How women, food, and sex suffer the anxieties of India’s caste system
In India, food is used as a tool to maintain caste hierarchies by controlling women’s reproductive choices.
By Shirin Mehrotra (Paid subscribers can listen to Shirin discuss this piece at the end as an audio clip)
Growing up, Priyanka Bhadani, a writer from Gaya, a small town in Bihar, a state in the eastern part of India, remembers something odd about the way that ivy gourd was eaten in her family. While men were forbidden from consuming the staple vegetable, the women were heartily encouraged to indulge.
“For the longest time, I was told that the boys couldn’t eat it because it would stunt their growth,” says Bhadani. “Much later, I learned that people in my family believed that the vegetable controlled sexual desire. And that’s the reason women were encouraged to eat them.”
In India, controlling women’s desires and sexuality is the constant obsession of many. In foundational Hindu texts, women are portrayed as untrustworthy owing to their sexual “power”, which is considered wildly dangerous to the social order and presented as something that needs to be tamed. Society has translated its fear of women’s supposed destructiveness into myriad tools to control them and their bodies. Food taboos, or popular beliefs that define what a woman can and cannot consume during different stages of life, are one such mechanism.
Ivy gourd, eggs, fish, meat, garlic — the list of forbidden fruits varies by region and household but the principle of suffocating control remains the same. India has undergone much change in recent decades, but these taboos stubbornly persist. Their roots run deep, having everything to do with caste, class, and sex and intertwining with the very structures that uphold the inequalities built into society’s scaffolding.
“Eating achaar (pickles) while you’re on your period will make your breasts grow bigger,” a housemate from my student accommodation in university once told me. To me, a late teen acutely aware of her changing body, this was distressing information. At the time, I was strangely ashamed of my body and would wear loose shirts, borrowed from my father, to divert as much attention from it as possible. It was my only defence against the harassment I faced in the streets.
But I still loved to eat pickles. They were my escape from the uninspiring food served at the student hall. After my housemate gave me the news, I again tried avoiding them on the days I was menstruating. It wasn’t the first time I had tried to hold back from pickle-eating; I grew up in an upper caste Hindu household in Gorakhpur, a city in Uttar Pradesh, where some food taboos were adhered to, despite my family not being overtly religious. When I was younger, I tried to copy my mother, who wouldn’t touch jars of pickles when she was menstruating; one popular belief dictates that the impurity of women’s periods can make the pickles go bad. But one day, as a curious teenager, I decided to not only touch the jar of pickles but to scoop a handful out of them. That was the end of my following the taboo. And this time, as a college student, I again quickly fell victim to my palate. I continued to devour pickles, period or no period, hyper-aware of the risk that my body might morph into a more sexualized version of itself. My fear of having to inhabit such a body was acute, because I knew that society would perceive it as a threat.
The perception of women’s sexuality as dangerous has its origin in pagan Indian traditions. In these, the goddess represented a positive force of nature. Femininity was a force to be celebrated, as were women in the material world. All of this changed, however, with the emergence of Hindu traditions between 500-200 BCE, which appropriated the use of the goddess while completely shifting the paradigm. Goddesses became symbols of a dangerous force that could threaten the social order, which was organized in part according to the caste system: societal stratifications of people based on notions of purity and pollution.
The idea of caste emerged in texts written by Brahmin sages in an attempt to present their visions of an ideal society. These texts were written in Sanskrit, a language that in those days, only Brahmin men were allowed to read and write. The ownership of these texts kept Brahmin men, in particular, higher up in the social hierarchy, which relegated women to second-class. The Manusmriti (Laws of Manu), written in the 2nd-3rd century BCE and considered the de facto book for the Hindu code of law, says:
By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house. In childhood, a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons, a woman must never be independent.
Goddesses in Brahminical practices became more compliant; they were married off to male divinities and their docility became a symbol of ideal femininity. In the profane world, a women’s duty became to serve her husband and his family, remain chaste, and uphold the moral code defined by men, who remained the purveyors of the religious realm. This tradition has continued: Today, it is considered auspicious for men to enter a Hindu temple and break a coconut. But women are forbidden from doing the same because it’s believed that the death of the coconut can have an adverse effect on a woman’s uterine health. Although couched in unease over reproductive futures, the underlying driver is to keep women away from the Brahmanical practices that allow upper caste men to remain religiously powerful, maintaining what has been termed the “Brahmanical patriarchy”.
