Castes are hereditary systems of occupation, endogamy, social culture, social class, and political power. In a caste society, the assignment of individuals to places in the social hierarchy is determined by social group and cultural heritage. Although India is often now associated with the word "caste", it was first used by the Portuguese to describe inherited class status in their own European society.
Discrimination based on caste is prevalent mainly in parts of Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Japan) and Africa. UNICEF estimates that discrimination based on caste affects 250 million people worldwide.
“Caste structure is an extreme form of status inequality in that relationships between the groups involved are said to be fixed and supported by ideology and/or law”. Membership in a specific caste is often hereditary, marriage within one’s caste is mandatory, mobility is impossible, and occupation is determined by caste position. Mobility is possible within one’s caste, but not between castes. Each caste system must abide by specific codes in which certain behaviors and positions are expected by each group. In Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, he argued that “the scientifically important difference between the terms ‘caste’ and ‘class’… is … a relatively large difference in freedom of movement between groups”.
Ancient Greek society was divided into free people and slaves. Only free, land owning, native-born men could be citizens entitled to the full protection of the law in a Greek city-state (later Pericles introduced exceptions to the native-born restriction). In most city-states, unlike Rome, social prominence did not allow special rights. In Athens, the population was divided into four social classes based on wealth. People could change classes if they made more money.
In Sparta, all male citizens were given the title of equal if they finished their education. Slaves had no power or status. Sparta had a special type of serf-like helots. Their masters treated them harshly and helots often resorted to rebellions. According to Herodotus (IX, 28–29), helots were seven times as numerous as Spartans. Every autumn, according to Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus, 28, 3–7), the Spartan ephors would pro forma declare war on the helot population so that any Spartan citizen could kill a helot without fear of blood or guilt (crypteia).
Social class in ancient Rome played a major role in the lives of Romans. Ancient Roman society was hierarchical. Free-born Roman citizens were divided into several classes, both by ancestry and by property. The broadest division was by ancestry, between patricians, those who could trace their ancestry to the first Senate established by Romulus, and plebeians, all other citizens. Originally, all public offices were open only to patricians, and the classes could not intermarry. There were also several classes of non-citizens with different legal rights, along with slaves who had none.
According to an English cleric of the late 10th century, society was composed of the three orders: "those who fight" (nobles, knights), "those who pray" (priests, monks) and "those who work" (peasants, serfs).
In medieval Europe, the estates of the realm were a caste system. The population was divided into nobility, clergy, and the commoners. In some regions, the commoners were divided into burghers, peasants or serfs, and the estateless. Although originally based on occupation, one's estate was eventually inherited, because of low social mobility. Poland's nobility were more numerous than those of all other European countries, forming some 8% of the total population in 1791, and almost 16% among ethnic Poles. By contrast, the nobilities of other European countries, except for Spain and Hungary, amounted to a mere 1-3%. In France, serfdom lasted legally until 1789. It persisted in Austria-Hungary till 1848 and was abolished in Russia only in 1861.
Countries in Africa who have societies with caste systems within their borders include Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Somalia.
The Osu caste systems in Nigeria and southern Cameroon are derived from indigenous religious beliefs and discriminate against the "Osus" people as "owned by deities" and outcasts.
Similarly, the Mande societies in Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Senegal, and Sierra Leone have caste systems that divide society by occupation and ethnic ties. The Mande caste system regards the jonow slave castes as inferior. Similarly, the Wolof caste system in Senegal is divided into three main groups, the geer (freeborn/nobles), jaam (slaves and slave descendants) and the outcast neeno (people of caste). In various parts of West Africa, Fulani societies also have caste divisions.
Other caste systems in Africa include the Borana caste system of northeast Kenya with the Watta as the lowest caste, the Tuareg caste system, the ubuhake castes in Rwanda and Burundi, and the Hutu undercastes in Rwanda who committed genocide on the Tutsi overlords in the now infamous Rwandan Genocide.
Sahrawi-Moorish society in Northwest Africa was traditionally (and still is, to some extent) stratified into several tribal castes, with the Hassane warrior tribes ruling and extracting tribute - horma - from the subservient Znaga tribes. Although lines were blurred by intermarriage and tribal re-affiliation, the Hassane were considered descendants of the Arab Maqil tribe Beni Hassan, and held power over Sanhadja Berber-descended zawiya (religious) and znaga (servant) tribes. The so-called Haratin lower class, largely sedentary oasis-dwelling black people, have been considered natural slaves in Sahrawi-Moorish society.
