Confessions Of A Regretful Gender Studies Student
Posted by: Jessica Wakeman
4:00PM, Tuesday September 7th 2010
I have a lot of regrets about my college education.
I regret that tuition was $40,000 a year, so that my classmates were mostly rich, white kids. I regret that I am paying back thousands in student loans. I regret that my journalism program forced me to take an introductory class on reporting, even though I’d already written articles for my hometown newspaper for two years. I regret that I took two different photography classes, but haven’t snapped a single freakin’ photo since. I regret that I wasted time, money, and precious sanity on a required math class that gave me the anxiety attacks of your worst nightmares.
And most of all, I regret that I took as many gender and sexuality studies courses as I did.
Gender and sexuality studies classes ostensibly teach you to analyze the world with a critical lens, focusing on how one’s gender or sexuality impacts their life. Some classes deal with theoretical issues; others focus on literature, history or religion. Lots of gender and sexuality studies students go on to work in law, labor organizing, or social work. (“Women’s studies” is a slightly different field of study, as is “gay and lesbian studies,” but the career paths are basically the same.) The Gender & Sexuality Studies Department at New York University has been revamped since I attended from 2001 to 2005, so I can’t speak for the quality of the current education. However, my transcript from that time includes gems like the History of Prostitution, an introduction to grassroots organizing, and a class about pop culture where we talked about Eminem, O.J. Simpson, and the 1992 Watts riots.
I did learn stuff, of course: The history of prostitution class taught me about sex work, the grassroots organizing class educated me about labor abuse, and the pop culture class exposed me to the work of Anna Deavere Smith, who wrote a one-woman play about the riots. I can say it was all interesting.
But I could have benefited from more politics, history and literature classes—to learn more about the world in general, rather than one tiny little sliver of the world. There’s a difference between what I thought was “cool” to learn about at the time and what has actually proved useful in life. The lowbrow-yet-stylish topics we discussed — whether or not Eminem is sexist and racist, for example — will be out of date 10 years from now. I probably could have learned a lot about sex work and labor abuse by reading magazine and newspaper articles on the subjects. But learning more about colonialism? Globalization? The World Wars? Important books? Religion? Supreme Court decisions? That knowledge would have provided such a better foundation for me as a writer than what I think I received from gender studies classes.
Maybe this is just a case of the grass being greener elsewhere. In any case, I can’t very well go back to 2001 and change how I spent my money and my time. Today I just find myself playing catch-up, reading the great books and researching great moments in history that I should have learned in school.
Headed back to school or just want to relive your college days? Check out The Frisky’s special Schooled section this week!
ETHNONYMS: Adi-Dravida, depressed caste, external caste, Harijan, Panchama, Pariah, Scheduled Caste
The word “Untouchable” was first applied to this category of Hindus by the Maharaja Sayaji Rao III of Baroda in a lecture he gave in 1909, to describe their most essential characteristic vis-à-vis higher-ranking castes. Some twenty years later Mahatma Gandhi named them “Harijans,” which means roughly “children of God.” Later still the government of India drew up a list of the most disadvantaged castes, hence generating a new euphemism, “Scheduled Castes.” Drawing on Sanskrit, Untouchables have called themselves “Panchama,” or the “fifth varna,” a term that is not often heard today; or, in South India, they are “Adi-Dravidas,” meaning “original Dravidians.” The British have long called them “Pariahs,” in reference to a major Untouchable group of Tamil Nadu.
The Untouchables are collectively all those castes, in any part of South Asia, who are Hindus or former Hindus and rank below the Sudra varna. Their numbers are not known precisely, but in 1991 India probably had between 130 and 140 million Untouchables, and the subcontinental total would be close to 200 million.
The low rank of the Untouchables is explained by the general belief that their traditional occupations and other habits are or were polluting to higher castes in a spiritual way as they had something to do with blood, dirt, or death. Thus the families of leather workers, scavengers, and butchers are Untouchables, simply by reason of their traditional occupations. Furthermore, it is felt that this karma comes to Untouchables as a punishment for sins committed in a previous existence. Although these numerous castes all fall below the “pollution line,” they are not undifferentiated in rank but rather recognize a range of social distinctions. Some, who rank higher than other Untouchables, serve as priests to the rest, at their own shrines, because it is impossible to get Brahmans or other priests of very high status to serve the religious offices of these people.
