Culture and Society

What does it mean to be oppressed?
Answered by Diana Bocco
  • Diana Bocco

    Diana Bocco

  1. The "Merriam-Webster" dictionary defines oppression as an "unjust or cruel exercise of authority and power" [source: Merriam-Webster]. Oppression usually refers to a great power (such as government) exerting control over a large group (such as the population of a country). The Youth Action Center of Canada identifies six main forms of oppression based on race, gender, class, sex, ability and age.

    Class oppression is more common in tiered societies such as India, where the caste system divides people into four large groups: Brahmins (scholars), Vaishyas (agriculturists, traders), Kshatriyas (warriors, administrators) and Shudras (service providers). Although technically the caste system is not enforced, there are still wide divisions among the groups and it is difficult for someone born into the Shudra caste to move up and become a scholar. In 2006, the government of India started a program to help "backward class people," or underprivileged people from marginalized castes, access university education. India's program would be similar to America's affirmative action program in that it reserves 27 percent of seats at three large institutions (medical, technology and management universities) for backward class people [source: Rediff News]. The initiative was met with strong opposition and generated massive protests from groups who believe the division of castes is fair and the seat-reservation approach is inappropriate.

    Oppression can take many forms, some more subtle than others. Totalitarian regimes, such as those of North Korea, China and Cuba, represent obvious forms of oppression. These leadership types restrict or eliminate basic liberties such as freedom of speech, electoral rights and rights to private property. In certain countries, such as Sudan, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and Iran, homosexuals face the death penalty for their sexuality. Other forms of oppression are less obvious. For example, hazing at universities can be considered a form of oppression.

    A group that is oppressed might not even realize it. In fact, many forms of oppression are internalized so that the oppressed person engages in self-attacks. In other places, oppression is not committed by the government but instead is a social norm. For example, female genital cutting, also known as female genital mutilation, is prevalent in many countries in Africa, even though the countries' governments have banned the practice. In Djibouti, between 90 and 98 percent of women undergo female genital mutilation; Guinea has a 98.6 percent prevalence of female genital mutilation and 95 percent of Somalian women are subjected to the practice [source: US Department of State]. In these countries, the oppression comes from women's families, who consider the mutilation essential because of social convention, beliefs about sexuality or religious practices.

    In short, being oppressed means being forced (either physically or psychologically) to do something that will result in self-harm. Those who are oppressed have no choice in the matter, as saying "no" would probably result in just as much harm as accepting the oppression.

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