When I was in high school, a guy once asked me what my caste was.
I told him that I didn’t know.
Back then, I didn’t know about the supposed “value” my last name held, or that it was based on a much larger social hierarchical system. It wasn’t until I was much older that I actually grasped the complex cultural ideology that is the caste system.
The caste system is an active form of discrimination that continues to persist not only in India but within the South Asian diaspora as well.
I spoke to my dad, who moved to England at the age of 9, about how prevalent it is even in Canada in 2021.
“It's still an issue, some people really make it known and make it a huge part of their identity, what their caste is, and others will hide it to avoid being discriminated against.”
My dad said he learned about the system very young.
“I would hear people say that person is jatt or that one is a thakan but I never knew what they meant or what the difference was,” he said.
“We knew many families who would change their identity to avoid facing discrimination here in Canada.”
He added that the logic of the caste system still persists in the present day, despite being denounced by religions such as Sikhi.
“Sikhism is largely rooted in the belief of unity and equality and the Gurbani teaches us that all human beings are equal,” he said.
Sadly though, this vision of an egalitarian and “casteless society only exists within a Gurdwara,” he said.
Outside of it, many individuals continue to discriminate based on caste.
To this day many individuals continue to face oppression based on casteism, even in the South Asian diaspora.
The ranking of casteism includes, but is hardly limited to, one’s work, education, or marriage. The most problematic ways in which we continue to see caste-based discrimination is within families that reject marriage proposals or manipulate their children to walking out of a relationship if the other individual is of a different or “lower” caste.
Although historically intercaste marriages did exist in India, they were usually rare and extremely stigmatized. Even now, people are shamed or manipulated into breaking up with a significant other if they ever brought home someone of a higher or lower caste.
In the past, it has led to ostracism, disownment by families, and in some cases, suicide and honour killings have been documented in response to inter-caste elopements.
However, although the conversation about caste aren’t as explicit or front of mind here in Canada, doesn’t mean that discrimination based on caste doesn’t still take place.
Most Punjabi households function with collectivist mentality and that means our general norms and beliefs are often shaped by the generation before us and play a huge role in major decisions.
I was speaking to a friend who shared how even personal decisions such as dating are influenced by our collectivist culture.
“Your decisions are based on what’s best for your family and [their] religious beliefs and traditions are taken into consideration too.”
“[But] Canada is an individualistic society where people are raised to do what benefits them and make decisions based on what's best for their future.”
My friend also made a good point about how being raised in the diaspora “puts us in the middle” and it’s up to us about which side of the spectrum we choose to belong on.
But the caste system is still deeply ingrained within our culture, so much so that it can even creep up in our dating lives. For many, it is still a relevant factor when it comes to choosing a potential partner.
In fact, the dating app Dil Mil allows you to set your preferences with a section to filter out specific castes.
To learn more about how casteism impacts Punjabis in Canada, I spoke with a few people who have been personally impacted by the caste system.
When I asked a friend who requested to stay anonymous, I quickly came to realize how many of our parents still hold the same views on intercaste relationships or marriages.
My friend, let’s call her Rhea, told me that she and her sister have brought this topic up with their parents, and asked why people have issues with intercaste marriages.
“My mom told me that caste indicates what you pursue in life, like your job. If you were a jatt you were most likely a farmer,” she said.
However, these roles and categories were only relevant in India, because here in Canada, your last name definitely does not determine what job you are able to pursue.
She added that her parents have differing views of caste based on how they were brought up.
“Let me preface this by saying my dad doesn’t care as much as my mom. With my mom, it's all they knew growing up and it's harder for her to change her mind.”
Rhea mentioned that she’s even seen people she knows who have disowned their daughters for marrying into a lower caste. She said she also sees a discrepancy between sons and daughters when it comes to caste.
“Whenever a man marries someone of a lower caste, it’s okay because she is “upgrading” but if the woman is marrying into a lower caste, it is considered as “downgrading” herself,” she said.
This also often results in the woman being labeled as an outsider because she married out of caste.
When it comes to women and dating in our culture, following the “timeline” of being educated and having successful careers, getting married in your twenties, having babies, all while trying to uphold the expectations of families has become an unrealistic standard in our society.
Due to gender norms in our culture, a lot of this stress falls on women, and who are also the ones who receive the most backlash from immediate families or even outsiders when dating, with caste being an added layer of stress.
Many women are bound by unfair cultural restrictions and by our families, not only making it harder for us to date, but adding pressure around who we date and when. Many go to extreme lengths to hide their boyfriends until the topic of marriage comes up, but by this time it’s often too late to get your parents on board if someone is out of caste or of a different race.
But this system runs even deeper than that.
Jasmine, another anonymous interviewee, is a second-generation Canadian whose parents changed their last name when they moved here because they didn't want to be recognized as a chamar, or of lower caste.
She said that her parents, who are first generation, sat her down and said “when the time comes, you should marry within your caste.”
Jasmine said this was because of the discrimination they faced from people within the community of a “higher” caste. A majority of the people she was going to school with were not of the same caste, and she felt the reality that many families have an issue accepting someone of a different caste.
I also chatted with two sisters who I had never met before, about casteism and their experiences with dating.
We bonded over our similar feelings of how despite our families accepting an inter-caste relationship, some aunties would make negative remarks over the situation and cause issues when it came to the wedding.
Gurkiran spoke about how her Thayi-ji (aunt) once said to her, “well he's a different caste, can’t you just find someone else who’s better suited for our family?”
By “better suited” her aunt meant someone of the same caste, as if Gurkiran’s choice in a partner is the business of her entire family, and not just her personal decision.
After finding someone who is educated, has a good career, meets all her expectations and then some, if he isn’t the same caste then all of a sudden he's not good enough?
Make it make sense.
Being brown often comes with the invisible burden of balancing expectations of your family at the expense of your wellbeing.
But at the end of the day, if you base all of your big decisions on what your families are going to say, or prioritizing their happiness over yours based on archaic ideals that aren’t even relevant anymore, you're never going to be content with your life.
However, I do believe our generation will be the ones to break these patterns of discrimination and leave outdated notions like the caste system behind.
It starts with being able to open up about our experiences and creating spaces to have these conversations, and making personal choices that leave this logic as a thing of the past.
Hopefully, it ends with our generation.
About the author
Navneet ChanaMore by Navneet Chana
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