The ‘invisibilizing’ of oppression
Brahminical fists maintain a tight grip on womanhood. They know that the caste system, upon which so many binders of Indian society are organized — including the concentration of wealth and land ownership among upper castes — could crumble if women were to dictate their own romantic lives. It is for this reason that the legendary social reformer Dr. B.R. Ambedkar focused so much of his work on the liberation of India’s women in the second quarter of the 20th century. As Meenakshi Sharma writes in Ambedkar’s Feminism: Debunking the Myths of Manu in a Quest for Gender Equality:
In a casteist society, the anxieties regarding caste purity are charted out on the body of the woman. The onus of maintaining the caste purity lies with the woman by dint of her reproductive potential and therefore she becomes a threat that needs to be subjugated and controlled for the very existence and proper functioning of the caste system.
The Hindu social order deals with this by charging women with the task of preserving men’s honour and respectability, ensuring that it is their men who suffer if they step outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour. This rhetoric is potent enough to justify absolute control of women’s bodies by the “men that they belong to”, including those in lower castes. In Representing Dalit Bodies in Colonial North India, Charu Gupta writes about how Dalit men in the Moradabad region of Uttar Pradesh announced that they would “allow their women less liberty of movement”, impose a strict dress code including a purdah (veil), in part to “protect” them from sexual exploitation at the hands of upper case landlords or communities. These limitations imposed by Dalit men on Dalit women amount to oppressive legal and social codifications which serve not to liberate them from the stratification of caste, but rather throw them fully under the wheels of the patriarchal Brahmin machine.
This machine snags anyone who stands too close to it, and it is not only men who impose its regressive rules. During my research for this piece, I took to Instagram to learn more about the prevalent food taboos that are still practiced. It was in my DMs that I connected with Bhadani, the food writer from Gaya. In addition to ivy gourd, Bhadani remembers other foods also being off limits in her household.
“When I took a liking to eggs as a kid, my mother was reprimanded by the elder women in the family for encouraging me to eat something that may lead to ‘bigger boobs’ and result in an early interest in sexual activity,” she says. In this instance, it was the elder women who were passing down patriarchal traditions to younger women in the family. No matter that these rules once dictated their diets too.
In Seeing Like A Feminist Nivedita Menon explains why women uphold the patriarchal traditions that are created by, and benefit only, upper-caste men. “Women in virilocal [patrilocal] households derive power solely from men — their husbands, and then their sons who eventually become some other woman’s husband,” she writes. This structure leads to a power struggle between women and the only way women are able to exercise power is by holding on to patriarchal notions. Women are conditioned to believe that living by a moral code decided by men is the only way to gain respect.
The reverence for certain deities, too, plays a role. The portrayal of the temperate, docile, chaste goddess as the ideal vision of femininity — as the one form of a woman who is revered by men — manipulates women into “imposing fetters on themselves without realizing it”. This, in turn, “invisibilizes” their oppression and naturalizes the dominance of the Brahmanical patriarchy and its tools of subjugation, including restrictions and prescriptions related to food.
Dietary life cycles and the ‘surplus’ women
Food taboos shift over women’s life spans. While doing ethnography in Mangaldihi, a village in West Bengal, anthropologist and writer Sarah Lamb learned that young women and girls were taught by their elders to keep their bodies “closed” when around men, including by consuming a particular “cooling” diet. As per the principles of Ayurveda, this means less fish, meat, and garlic: foods which are believed to increase one’s sexual desire and propensity for aggressive behaviour. A cooling regime was believed to temper their desires during puberty and preserve them for the men they would eventually marry.
On the other hand, brides-to-be are fed well and given “hot” foods like meat, fish, eggs, spices, and garlic to increase their sexuality and fertility. But once they fall pregnant, restrictions return. In the coastal regions of Andhra Pradesh in South India, lactating women are instructed to avoid eating foods like bananas, watermelons, tomatoes, yogurt, eggs, dal, nuts, peanuts, and chicken because of a pervasive myth that they are dangerous for infants. No matter that these foods are pivotal for female nutrition during and after pregnancy. In villages of Odisha, a state in the eastern coastal region of India, women are not allowed to eat large fish, okra, mushrooms, pumpkin, and even eggs and meat during and after pregnancy due to similar concerns for infants’ health, despite the fact that all these foods are staples in the region.
The question of what to feed women over the course of their lifetimes becomes thornier if they are unshackled by force from the institution of marriage. Widows become what Ambedkar, the champion of Indian women’s rights, incisively defined as society’s “surplus” women. Given women’s roles as the guardians of caste, purity, and male honour, it is considered essential that widowed women are prevented from realizing their sexual “potential” outside of their original inter-caste union. For women, historically, this has been done one of two ways: through Sati, the practice of self-immolation on a husband’s funeral pyre, or the imposition of an austere, restrictive form of widowhood to ensure that widowed women are no longer a source of enticement.
