Identical, but not equal

People talk immensely to spotlight the point that caste system or racism does not exist among Muslims as 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 beauty of voice. Islam protects honor. In Islam, insulting others or making fun of them because of caste, creed, or race is not permitted. Merciful 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 black and black is not better than red, except in piety”. Islam gives a clear message, that God created human beings as equals, who are to be distinguished from each other only based on faith and piety and 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 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 another. Since caste has remained an important and key factor during matchmaking, most of the ‘high-caste’ people 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 biradri. Caste does not come into play much between friends, neighbors and colleagues but when it comes to marriage, casteism prevails. 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 a person’s name, as in the case of the Abdullah family, it denotes descent from Brahmins and often landlords. When used as a suffixed surname, it is generally looked down upon. This community (Sheikh) has been the biggest victim of caste discrimination in Kashmir. Not only have they been reduced to doing the same job over the years, it has reached a point where those belonging to this community can’t even find a bride in the Valley. 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, with the 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 there they change their caste.

The renowned Kashmiri 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 & there is a phantasm in all of being superior to another. Even worship places (masjid) have been separated just on the basis of belonging to different communities & those worship places are being called as Grees Masjid & Peer Masjid. Islam is the only religion to force 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, together? Some four months back one of my neighbors wanted to sell his house but he mentioned a strange condition that the buyer should have the same caste like him. I was totally astonished. What kind of mental sickness we are developing? I can’t help but feel disgusted about the oppression, marginalization, and dehumanization of different communities by our society and the language that was 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 stratification in Kashmir society.

The caste system is one of the ugliest aspects of our society. The more we move toward a modern society, the 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 addressed, discussed and debated 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 Casteism. 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 govern & treat each other as equals.

Note: It is not the intention of this writer to prove the superiority of one religion over the other.

Neelofar Nabi is a teacher by profession & a freelance writer.