The Southern and Northern Dynasties showed such a high level of polarization between North and South that northerners and southerners referred to each other as barbarians; the Mongol Yuan Dynasty also made use of the concept: Yuan subjects were divided into four castes, with northern Han Chinese occupying the second-lowest caste and southern Han Chinese occupying the lowest one.
During several dynasties in period of Northern and Southern China,especially in Southern dynasities (the East Jin, Song,Qi), the social configuration was divided mainly into two classes in a politic and cultural view. The dominant noble class Shizu, which literarily means Noble Family, controlled most of the offered offices and functions in the court, most time they also had kinship linked with the Emperor. The other opposite class Hanmen, literarily means The Austere Family, had been expelled from aspects of politic and cultural life.
Traditional Yi society in Yunnan was caste based. People were split into the Black Yi (nobles, 5% of the population), White Yi (commoners), Ajia (33% of the Yi population) and the Xiaxi (10%). Ajia and Xiaxi were slave castes. The White Yi were not slaves but had no freedom of movement. The Black Yi were famous for their slave-raids on Han Chinese communities. After 1959, some 700,000 slaves were freed.
Ancient Hawaii was a caste society. People were born into specific social classes; social mobility was not unknown, but it was extremely rare. The main classes were:
The caste system in Bali is similar to the Indian caste system; however, India's caste system is far more complicated than Bali's, and there are only four Balinese castes:
Hindu society has traditionally been divided into several thousands of castes called Jatis. The phrase "Hindu Caste System" mixes up two different schemes - the Varna (class/group), which is the theoretical system of grouping found in Brahminical traditions and some medieval codes, and the Jati system prevalent in Indian society since historical times. Despite the present day use of the same phrase to describe both Varna and Jati, some observers have claimed that
Varna as enunciated in the Brahminical texts e.g. the Rigveda (10.90.12) or the Manusmriti, categorized the people in the Indian society into 4 categories and is also referred to as "the caste system." Broadly speaking, the 4 Varnas include Brahmins (priests, scholars and teachers), Kshatriya (kings, warriors), Vaisya (merchants, agriculturists), and Sudra (tradesmen, artisans& craftsmen, workers and service providers). The Brahmins' primary vocation is to learn the Vedas and other sacred texts, teach and pray. The Kshatriya's chief occupation is managing their kingdoms and military service. The Vaishyas are occupied with economic activities (agrarian and trade) and the Shudras are skilled workers and service providers of all types.
It should be noted that although Brahmins have usually been described as the priestly class, this is not entirely accurate, as a temple priest need not have been a Brahmin; however, the performer of a Yajna or fire sacrifice priest always was, although even this has not always been followed by all sects within Hinduism - for example, in the Arya Samaj. There were several categories among the Brahmins and the priests are usually at the lower end of the Brahmin social scale. The ancient Greeks, e.g. Megasthenes in his Indika, and the Muslims, e.g. Alberuni (1030 CE) described Brahmins as philosophers. Megasthenes calls them Brachmanes and describes them thus:
All others, including foreigners, tribals and nomads, who did not subscribe to the norms of Hindu society were called Mlechhas and were treated as contagious and untouchables.
According to some researchers, by the 4th century AD, and certainly by the 7th century AD, there were people excluded from society altogether - the group of outcastes now referred to as Dalits or the "downtrodden." Thus, an untouchable, or an "outcaste", was a person who was deemed to not have any "Varna by those who claimed to possess it.
But now, in modern India, with rapid urbanization and large scale migration, the ensuing crowded living arrangements and public transport, and the broad-based mix of workplace colleagues, there has been a significant change in social attitudes, at least in the larger towns and certainly in the metros. Associations of occupations with caste have also been changing, especially as new occupations are developing.
In "A New History of India," by Stanley Wolpert states." a process of expansion, settled agricultural production, and pluralistic integration of new people led to the development of India's uniquely complex system of social organization by occupation...."