In the Brahmin communities in West Bengal and other parts of Eastern India, women who have lost their husbands are supposed to live like ascetics. They shave their heads, wear only white, give up all kinds of bodily ornamentation, eat a diet of only cooling foods, and observe mandatory fasts every eleventh day of the lunar cycle, which keeps their bodies thin. Sarah Lamb, the same anthropologist who documented the food restrictions placed on young women in West Bengal, interprets these restrictions as attempts to transform widows into asexual and unattractive women. Lamb writes that in the community she visited, men and women, widows and non-widows, believed the widow’s diet in particular, “to ‘reduce sexual desire (kam)’, to ‘decrease blood (rakta)’, to make the body ‘cool (thanda)’, to make the widow ‘thin and ugly’, to keep her from ‘wanting any man’”. On most days in the community that Lamb visited, widows ate just one meal a day, consisting only of muri (puffed rice). These fleshly and aesthetic restrictions serve to keep the sexual desires of widows, who are not permitted to remarry, in check.
But widows have found ways to navigate the strict rules and regulations imposed on their bodies. Dr. Rituparna Patgiri, an anthropologist and Assistant Professor at the Indraprastha College for Women in Delhi, told me about the widows she met while doing fieldwork in Vrindavan. Vrindavan is a Hindu place of pilgrimage in North India where a large part of the population follows a sattvic diet, bereft of all kinds of meats, onion, garlic, spices and other “hot” foods, and most restaurants serve only vegetarian meals. Many of the widows in this area told her that they would trade chana, or chickpeas, that they received for performing devotional songs to pilgrims, for theoretically-forbidden eggs in the local market and cook them very discreetly at the ashram.
“Many times they also asked us to bring laal maas (mutton) when we visited them for our fieldwork,” Patgiri told me. “The desire for having tabooed food was very much present, and they would negotiate with us [in order to obtain it].”
In Mangaldihi, too, Lamb writes about an elderly widow who enjoyed eating mangoes and cottage cheese — both forbidden food items — in spite of the villagers who muttered their disapproval in hushed tones. Her resistance was bolstered by the fact she was wealthy and generally well-respected in her community. For a less influential widow, such transgressions might result in being slandered by the community and abandoned by her own family, leaving her financially and socially vulnerable. Many women in this position are forced into sex work.
Break the coconut
The irony of the suffocating restrictions placed by men on women’s sexuality is that often, it is women who do the work of defending themselves from sexual advances. Women in public places — on trains and buses, in parks and the streets — have to be constantly aware of the men around them, always ready to protect their bodies from those who might try to casually brush against them and feel them up. For the longest time, I was haunted by the memory of a close family friend inappropriately touching me as everyone was busy celebrating the festival of Holi, which draws crowds that are often seen to give men a free pass to sexually harass women in the streets. I was a teenager and hadn’t yet made peace with my changing body, let alone someone else feeling entitled to access it. Being a woman in India is a ceaseless and exhausting act of vigilance.
Yet each of these incidents is met with a prepackaged deflection of blame: “What was she wearing?”, “What was she doing there alone in the night?”, or worse, “Why didn’t she just decide to enjoy it, since she couldn’t stop it?” From meals to marriage, women are expected to show restraint, but men’s desires — to feel powerful, to sow fear — run rampant. Data shows that nearly 30 percent of women in India are subject to physical or sexual violence (and these are just the cases that are reported), and yet it’s the female body that is subjugated, whether through clothing or through food. Little better can be expected when women’s bodies are treated as social currency, when a family’s izzat (respect) is tied to a woman’s vagina. This is the manifestation of the absolute control dictated by the Manusmriti. And it is persistent.
The commonly-held beliefs around impurity that prevented my mom from touching the pickle jar when menstruating are changing, but food taboos and their links to sex are still not a part of everyday conversation in India. Casteism remains prevalent, as does the violent policing of inter-caste marriages and relationships by vigilantes. At their core, restrictions on (or prescriptions of) what women can or cannot eat are just another manifestation of these brutal anxieties. Ambedkar knew it all along: the only way to end the caste system will be to end the subordination of women. As long as women’s sexuality is controlled and suppressed, there will be no caste or gender equality. May we all break the coconut, eat the pickle, and negotiate for the mutton. The annihilation of the caste system depends on it.
Shirin Mehrotra is a food writer currently living in Delhi, India. Her writing intersects between food, culture and anthropology with a special focus on cities and their foodscapes.