The marks of their supposed pollution were traditionally expressed in a variety of ways. Very commonly, a cheri or separated, satellite hamlet was established for the Untouchables of a village; otherwise, they would inhabit a segregated quarter. The use of their own wells and even in some areas the use of their own footpaths and bridges were thought to be ways of protecting the rest of Hindu society from their polluting Presence. In Kerala until a century ago there were various prescribed distances, ranging from 12 to 96 paces, closer than which the particular Untouchable castes could not approach higher-status Hindus. Some were said to be so polluting that they could pollute a corpse—itself considered highly polluting—or should only move around at nighttime. Some groups in Kerala polluted a Hindu of higher caste if only their shadow fell on him; others had to actually touch him or his food to do so.
In modern times the requirements of public transportation and daily living have made many of these observances anachronistic, if not quite unthinkable. Yet the Untouchables remain the most backward and least educated sector of the community. Various sorts of government uplift programs provided especially for the Scheduled Castes have gone some way toward improving the health, education, political representation, and employment opportunities for Untouchables. Yet they remain, in all South Asian countries, a somewhat despised and underprivileged category.
Sizable numbers of Untouchables have over the past century or so been converted to Christianity or Buddhism, partly in response to the relative egalitarianism of these faiths, and partly because membership in these communities might obscure one’s Untouchable background and so improve the chances for better employment.
Untouchability is by no means confined to South Asia, for it has also been reported in Japan (the Buraku), Korea (the Paekchong), Tibet (the Ragyappa), and Burma (Pagoda slaves) ; in each case there is no association with Hinduism.
Bangladeshi dalits struggle to make ends meet
In Jessore, a village eight kilometres from the main town in Bangladesh caste system rages on and dalits are forced to live in isolation. Restaurants, shops don’t attend them branding them as untouchables, while children are not allowed to mix with anyone outside their caste.
The din inside the dark tea stall stopped suddenly. All eyes were set on the silhouette of a figure standing by the doorway.
- The Dalits are not allowed in this shabby restaurant in Monharpur village of Jessore/ Photo credit: Emran Hossain
Someone coughed nervously. Another tapped uneasily on the table with his knuckles. At the cash register, the salesman looked sideways to avoid eye contact with the man standing there.
“Give me a jilapi,” the man said. Inside the bamboo-fenced shop, the words sounded like a bombshell.
“Go away,” the salesman said in his clipped voice, without bothering to look at the man. “You know we don’t sell to the Dalits. We don’t have plates and glasses to serve the Dalits. Why bothering us, Robi?”
Robi Das, the Dhopa (washer man), nods knowingly and walks away without protest. When you are a Dalit–the untouchable–you don’t mind being shooed away. You just can’t afford to mind.
In Monoharpur, a dust-bowl village in Jessore, only eight kilometres from the town, the caste system rages on and the untouchables live in the twilight of existence.
The Dalits–the muchis (cobblers), the dhopas, the methors (sweepers) and the napits (barbers)–live a life of social exclusion. Restaurants don’t serve them; those that serve keep separate plates and glasses.
“We are not allowed to even touch any vegetable or chicken or anything for that matter in the market,” Robi Das explains, as he comes out of the tea stall empty-handed. “They say if we touch anything, it is spoilt.”
In Jessore, about 5,000 Dalits live in about 50 villages. Throughout the country there are about 55 lakh. They are the low caste Hindus, and the caste system that started in India ages ago–the exact time and how it was introduced is still debatable–keeps the children of the Dalits secluded in schools. Nobody sits next to them. Nobody plays with them. They just live like shadows, as Robi Das does.
“Football was my life,” Robi Das said. “The smell of the leather football, the sound of ball bouncing off the ground… ahh. I had to leave that too.”
When he was 16 or 17, his playmates one day told him to stay off the ground. They said football required physical contact and they can’t do it with an untouchable. Robi’s passion for ha-du-du also had to end for similar reasons.
“I was not even allowed to watch football matches standing by the ground,” he said. “I tried badminton, but again nobody would play. No Hindu or Muslim would take me for a carrom game or even chess.”
At 45, Robi feels aged twice. An excruciating burden of existence weighs heavy on him and his family. He feels numbed when he finds his 17-year-old son going through the same grinding machine of the caste system.
“He can’t play with anyone outside the caste. He has to receive anything he buys from the shop wrapped in banana leaves specially kept for the Dalits. I watch him grow in the same wilted society that I was born into,” Robi says, as he walks away from the tea stall.