pilgrimage to Mount Arafat in southeast Mecca, Prophet Muhammad said:

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. A white person has no superiority over a black person, nor does a black person have any superiority over a white person – except through piety and good action. Learn that each Muslim is a brother to every other Muslim – and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim, unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.”

Apart from the tenets of Islam, the Indian Constitution also appreciates equality and stipulates it as a part of the fundamental rights. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution underscores the value of equality, and terms it as the fundamental right of an individual, which cannot be abrogated or infringed upon. The right entails that the State shall not deny anyone equality before the law or equal protection of the law.

On the other hand, Article 15 prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, colour, race, sex and place of birth. Interestingly, the Constitution declares these rights as ‘justiciable‘ – a violation of which can be reported to the apex court. Muslims should take these provisions seriously, cease to look down upon certain castes and do away with social turpitudes such as dowry, endogamy and taking pride in belonging to a so-called ‘noble’ caste.

Endogamy and Liberal Values

In a modern, civilised world, there is no place for endogamy. Endogamy implies marrying into one’s own clan or community.

In Mewat, I tend to see that the majority of Meo Muslims believes in endogamy and resents exogamy. What’s even worse is the fact they don’t even entertain wedding proposals from the same village, even if the girl and boy declare their love for each other. Another caste – the Saifi (Lohar) caste – found in Delhi, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, does not entertain wedding proposals from outside the community.  The same restrictions are in place within the Ansari community which is found in western and northern India.

Due to the advent of modern education, a tiny fraction of the people of these castes have made alliances with other castes. However, they have failed to make any significant impact in the diktats of the caste system, which consequently hasn’t led to the mass adoption of the practice of exogamy.

Islam is a guiding principle for Muslims and sets a benchmark for them. It is based on the notion of equality, gender justice and drastic egalitarianism. It does not seek to create any sort of discrimination among its followers. Moreover, it stipulates that Muslims should abide by the law of the land. And the law of the land requires Muslims to give up all sorts of discriminatory practices, and set an example of practical egalitarianism by abolishing social segmentation among themselves!


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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

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With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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