State Senator Aisha Wahab of District 10 is confident her bill to end caste discrimination will fare well in the State Assembly before the summer recess begins pending budget approval on July 14.
Co-authored with Assemblymember Jasmeet Bains, the bill seeks to add caste to the list of protected characteristics against discrimination by amending the Unruh Civil Rights Act and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.
While the bill passed its last Senate vote May 11 with 34 ayes and one no, it faces opposition from opponents who believe the bill unnecessarily targets Hindu-Americans, or that the bill is unnecessary entirely as caste discrimination in India was outlawed in 1949.
The bill has been re-referred to the Judiciary Committee after being further amended.
Wahab told Time magazine her office had received violent threats and emails and phone calls laced with Islamophobic language. Wahab became the first Afghan-American and first Muslim to enter California’s state senate in 2022.
She says other detractors have simply argued that caste discrimination does not exist in America.
“If it’s not a problem, then why are you so opposed to the bill?” Wahab asks.
Though several high-profile instances of alleged caste discrimination and exploitation involving the Indian Hindu caste system have occurred in the Bay Area since 2001, including alleged human trafficking and workplace discrimination at Apple, Google and Cisco, Wahab says the bill protects any members of any caste system.
The bill’s text defines caste “an individual’s perceived position in a system of social stratification on the basis of inherited status…characterized by factors that may include, but are not limited to, inability or restricted ability to alter inherited status; socially enforced restrictions on marriage, private and public segregation, and discrimination; and social exclusion on the basis of perceived status.”
It specifies no specific religion, culture or ethnicity.
“When we’re trying to protect on the basis of caste, it is again all caste systems and doesn’t matter what part of the caste system you belong to; whether you’re upper caste or lower caste.” Wahab says. “Our job and the intent of this bill is to protect all people.”
Several cultures and countries around the globe still practice caste discrimination or suffer from the lingering effects of outlawed caste systems, with caste practices occurring in several Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern and African and Asian countries, according to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
During a March 2016 presentation of the first comprehensive UN report on caste-based discrimination, Special Rapporteur on minority issues Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, a former Hungarian diplomat of Romani descent, warned that 250 million people worldwide are still subject to caste discrimination.
Her report defines caste as “a strict hierarchical social system that is often based on the notions of purity and pollution, in which individuals placed at the bottom of the system may face exclusion and discrimination in a wide range of areas.”
Though Wahab says she’s been approached by community members who allege they have been discriminated against based on particular caste systems, she says that as the bill is meant to protect Californians, it doesn’t target any particular group.
“As a minority amongst minorities in so many ways, I’m very cognizant of how people in the media, in politics and different institutions and the larger public talk about race, religion, language, culture and so much more,” Wahab says. “This bill is very, very careful to ensure that we’re protecting all people and not actually targeting anybody.”
She also says she hopes the bill which, if adopted, would be the first state legislation against caste discrimination in the U.S., will inspire further anti-discrimination laws in other states or even other nations.
“We in the Bay Area as well as in the state of California, we are at the forefront of ensuring protection for all people.” Wahab says. “Those who practice caste need to understand that that system has no place in the United States, specifically in California.”
Congressman Ro Khanna told a town hall meeting in Fremont on Apr 12, 2023 that while he believes that “obviously caste discrimination should be illegal, … we need to make sure that any bill or effort does not have a selective enforcement or unfair profiling of a presumption.” Khanna said he would not be taking a position on state legislation.
Assemblymember Evan Low of District 26 stated through a staff member that he “has no comment at this time.” Assemblymember Ash Kalra of San Jose, the first Indian-American elected to the state legislature, declined to comment on the bill.