Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Abuse of Lower Castes in South India: The Institution of Devadasi

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Abuse of Lower Castes in South India: The Institution of Devadasi

Article excerpt


The 'devadasi' system has been the object of several studies and is quite controversial. Some authors, particularly in the past associated the 'devadasi' with power and prestige, other, more lately, with degradation and prostitution.

This article firstly explores the origin of 'devadasi' practice and its evolution over time as well as its religious and ritual meaning, while attempting to identify the main factors explaining the signification of the 'devadasi' system in the past. Secondly it analyses the social status and economic condition of 'devadasis' and draws a global view of the reasons why young girls are still today consecrated in rural areas. Our argument is that the sanctions provided by social custom and apparently by religion are strictly combined with economic and social pressures. The social control and hegemonic masculinity of upper caste men is asserted and maintained through defilement and appropriation of lower caste and 'dalit' women's sexuality. The symbolic meaning of the devadasis relies upon the gendering and sexualising of caste relations of domination and subordination. In this logic, this article examines the intersections between gender, caste and violence.

Keywords: devadasi, lower castes, religious prostitution, South India.


Since its introduction, gender has emerged as the closest thing we have to a unifying concept of feminist studies, cutting across the various disciplines and theoretical schools that make up the field. Many feminist historians and sociologists use gender as an analytical concept to refer to socially created meanings, relationships and identities organized around reproductive differences (Connell, 1989, Scott, 1986). Others focus on gender as a social status and organizing principle of social institutions detached from and going far beyond reproductive differences (Acker, 1990, Lorber, 1994). Still others see gender as an ongoing product of everyday social practice (Thorne, 1993).

By examining gender as a constitutive feature and organizing principle of collectivities, social institutions, historical processes, and social practices, feminist scholars have demonstrated that major areas of life--including sexuality, family, economy--are organized according to gender principles and shot through with conflicting interests and hierarchies of power and privilege. As an organizing principle, gender involves both cultural meanings and material relations. That is, gender is constituted simultaneously through the deployment of gendered rhetoric, symbols, and images and through the allocation of resources and power along gender lines. Thus an adequate account of any particular gender phenomenon requires an examination of both structure and meaning.

The most recent theoretical work is moving toward imploding the sex-gender distinction itself. The distinction assumes the prior existence of 'something real' out of which social relationships and cultural meanings are elaborated. A variety of poststructuralist feminist critics have problematized the distinction by pointing out that sex and sexual meanings are themselves culturally constructed (Butler, 1990). Lorber (1994), a sociologist, carefully unpacks the concepts of biological sex (which refers to either genetic or morphological characteristics), sexuality (which refers to desire and orientation) and gender (which refers to social status and identity) and shows that they are all equally socially constructed concepts.

Over the last two decades, studies on women in India have raised important questions about the invisibility, distortion and marginalization of gender as a category of analysis in mainstream disciplines and their practices of canonization. The recognition of caste as not just a retrograde but also oppressive past reproduced as forms of inequality in modern society, but on the contrary very widespread, required the feminist scholars to integrate questions of caste with those of class and gender. …

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