(RNS) — With only a couple of months in office, newly elected state Sen. Aisha Wahab introduced a historic bill that could make California the first state to outlaw caste-based discrimination in the United States.
Wahab’s measure has garnered global attention, adding caste — an ancient system of social hierarchy determined by birth — as a protected category in the state’s anti-discrimination laws. Caste discrimination is “a social justice and civil rights issue,” she has said.
Hundreds on Tuesday (April 25) provided testimony for and against this bill as it passed through the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. The bill, known as SB 403, now heads to the Appropriations Committee.
People of South Asian descent, particularly Dalits who are at the lowest strata of the caste system, say the bill is crucial to protect them from discrimination in housing, education and tech sectors. Among the organizations supporting the measure are Hindus for Caste Equity and the Sikh Coalition, which noted that Sikhs know “firsthand the pain and trauma that comes with being repeatedly targeted by hate and discrimination.”
It has also spurred pushback, from groups such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America, who say the bill targets Hindus and Indian Americans who are commonly associated with the caste system. The organizations have submitted letters of opposition, saying Wahab’s measure “seeks to codify” negative stereotypes and stigmas that Hindus and Indian Americans face. Critics also say current laws in place offer protections to any kind of discrimination, including caste.
Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the state Legislature, said she’s been the target of Islamophobic threats and has received social media messages calling for her death after introducing the bill. She said members of her staff have been bullied and followed to their vehicles.
Within a day of introducing the bill, “we saw the extent of the hatred,” Wahab told Religion News Service in a recent interview. “We are being vilified,” she said.
As she continues to push for her measure, Wahab is considering whether to be fitted for a bulletproof vest. Though hesitant at first, Wahab said, “It’s getting to that level.”
“Because we struck a nerve, we also know that we identified the problem,” Wahab said.
Wahab’s proposal comes on the heels of Seattle adding caste to its existing anti-discrimination policies, becoming the first city in the U.S. to do so. In January 2022, the California State University system — the largest public university system in the U.S. — passed a resolution adding caste as a category of discrimination.
The university system’s decision came after a 2018 study — conducted by the anti-caste advocacy organization Equality Labs — found that of 1,500 participants who were surveyed, 25% of those identifying as Dalit reported experiencing verbal or physical assault based on their caste. One in 3 Dalit students reported discrimination in educational settings. Critics of the report have raised concerns that the study was not based on a representative sample.
In contrast, a 2020 survey of Indian Americans by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found 5% of respondents reported encountering discrimination due to their caste identity, though only 1% of Hindu respondents who identified with a caste identified as Dalit. The vast majority — 83% — of Hindu respondents who identified with a caste identified as General or upper caste. Additionally, most Hindus surveyed did not identify with a caste at all (53%). The study urges some caution around these findings, citing small sample sizes and the sensitive nature of questions around caste.
Meanwhile, the United Nations in 2016 reported that at least 250 million people worldwide still face caste discrimination in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Pacific regions, as well as in various diaspora communities, according to The Associated Press. Caste systems are found among Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Muslims and Sikhs.
As California becomes more diverse, Wahab said, “the deeper and further our laws have to be to protect all people.” Caste discrimination remains taboo and out of the mainstream, Wahab said.
Wahab said she has ensured her measure does not reference any specific religion or a single particular group, but she noted, “We have to be honest that when we talk about specific discrimination, it does happen to a specific group.” Her bill states that “while caste systems are strongly associated with South Asia, similar systems exist in regions including, but not limited to, South America, Asia, and Africa.”
“Caste discrimination is also found across communities of religious practice,” according to the bill.
But to Pushpita Prasad, a board member of the Coalition of Hindus of North America, “this bill targets Hindu Americans” simply by using the word “caste.”
“Caste is associated with Hinduism in the West,” she said.
The Coalition of Hindus of North America is also critical of Equality Labs, one of the sponsors of the bill, and its report, in which a section details how South Asians identify each other’s caste. Identifiers include skin color, noting that “Caste-oppressed peoples are perceived to be darker in skin color than ‘upper’ Caste people from the same region.” Other identifiers include family and social affiliations and food preferences, the latter noting that “many vegetarians are ‘upper’ Castes.”
According to Prasad, skin color “is a completely baseless allegation, and one that they have made up … because it has allowed them to tap into the guilt that lives in the U.S.”
“It would be impossible for anybody to judge their place in the social economic hierarchical structure, either now or through history, based on just skin color,” she added.
To Shreena Gandhi, an assistant professor of religious studies at Michigan State University, seeing Hindu groups say that “this could subject us to more discrimination,” shows her that they know caste discrimination is a problem.
Gandhi is part of the Feminist Critical Hindu Studies Collective that examines how “far-right Hindu nationalist agendas seep into the everyday discourses of North American Hinduism.” It’s what the collective refers to as “Hindu fragility.”
Gandhi said caste discrimination is not just about Hinduism. “It’s a form of oppression that transcends any one religion,” she said.
“We have to confront this legacy of oppression. That’s why as someone who has caste status, I’m for this bill. It’s not about me … It’s about justice,” Gandhi added.
Wahab said she has met with multiple groups opposing her measure but acknowledged it’s likely that they may not come to a place of mutual agreement. Groups against her measure say Wahab has not granted them the same access as she has for those who support her bill.
Even so, Wahab said, “you could also be fundamentally in disagreement with somebody” and still “have respect for them.”
Growing up in the foster care system, Wahab said, she learned to be “sensitive to how other cultures, other languages, other groups, other religions are discussed.”
Wahab and her sister grew up going to a Pentecostal church with the family they were placed with. She remembers celebrating Easter and Christmas, as well as attending Bible study and Sunday school. “I learned a lot. … It was a big part of that family,” she said.
They were eventually adopted by an Afghan and Muslim family. When it comes to religion, “we’re more cultural,” she said. “I identify largely as an Afghan American. I’m very proud of my background and heritage and culture.”
Wahab doesn’t wear a hijab and acknowledges there are expectations “to fit this mold of being either Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish, or whatever the case is,” but she said, “We show up differently, we have different experiences.”
Wahab, who previously served as a council member for the city of Hayward in the Bay Area, said she entered the Legislature intending to tackle the issue of caste.
Wahab has told reporters she’s witnessed this kind of discrimination living in Northern California, where the state in 2020 sued Cisco Systems, alleging a Dalit employee faced caste discrimination when Hindu supervisors cut him out of meetings and failed to promote him.
In another case, a wealthy Berkeley landlord went to prison for sex trafficking young women from India, some who were Dalit.
Wahab recalled meeting a group of people who were in tears, saying that her bill allowed them “to be seen as human.”
“That was profound,” she said.
To Wahab, these stories make it worth it.
She said she’s proud of her bill because it’s ensuring “there’s a level playing field for all people in a certain community.”
“This is standing on the right side of humanity, and the fact that the caste system is over 2,000 years old, and it hasn’t been touched in this critical way, of course it upsets people,” Wahab said. “I think people know that we’re doing the right thing.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.