Under the Jati system, a person is born into a Jati with ascribed social roles and endogamy, i.e. marriages take place only within that Jati. The Jati provided identity, security and status and has historically been open to change based on economic, social and political influences (see Sanskritization). In the course of early Indian history, various tribal, economic, political and social factors led to the closing and consolidation of the existing social ranks which became a traditional, hereditary system of social structuring. It operated through thousands of exclusive, endogamous groups, termed jāti. Though there were several kinds of variations across the breadth of India, the jati was the effective community within which one married and spent most of one's personal life. Often it was the community (Jati) which one turned to for support, for resolution of disputes and it was also the community which one sought to promote. People of different Jatis across the spectrum, from the upper castes to the lowest of castes, tended to avoid intermarriage, sharing of food and drinks, or even close social interaction with other Jatis. An interesting perspective on ancient North Indian society is provided by the Greek Megasthenes, who described the society as being made up of "seven classes":
Modern Caste: Faced with a bewildering array of communities (Jatis), the late 19th century British colonial administration decided to categorize the entire Hindu population of India by placing each of the Jatis within the Varna system for the purposes of the decennial Census, and eventually for administrative convenience. Simultaneous with the codification into law of Varna-based caste identities during the British empire, communities (Jatis) sought to place themselves on higher levels of Varna categories. On the other hand, most of the Jatis grouped into the lower caste categories found this classification arbitrary, unfair and unacceptable. This created a growing resentment firstly against the caste system and secondly against the Brahmins, who were seen to be the beneficiaries of the arrangement. The revolt of the Justice Party and Periyar in the south, by the Maharaja of Kolhapur and the outstanding scholar Dr Ambedkar in western India against this, in the early decades of the twentieth century, has had a profound, long-lasting impact on the Indian society and politics, which continues to this date.
Some activists, most prominently at the UN conference at Durban, have asserted that the caste is a form of racial discrimination. This view has been disputed by some sociologists such as Andre Béteille, who writes that treating caste as a form of racism is "politically mischievous" and worse, "scientifically nonsense" since there is no discernible difference in the racial characteristics between Brahmins and Scheduled Castes such as the Jatav. He writes that "Every social group cannot be regarded as a race simply because we want to protect it against prejudice and discrimination.
The Indian government, too, has denied the claims of equivalence between caste and racial discrimination, pointing out that the issues of social status is essentially intra-racial and intra-cultural. The view of the caste system as "static and unchanging" has also been disputed. The Indian government has been working towards creating equality between castes with guaranteed seats in educational institutions, government jobs (and promotions) and even in the parliament for those of the Scheduled Untouchable castes and tribes. Scholarships have also been available to all of these groups, so that they can go on to further education more easily and this has raised their social status.Sociologists describe how the perception of the caste system as a static and textual stratification has given way to the perception of the caste system as a more processional, empirical and contextual stratification. Others have applied theoretical models to explain mobility and flexibility in the caste system in India. According to these scholars, groups of lower-caste individuals could seek to elevate the status of their caste by attempting to emulate the practices of higher castes.
The Government of India has officially documented castes and subcastes, primarily to determine those deserving reservation (positive discrimination in education and jobs) through the census. The Indian reservation system, though limited in scope, relies entirely on quotas. The Government lists consist of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes: Scheduled castes (SC)
The Supreme Court of India on Apr 10 , 2008 upheld the law for 27% OBC quota the law enacted by the Centre in 2006 providing a quota of 27 per cent for candidates belonging to the Other Backward Classes in Central higher educational institutions .
Mahatma Gandhi, B. R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru had radically different approaches to caste especially over constitutional politics and the status of "untouchables." Till the mid-1970s, the politics of independent India was largely dominated by economic issues and questions of corruption. But since the 1980s, caste has emerged as a major issue in the Politics of India.
The Mandal Commission was established in 1979 to "identify the socially or educationally backward," and to consider the question of seat reservations and quotas for people to redress caste discrimination. In 1980, the commission's report affirmed the affirmative action practice under Indian law whereby members of lower castes were given exclusive access to a certain portion of government jobs and slots in public universities. When V. P. Singh Government tried to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission in 1989, massive protests were held throughout the country. Many alleged that the politicians were trying to benefit personally from caste-based reservations for purely pragmatic electoral purposes.
Many political parties in India have openly indulged in caste-based politics. Parties such as Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) relies on the Dalits, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal rely primarily on the support of Other Backward Castes, and Muslims to win elections.
Two main castes in Japan were Samurai warrior castes and peasants. Only samurai caste was allowed to bear arms. A samurai had a right to kill any peasant who he felt was disrespectful.
Japan historically subscribed to a feudal caste system. While modern law has officially abolished the caste hierarchy, there are reports of discrimination against the Buraku or Burakumin undercastes, historically referred to by the insulting term Eta. Studies comparing the caste systems in India and Japan have been performed, with similar discriminations against the Burakumin as the Dalits. The Burakumin are regarded as "ostracized. The burakumin are one of the main minority groups in Japan, along with the Ainu of Hokkaidō and residents of Korean and Chinese descent.
