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Our Artisans: The Caste System

May 22, 2020 5 min read

In customer service, we often receive emails asking about our artisans and their lives. We're starting this series "Our Artisans" to give a name to our artisans and to connect our customers with our friends across the world. What many customers don't know about are the struggles that our artisans face in their everyday lives. We figured that a great place to start would be to explain something that effects every single one of our artisans in India. 

Our artisans' lives are diverse, but all of them are effected by a social hierarchical system in India called the caste system. The caste system is an ancient social structure (it's almost 3,000 years old) that divides people of the Hindu faith into strict social groups. 

Here's what the traditional caste system looks like, from the 'highest' caste to the 'lowest': 

Brahmins: Priests and teachers 
Kshatriyas: Warriors and rulers 
Vaishyas: Farmers, traders, and merchants 
Shudras: Labourers 
Dalits (Outcastes / "The Untouchables"): Street sweepers and latrine cleaners 

Everyone in this system is born into their set castes. In the past, a person was born, lived, married, and died within the same caste with very few cases of people rising to the higher castes. This was the status of life for many people in India for hundreds of years. 

When the British East India Company and later Great Britain colonized India in the 17th century, they took advantage of the this well established social structure to divide and conquer South Asia. The colonizers would mainly socialize with the higher castes within the Muslim ruled Mughal empire, giving these groups  privileges and rights while further undermining those in the lower castes. The influence of British colonization has left it's scars on India to this day, both in their culture and their caste system. 

Despite Britain's efforts in dividing Hindu and Muslim communities, both attempted to come together to overthrow British rule. In the 1850's, both communities led a violent (but failed) revolution. By the 1880's, the Indian National Congress was formed to unite Hindus of all castes, and Muslims to fight for independence. Despite these efforts for independence, Britain continued to divide the communities a part through sectarian laws, and caste system oppression of lower caste Hindus (the majority).

When Britain granted independence to their colony in 1947, sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims pressured Britain to divide the colony into India and Pakistan. It's important to remember that this violent partition of India and Pakistan was largely caused by the legacy of 300 years of British colonial policy to divide India's beautifully diverse population. Pakistan was designated for Muslims, and India was secular. However, Hinduism and the caste system remained as the most influential social structure in India. Unfortunately, the caste system was not immune to the legacy of British colonialism.

Thankfully in 1950, India's free constitution banned discrimination based on caste and began to create laws and regulations to try and adjust the unfair system that many of their citizens were crushed under. Progress was being made! Job quotas were created to try and even the playing field for all castes. This is very similar to Affirmative Action in the United States that was created to reform the systemic problems of racism, slavery, and Jim Crow laws that disadvantaged people of color.

One of the largest spokespersons for cross-caste habitation was Mahatma  Gandhi, who himself was born into the Vaishyas/Baniya caste. Gandhi himself renamed the 'lowest' caste Harijans, which means "the people of God" to decrease discrimination and bring unity to his nation. 

Today, discrimination still occurs to those in the lower castes. The divisions between the castes are often torn wider during elections by politicians, as many castes usually vote together and having the right caste systems backing you could make or break an election. India is currently working on an affirmative action plan to try and protect underprivileged groups from being used for their votes by politicians who will not use their powers to help them once they are voted into office. The Untouchable class have become politically active in recent years to try and improve their quality of life under the new name Dalits, meaning "those who have been broken." 

But what does all of this mean to you, a DGY customer? 

You're helping those who are suffering from caste oppression. 

Almost every single one of our artisans are caste system suppressed, and many are in the Untouchable caste. The people in this caste are often not privileged enough to have an education, and many cannot read or write. This keeps people in their caste, in their poverty, and unable to provide a better life for themselves or their children. The people that live in these groups often have to settle for dangerous jobs (like tobacco rolling or metal smelting) or jobs that pay so little that they barley survive. We understand that sometimes these dangerous or unfavorable jobs have to be done, but it is not right that whole groups are subjugated to having dangerous jobs without safety measures or compensation. 

We have a variety of jobs for our artisans to choose from and each job comes with training that they can use outside of working with us if they ever choose to leave. Our artisans include, but are not limited to: fabric tearers, yarn dyers, yarn spinners, yarn skeiners/ballers, yarn weighers, yarn taggers, skirt sewers, bag makers, button makers, yarn bowl crafters, and scarf sewers. With our community growing, we are able to hire more artisans and support more families. 

We here at Darn Good Yarn have made it our goal to help as many artisans get out of generational poverty as we can. Currently, we employ over 600 artisans all over the world and we want each of our artisans to have the opportunity to not only live, but thrive. We want to support our artisans so that they can get an education- or even better, offer their children an education. 

Many of the children of our artisans have been able to go to school. They've become doctors, teachers, merchants, business owners, and have given back to their communities. Communities that were once suppressed are now seeing a generational change. This would have been almost impossible without your support. We pay our artisans a living and sustainable wage that would be impossible, again, without you! Something as small as a skein of yarn or a mini skirt makes all the difference to our artisans.  

We will continue with this blog series to fill you in on what our artisans overcome and why we are proud to stand behind them as global citizens!