Identical, but not equals

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Even though the Kashmir society widely denies, but caste system is an open secret within the community.

By: Neelofar Nabi

People talk immensely to highlight that caste system or racism does not exist among the Muslims. It is against the tenets of Islam which emphasizes justice and equality to all irrespective of caste, color and creed. The important example of how Islam promotes justice and equality is the selection of slave Bilal by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to become the ‘Muezzin’ of Medina due to his devotion and beautiful voice. Islam protects honor; insulting others or making fun of them because of their caste, race, etc is not permitted.

Holy Prophet (PBUH) said: “Your God is one and your ancestor (Adam) is one. An Arab is not better than a non-Arab and a non-Arab is not better than an Arab. And a red (white tinged with red) person is not superior to a black and black is not better than red, except in piety.”

Islam’s message is clear — that God created human beings as equals, who are to be distinguished from each other only on the basis of the amount of piety in them.  This categorical message eradicates the concept of racism/casteism.

But unfortunately, culture and traditions have overpowered faith and humanity in our society, making us embodiment of all unholiness. The reality is quite opposite and complex to the outsider’s notion that caste plays no role in Kashmir’s Muslim majority society, particularly in the Valley.

For most of us who are unaware, the Kashmir’s social stratification has developed along the lines similar to those of Hindus. The most familiar approach to understand social stratification in Kashmir is by dividing the community into castes- Syeds, Mirs, Makhdoomis, Wanis, Zargars, Ahangars, Naqashs, Sofis, Sheikhs and many more which cannot be mentioned because the list will never end.

Each caste has this notion of being superior to the other behind it in caste hierarchy. Since caste has remained an important and key factor during matchmaking, most of the Syeds (so-called high heels) refuse to marry their kids outside of their castes. Anyone who stands up against the system is looked down upon by the rest of the community.

Caste does not come into play much between friends, neighbors and colleagues but when it comes to marriage, casteism prevails widely. I have seen girls who have crossed the age of marriage just because their parents could not find a proper match within their choicest caste. They prefer late marriage but don’t want to marry in other castes. The usual sense of egalitarianism and equality of friends, neighbors and colleagues, takes back-seat all of a sudden in such cases.

The name Sheikh is particularly interesting. When used before the person’s name, as in the case of the Abdullah family, it denotes descent from Brahmins and often landlords. But when used as a suffixed surname, it generally denotes a lower caste and so is generally looked down upon. This community (Sheikh) has been the biggest victim of caste discrimination in Kashmir. They have been reduced to doing the same job (of scavenging) over the years.

It has to be pointed out here that caste is basically graded inequality and there will always be grades in the hierarchy where everyone above you in the hierarchy is your oppressor and you are an oppressor to everyone below you in the hierarchy. As a result, most of the castes are reluctant to share their surnames publicly, fearing ridicule and racist judgment. To get rid of this stigma, a lot of low-caste people migrate to cities and towns, and there they change their caste names.

Sociologist and former head of Kashmir University’s Sociology department, late Bashir Ahmed Dabla, in his book titled ‘Directory of Caste in Kashmir’ writes: “(T)here prevails an unrealistic notion among some individuals and groups that caste as a working social institution does not exist in this society. But that does not stand as a social reality. The actual reality is caste as a functional social institution prevails in Kashmiri society.”

I belong to a village where almost all the known castes exist and there is a phantasm in all of being superior to the other. Even the places of worship (masjids) have been separated just on the basis of community and caste identities – like Grees Masjid and Peer Masjid.

Islam forces practice of equality upon human beings five times a day through obligatory prayers where Muslims stand shoulder to shoulder without bias of caste, race or financial status. Sorry to say, but sometimes I wonder that are we just practicing our egalitarian Islam and hierarchical Hinduism too? Some four months back one of my neighbor wanted to sell his house but he mentioned a strange condition that the buyer should have the same caste like him (Syed). Astonishing! Now what kind of mental sickness is this?

I can’t help but feel disgusted about the oppression, marginalization, and dehumanization of different communities by our society and the language that has been created out of it. Caste is just an identity, not peculiarity; but we have associated every bad thing in Kashmir with the lower castes which has become the basis for prejudice against them.

The caste system is one of the ugliest aspects of our society. The more we move toward a modern society, more we are being caged because of the inherent casteism within all of us. The egalitarian view of Islam contrasts sharply with the functioning of Muslim society.

The caste system in Kashmir is destroying our unity and it needs to be discussed, debated and addressed as it is an evil monster that lives in our hearts. I don’t see a reason for feeling proud about Kashmiri heritage and culture when it has produced evils like this. Even though the Kashmir society widely denies, but caste system is an open secret within the community. The young generation of Kashmir must overcome principles of hierarchization and deeply unequal relations; and instead govern and treat each other as equals.

  • (Neelofar Nabi is a teacher and a freelance writer from Ratnipora, Pulwama. She can be reached at [email protected])

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