In the hierarchy of caste, the service castes occupy the bottom rung, doing what is known as ‘shuddhi’ or cleansing -- keeping the society and its people clean through their services such as washing clothes, shaving beard and heads, and so on. Today, even as much time has passed, they remain at the lowest rungs as the stranglehold of their low caste status has prevented them from modernising.

People from the lower castes have little education, and lead a hand-to-mouth existence since their traditional caste occupations do not give them either social respect or financial stability. Modernisation has not resulted in any substantial gains to the community as they do not have the resources, either financial or human, to capitalise on it. As a result the community is floundering.

If the overall community has remained backward both socially and economically, then the situation of the women in these communities has been even worse in terms of every social and economic indicator. The gender gap among Other Backward Castes (OBC) is enormous; OBC women lag behind men in every social and economic indicator such as income, literacy, health, nutrition, ownership of land/property, life expectancy.

The Maternal Mortality Rate and Infant Mortality Rate are higher among OBC women than the general all-India rates. Besides, an epidemic of violence prevails in their society with OBC women facing regular domestic violence and sexual exploitation; they are also among the largest groups of women trafficked into sex trade.

The women and girl children in these communities not only suffer from the general discrimination and deprivation that characterises Indian women, but the very fact that they belong to excluded communities makes their situation far more tenuous than the women of ‘upper’ castes. They struggle against a variety of deprivations that make them vulnerable at different levels. Among the disadvantaged groups the women are doubly marginalized, first for being women and second for belonging to a disadvantaged community.

As part of a survey to study the socio-economic status of women of the Most Backward Castes (MBC), an initial exploratory study of some of the MBCs was undertaken. The aim was to get an understanding of the situation by meeting the community leaders and the women themselves. This exercise would throw up the issues and concerns of the women which could be explored in depth in the next phase of the study.

Most backward among the backwards

One of the communities chosen for the study was the community of barbers or ‘mangali’ as they are traditionally called. The preferred name of the community nowadays is ‘Nayibrahmin,’ as it is shorn of the traditional prejudice associated with a ‘lower’ caste. The community is backward, both economically and educationally. There are hardly any efforts to set up and run institutions or ‘student hostels’ to increase education among the youth, as has been the practice among other castes, especially the ‘upper’ castes.  

As the traditional occupation of shaving took a back seat with the advent of modern home-shaving, the young men were rendered jobless as a result of which, the community witnessed large-scale migration to cities and even to the Gulf where they work as labourers or scavengers.  According to their estimate, at least one-third of the community’s males are migrating to the Gulf. Nevertheless, they have no assets, own no house or land, are in deep debt, and lead a hand-to-mouth existence.

The backwardness of the community can be gauged from the fact that in the 67 years of Indian independence, there has been no MLA or MLC from the community who could represent or take up its interests and hence, no minister either. A community leader half-joked that such is the social status of his community that they qualify for only cheap liquor during elections!

During an interaction with the community leaders, it was revealed that there is rampant alcoholism among men who are also given to several other ‘bad’ habits. According to a community leader, 70 per cent of the men in the community are addicted to alcohol and tend to blow up their earnings entirely on their indulgences. Therefore, the burden of supporting the family lies squarely on the women. So, what is the situation of women in the community? Naturally, far worse than that of men.

Displaced from caste occupations

Traditionally, the Nayibrahmin men would cut hair, shave beards, or clean ears while their women would deliver babies, bathe the new-born, and help the mothers to bathe the babies till the mother got the hang of it. These women also doubled up as doctors for particular diseases, vending traditional medicines for a variety of fevers including jaundice. Now these traditional roles of women have been rendered irrelevant with the spread of institutional and modern medicare.

They are rarely called upon to deliver babies; even bathing the newborns is rare as it involves payment of a small amount. Among the younger generation, no woman has ever delivered a baby. Knowledge of the traditional medicines, considered among the community’s assets, has disappeared from most homes due to the onslaught of the modern medicines.

With the scope for such traditional occupations shrinking, women have moved to rolling beedis in Nizamabad city. Over the past two generations, women of the community have moved en masse to beedi-making. On an average, these women make Rs 700-1000 a month. There is no scope to earn more, because that industry itself is in doldrums with the demand in beedis falling; accordingly production has been cut down, hitting the women badly. Each woman gets no more than 1000 beedis a month to roll, which works out to Rs 1000 a month. The men, meanwhile, earn Rs 100-150 a day in the barber shops.

Living on the edge

Almost all women said their men drink alcohol regularly and part with bare minimum money for the household. Some admitted they too drink, but not as much as the men, or as regularly. They certainly spend the most part of their earnings for their family, unlike the men. Almost all houses, the women said, are run on the women’s earnings.

