Saturday, August 8, 2020

The State of California v/s Cisco: America’s first lawsuit against the Caste System

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Cisco Headquarter, California, USA | Source: Travis Wise via Flickr

On June 30th, 2020, the U.S state of California filed a lawsuit against the tech company Cisco for discriminating against an Indian-American engineer based on caste. It was filed against the company's San Jose headquarters campus, which has a workforce predominantly of South-Asian origin.

The lawsuit was filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing for discriminating against the employee on the grounds that he belonged to the population that was once known as the ‘untouchables’ under the caste system of India.

The Indian American employee who preferred to stay anonymous named two employees Sunder Iyer and Ramana Kompella, for harassing and discriminating against him based on caste. The two named employees work as supervisors at Cisco and belong to a high-caste.

The suit says that the engineer was allegedly forced to accept the caste hierarchy in the workplace, and when he refused to do so, they isolated him, decreased his role in the team, and reduced his salary. They even retaliated against him and assigned him to work with deadlines that were impossible to meet.

It is alleged that Iyer told other workers that the employee was Dalit and gained entry into the Indian Institute of Technology through affirmative action. The lawsuit further went on to accuse Cisco of failing to take ‘corrective action’ despite multiple investigations.

The Department of Fair Employment and Housing cited this as the civil rights violation of the engineer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, sex, colour, religion and national origin.

Though the law doesn’t explicitly state discrimination with regards to caste, it does prohibit workplace discrimination that is based on arbitrary factors. Currently, the case is still pending, and Cisco says it intends to ‘defend itself’.

Though this is America’s first case against the caste system, it doesn’t mean it is a new problem, and neither is caste-based discrimination an exclusive issue of Cisco. This issue has been widely prevalent across numerous workspaces in America.

“This is the first civil rights case in the United States where a government entity is suing an American company for failing to protect caste-oppressed employees and their negligence leading to a hostile workplace,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Executive Director of Equality Labs.

Equality Labs is an organisation that seeks to fight against the issue of caste in the United States. The organisation’s survey in 2016 titled ‘Caste in the United States’ found that 67% of Dalits living in America have faced verbal or physical assault at their workspace based on their caste.

The same survey also reports that one in three Dalit students suffered some form of caste-based educational discrimination in the States. Dalit women too face their own set of challenges in workspaces. In addition to facing slurs that are manifested in caste, they are often subjected to sexual harassment in connection to the prevalence of caste-based sexual violence in India.

The lawsuit against workplace discrimination at Cisco has made several Dalit employees across America to come forward and speak up about the harassment they have been subjected to due to their caste. This is why California’s case is especially significant as it sheds light onto the sheer scale of this caste-based discrimination at both the work and educational spaces.

It is a landmark case as it shows that there is a need to include caste in the protected category and enable more such civil rights litigations. It formally recognises the existence of caste elements at work and educational spaces that form the breeding grounds for systematic discrimination, bullying and ostracisation to thrive.

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October 23, 2020 3:57 PM

Male gaze, their female guardians and sports-wear

In Helen Cixous’ essay, ‘The Laugh of Medusa’, she urges women to redefine what their body means to them, not just physically but also socially, emotionally and politically. This could happen by re-writing about your body in a way you deem  fit, the expression you identify with and separating it from how your body has been written about by men. The expression could be how you view your body separate from the patriarchal lense.

It is no secret that a woman’s body is subject to critique. While clothing for men is just a tool to cover themselves as per the surrounding environment, clothing for women isa social and political narrative that dictates their life or as we affectionately call it ‘culturally appropriate’.

The clothing style could vary. It could be a woman covered head to toe in a Burqa, it could be a woman who decides to wear sports-wear in a park or it could be jeans and a top. Everything is critically evaluated by men and by women who work towards protecting the male gaze.

The male gaze is a heterosexual way of looking at female bodies that sexualises these bodies into an object. It is a gaze that runs on the self-affirmative notion that the bodies of women, and what they do with it, is directly linked to how they  appear in front of a man.

In a recent incident in Bangalore, India, popular Indian actress Samyuktha Hegde was abused and threatened by senior political leader of the congress party, Kavitha Reddy,  for wearing sports-wear, in Bangalore’s Agara Lake park. She was exercising with her friend.

Kavitha Reddy initially claimed she was in indecent attire and went onto morally police and then later abused the actress and her friend.  A supposedly progressive political leader gets uncomfortable by what women are wearing. It breaks into an argument and a fight where the politician is supported by five to six men. Later on, the police appear to be appeasing the politician instead of the women who were harassed. Although she did apologise, her apology came after her video went viral, and as a protection for her own political reputation.

To look at Samyuktha Hegde’s clothing as a threat is to view her clothing as an act of obscenity therefore bullying her identity and sense of agency and reducing her to sexual object, who, by putting her in public, apparently gives the men present a right to look at her? Nevermind that she was there to workout like everyone else, her actions were confused as to how men look at her. In the video posted by the actress, the politician is surrounded by men who are championing her on. The politician choses to side with the patriarchal figures in shaming these women. Asking to protect from the male gaze is a far stretch but punishing women for the male gaze is where we should draw a line.

What roles does Kavitha Reddy play? She is the guardian of the male gaze. We find her in our mothers, in our grandmothers, in aunties and sometimes our friends. She understands a woman’s body as an object that is there to be looked at by men. She gets angry at women for wearing certain kinds of clothing but she is not angry at men for looking. The agency in this case always belongs to men.

When Cixous asks women to re-define their identity, she urges us to strangle the moral police that comes alive in such instances. It is the moral police that shames women for wearing clothes that don’t flatter their bodies or clothes that do flatter them. She urges us to reflect upon the source of such vigilance. Do we shame other women because we believe in what we are saying or our identity is partially (or  wholly) shaped by the male gaze?

Whether we chose to wear a burqa, or a dress, or variations of the new type clothing produced everyday, the crux of the matter is that it should not worry anyone apart from the one wearing it. The identity of a woman, sexual or otherwise, has to be redefined to be separated from the men and their gaze. We have to draw a line otherwise people in power will continue to abuse their power and preserve patriarchy and male gaze.

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