The baekjeong were an "untouchable" outcaste group of Korea, often compared with the burakumin of Japan and the dalits of India and Nepal. The term baekjeong itself means "a butcher," but later changed into "common citizens" to change the caste system so that the system would be without untouchables. In the early part of the Goryeo period (918 - 1392), the outcaste groups were largely settled in fixed communities. However, the Mongol invasion left Korea in disarray and anomie, and these groups began to become nomadic. Other subgroups of the baekjeong are the chaein and the hwachae. During the Joseon dynasty, they were specific professions like basket weaving and performing executions. They were also considered in moral violation of Buddhist principles, which lead Koreans to see work involving meat as polluting and sinful, even if they saw the consumption as acceptable.
The opening of Korea to foreign Christian missionary activity in the late 19th century saw some improvement in the status of the baekjeong; However, everyone was not equal under the Christian congregation, and protests erupted when missionaries attempted to integrate them into worship services, with non-baekjeong finding such an attempt insensitive to traditional notions of hierarchical advantage. Also around the same time, the baekjeong began to resist the open social discrimination that existed against them. They focused on social and economic injustices affecting the baekjeong, hoping to create an egalitarian Korean society. Their efforts included attacking social discrimination by the upper class, authorities, and "commoners" and the use of degrading language against children in public schools.
With the unification of the three kingdoms in the seventh century and the foundation of the Goryeo dynasty in the Middle Ages, Koreans systemized its own native caste system. At the top was the two official classes, the Yangban. Yangban means "two classes." It was composed of scholars (Munban) and warriors (Muban). Within the Yangban class, the Scholars (Munban) enjoyed a significant social advantage over the warrior (Muban) class, until the Muban Rebellion in 1170. Muban ruled Korea under successive Warrior Leaders until the Mongol Conquest in 1253. Sambyeolcho, the private Army of the ruling Choe dynasty, carried on the struggle against the Mongols until 1273, when they were finally wiped out to the last man in Chejudo. With the destruction of the warrior class, the Munban gained ascendancy. In 1392, with the foundation of Joseon dynasty, the full ascendancy of munban over muban was final. With the establishment of Confucianism as the state philosophy of Joseon, the Muban would never again gain its former social standing in Korean society.
Beneath the Yangban class were the Jung-in. They were the technicians. They served in lower level government bureaucracy. They were literate, yet were unable to rise into full bureaucratic positions despite passing the gwageo (central government entrance) exam. This class was small and specialized.
Beneath the Jung-in were the Chun min. They were the landless peasants. These people composed the majority of Korean society until the 1600s. They were illiterate, and forbidden from marrying into the Yangban class. During the Japanese invasion of 1592, as many government genealogical record was burnt, many of them fabricated their social origin and moved into the Yangban class. With the Manchu invasion of Korea in the 1627 and 1637 and numerous peasant rebellions that followed, the ranks of Yangban families swelled up to more than 60% of the whole country by the late 1800s.
Beneath the Cheonmin were the Sangmin, also called Ssangnom in the vernacular. These were the servant class.
Underneath them all were the Baekjeong. The meaning today is that of butcher. They originate from the Khitan invasion of Korea in the 1000s. As they were defeated, instead of sending them back to Manchuria, The Goryeo government retianed them as warriors, spread out throughout Korea. As they were nomads skilled in hunting and tanning of leather, their skill was initially valued by Koreans. Over the centuries, their foreign origins were forgotten, and were only remembered as butchers and tanners.
Korea had a very large slave population, nobi, ranging from a third to half of the entire population for most of the millennium between the Silla period and the Joseon Dynasty. Slavery was legally abolished in Korea in 1894 but remained extant in reality until 1930.
With Gabo reform of 1896, the caste system of Korea was officially abolished. However, the Yangban families carried on traditional education and formal mannerisms into the 20th century. With the democratization of 1990s in South Korea, remnant of such mannerisms and classism is now heavily frowned upon in the South Korean society, replaced by the myth of egalitarianism. However, with rampant capitalism, a new aristocracy is slowly developing, caused by a major gap in income among the people of Korea, with the resulting differences in education and mannerism.
A caste system similar to that in India is practiced in Pakistan. In the absence of "classical" castes, typically the proxies used are ethnic background (Sindhi, Punjabi, Pusthun, Balochi, Mohajir etc.), tribal affiliations and religious denominations or sects (Sunni, Shia, Ahmadiyya, Ismaili, Christian, Hindu etc.).
While caste/social stratification information can be found relating to specific areas in Pakistan, it is not known if any studies have compared how relatively prevalent such attitudes are amongst the various ethnic groups, religious sects and geographies. Also, it is not known if any tracking studies have documented changes in these social attitudes.
Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that there are quite significant differences in how social stratification is practised within, and between, the various ethnic/religious groups in Pakistan.
The social stratification among Muslims in the "Swat" area of North Pakistan has been meaningfully compared to the Caste system in India. The society is rigidly divided into subgroups where each Quom (meaning tribe or nation) is assigned a profession. Different Quoms are not permitted to intermarry or live in the same community. These tribes practice a ritual-based system of social stratification. The Quoms who deal with human emissions are ranked the lowest..
The caste system in Pakistan creates sectarian divide and strong issues. Lower castes (or classes) are often severely persecuted by the upper castes (or classes). Lower castes are denied privileges in many communities and violence is committed against them. A particularly infamous example of such incidents is that of Mukhtaran Mai in Pakistan, a low caste woman who was gang raped by upper caste men. In addition, educated Pakistani women from the lower castes maybe at risk to be persecuted by the higher castes for attempting to break the shackles of the local, restrictive system (that traditionally denied education to the lower castes, particularly the women).
A recent example of this is the case of Ghazala Shaheen, a low caste Muslim woman in Pakistan who, in addition to getting a higher education, had an uncle who eloped with a woman of a high caste family. She was accosted and gang-raped by the upper-caste family. The chances of any legal action are low due to the Pakistani Government's inability to repeal the Hudood ordinance against women in Pakistan, though, in 2006, Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf proposed laws against Hudood making rape a punishable offense, which were ratified by the Pakistani senate. The law is meeting considerable opposition from the Islamist parties in Pakistan, who insist that amending the laws to make them more civilized towards women is against the mandate of Islamic religious law.. Despite these difficulties, the law passed and is now expected to help the situation in regards to women.
The late Nawab Akbar Bugti, the leader of his tribe and fighting for the Balochistan Liberation Army, criticised Punjabi attitudes to women when he said, "What respect we give to a woman, irrespective of her caste, religion or ethnicity, no Punjabi can understand.
In Yemen there exists a caste-like system that keeps the Al-Akhdam as perennial manual workers for the society through practices that mirror untouchability. The Al-Akhdam (literally "servants", plural Khadem) are the lowest rung in the Yemeni caste system and by far the poorest. According to official estimates, the total number of Khadem countrywide is in the neighborhood of 500,000, some 100,000 of which live in the outskirts of the capital Sana'a, while according to a New York Times article from February 27, 2008 there are more than a million. The remainder are dispersed mainly in and around the cities of Aden, Taiz, Lahj, Abyan, Hodeidah and Mukalla.
The Khadem are not members of the three castes, Bedouin (nomads), fellahin (villagers), and hadarrin (townspeople), that comprise mainstream Arab society. They are believed to be of Ethiopian ancestry. Some sociologists theorize that the Khadem are descendants of Ethiopian soldiers who had occupied Yemen in the 5th century but were driven out in the 6th century. According to this theory the al-Akhdham are descended from the soldiers who stayed behind and were forced into menial labor as a punitive measure.
The Khadem live in small shanty towns and are marginalized and shunned by mainstream society in Yemen. Khadem slums exist mostly in big cities, including the capital, Sana'a. Their segregated communities have poor housing conditions. As a result of their low position in society, very few children in the Khadem community are enrolled in school and often have little choice but to beg for money and intoxicate themselves with crushed glass.
A traditional saying in the region goes: "Clean your plate if it is touched by a dog, but break it if it's touched by a Khadem." Though conditions have improved somewhat over the past few years, the Khadem are still stereotyped by mainstream Yemenese society, considering them lowly, dirty, ill-mannered and immoral.
Many NGO's and charitable organizations from other countries such as CARE International are working towards their emancipation, while the Yemenese government denies that there is any discrimination against the Khadem.
“Caste structure is an extreme form of status inequality in that relationships between the groups involved are said to be fixed and supported by ideology and/or law”. In the US, membership in a specific caste is often hereditary, marriage within one’s caste is mandatory, mobility is impossible, and occupation is determined by caste position. Mobility is possible within one’s caste but not between castes. Race and ethnic stratification is evident throughout US caste systems. Each caste system must abide by specific codes of race relations in which certain behaviors and positions are expected by each group. Caste as metaphor for race relations was developed academically by Lloyd Warner 's “American Caste and Class”, Gunnar Myrdal 's An American Dilemma, and John Dollard 's Caste and Class in a Southern Town. Myrdal argued that “the scientifically important difference between the terms ‘caste’ and ‘class’… is … a relatively large difference in freedom of movement between groups”.