Women from the Nayibrahmin community working as beedi workers in Nizamabad. Pic: Narender Pulloor

“When he comes home in the evening, he contributes Rs 10 for vegetables and Rs 10 for milk. The rest he keeps for himself,” said a woman. The men are paid on a daily basis.

An old woman and her unemployed husband depend on their unmarried, polio-afflicted daughter for sustenance. The young girl earns Rs 1000 a month by rolling beedis. “We live on Rs 30 a day,” admitted the old woman. “We barely manage to live,” she said. Another woman said she earned but her husband, a better-earning professional barber, and among the more stable men managed her money and the house.

The women shared that no man goes for work regularly and therefore, what they earn hardly provides for the family. “Our jati (caste) is like that and that is why our lives are like this,” rued another woman. “If beedis were not there, we would have been on the road or would have migrated, said one of them, hinting at the less-than-desirable alternative resorted to by the poorest, that inevitably belong to the lowest castes in the social hierarchy.

Yearning for education

Education for men is minimal while for women it is almost non-existent. The women spoken to were in the age group of 30-60 years. Almost all were non-literate, even those who were younger. They claimed to have gone to school for a couple of years. But they hadn’t heard of classes for adults, nor would they be able to attend any even if they were held, as all their time was taken up by household work and making beedis which left them with no time for any other activity. But education was much desired by the women.

“I wish I were educated. I would have climbed mountains. But what to do? My karma is bad. My destiny is no good,” she said. Another woman said that they could have escaped domestic violence and abuse by their husbands if only they were educated.

Perhaps because they attribute their present plight to the lack of education, most women now want to get their children educated. Ironically, however, this aspiration appears to be limited to cases where their sons are concerned. Almost every male child was in a private English-medium school, while the girl children were sent to government schools, if at all.

Not all agree to this. A mother of three protested the assertion that they seemed to be partial to their sons, pointing out that they had to pay fees even in the government school attended by her two daughters. The reality is that she pays Rs 700 per year for each girl, while the fees for her son in the English medium school is Rs 6,000 per year.

Adding to the entrenched patriarchy, dowry has become widespread in the community and every family incurs a debt while getting their daughter married off. The going rate of dowry is Rs 2-3 lakhs in addition to a motorbike and marriage expenses.

Where did the daughters go?

It is a fact that most of the women who were surveyed were young, in their 30s, with the exception of a couple of middle-aged and two elderly women. But almost none of these young women had daughters.

The women were aware of sex determination tests but denied that they had aborted any female foetuses. One of the very few graduates, employed as computer operator in a private company, turned defensive when asked about it. She said, “Don’t the hospitals put up notices in bold letters saying it is a crime to reveal the sex of the foetus?” she demanded.

The women, however, admitted that they were in fact harassed if baby girls were born to them. A woman, who had a girl for her first born, was told that she would have to leave the house if she did not bear her husband a son the second time round. When she got a son after 10 years, “he allowed me to stay,” she said.

It was left to the researchers to guess how many female foetuses she had aborted in those ten years of her quest for a son. Even community leaders admit that women resort to foeticide, mainly due to ‘domination’ by men.

There were only three pre-teen girls in all the houses taken together. While two girls were being sent to government school, one had to discontinue so that she could help her mother in the housework and look after her sibling. Two women had older unmarried daughters, in their late 20s, who were supporting their aged parents.

At the dusk of life

Old age seems to be a curse, especially for women in the community. Two old women were deserted by their sons soon after the latter started their own family. According to her neighbours, one woman even fell at the feet of her two sons, begging them to take her with them but they didn’t agree. They left the town.

Today, the lady survives by washing dishes as domestic help. She does not own even a ration card, and now has an additional problem to deal with. She has a fairly large tumour in her armpit but no money for surgery.

The other aged lady is a widow and has only one son; the latter, after marriage, has asked her to move out of his house. She used to make beedis but is now too old for it.

The tragedy lies in the fact that these women are alone as they deal with these issues of domestic violence, of old age and abandonment of parents by their sons, of the imperative to feed and educate their children. Is this world of women and their woes unknown to the male leaders of the community, waiting to be discovered?  Not really. They know it very well but apparently, the women’s problems are not seen as serious enough.

And how do the community’s elders respond to this crisis? Among several ideas considered, only one was implemented for women: awareness programmes and yagnas were conducted to inculcate ‘good thinking’ in them so that they could change themselves and become good wives and good mothers!

It is an undeniable reality of our society that women are mere add-ons. They have no existence of their own, nor are they valued for their own merit. There is no independent recognition, either of their contribution or of their concerns. Their needs are overlooked or neglected, even ignored.

The fact appears to be something which is grasped by even the neglected women of the Nayibrahmin community. Asked if their problems were common to only women of their community or to all women, a woman stressed, all women faced such problems. While some admitted them, others were inhibited or ashamed to talk about them.

“Our liberation is only on death. Till then, ours is an unending struggle, a struggle just to survive,” she said.