The Problems In Decontextualizing Rituals Steeped In Patriarchy!

Posted on November 4, 2015 in Society

By Shivani Nag:

I have grown up watching my mother and other women in my family observing fast for their husbands on karvachauth. As a kid, it did make me wonder why my father’s life was more important than my mother’s, as I loved and needed them both. I asked questions, but there were never ever any convincing answers. How could one person’s fasting result in another’s long life? If fasting indeed did result in long lives of those we cared for, then why did my father not fast for my mother or for that matter, why did we not cut across gender divides to fast for whosoever we cared for- a friend, sister, mother, partner or anyone else? As I grew up, the discomfort with this ritual became more pronounced. I remember a particular year when a relative from my father’s side of the family passed away in the month of August. I did not know the particular relative too well but what I did know well was that the passing away of even a distant relative on my father’s side meant no other celebrations for the rest of the year. As a kid, this was real spirit dampener. Months later, when on ‘Karvachauth’ I woke up to find my mother setting the ‘karvachauth thali’, I couldn’t stop myself from asking that if we were to not celebrate any other festival this year, then why this one? My grandmother who was sitting nearby responded that this was not ‘any other’ festival. It was not about celebrations but about praying for my father’s long life! To hear my grandmother speak in such an assured and assertive manner was not very usual. I wondered its impact on my mother who at other times was not one of the most ritual-observing women I knew. I have never seen her observe fast on Shiv Ratri or Navratri as many in my extended family do. My mother also added that this was one festival that could not be compromised!

karvachauth thal
Image source: Blogspot

From that day onwards for a few years to come, I stopped asking her further questions or trying to convince her to stop observing the fast for my father. Not because I had suddenly found logic in what my grandmother and mother said, but their determined and assured explanations made it quite clear that if my mother were to now suddenly stop fasting and anything untoward were to happen, she would feel (and be made to feel) responsible for the rest of her life. And nothing that I could do or say, would help her get over her own guilt of failing to observe ‘just one fast in a year’. Suddenly, the fear of my mother spending her life in guilt scared me more than the well being of my father or what anyone might to say to my mother! For someone who has always been known to share a closer bond with my father, this was not an easy experience to handle. How could something whose non-observance fill someone with so much fear and anxiety be an act of choice!

In the past few days, I have come across several write-ups and social media posts of women critiquing this ritual and also of those justifying why they continue to observe it. Some of the write-ups and posts disagreeing with the critique of this tradition were particularly disturbing. Disturbing, since they in their justification of observing karvachauth, they either tried to find a feministic logic in support of it, or dismiss feminism altogether as something that divides women by making one set of women mock at another set of women. As someone, who also put up a social media post critiquing this tradition, there are a few things I would like to say:

Firstly, when at least some of us critique karvachauth, it is a ritual deep rooted in patriarchy that one is critiquing, not the women observing it. To term any criticism of patriarchal practices that women are forced to observe, as the criticism of the women who observe them could not be more off the mark. Why should we not critique a ritual that puts more value on a man’s life than his wife’s? Even the movies and ads that show some men fasting on ‘karvachauth’ rarely fail to point it out as a mark of their gratitude for women who observe fast ‘for them’. Even temporarily putting aside the lack of scientific logic, it isn’t even a case of ‘we both observe fast for each other’s long life’. It is more a case of ‘since you are staying hungry so that I live long, let me show my gratitude by staying hungry in solidarity with you!’ Why must women in varying ways be conditioned to believe that their ultimate act of love for their husbands is in putting their husband’s well-being over and above their own? Why should not such inequality in relationships be put to question? What is the context of a society where a woman wishes that her husband outlives her? Would the death of the husband only be a loss of a loved one or does it have the power to alter her status in society? Why must a critique of an oppressive and a regressive practice be viewed as a critique not of oppressive structures but the oppressed themselves? Are not the intentions of those promoting such subversive logic suspect?

In fact, it is such a clever tactic employed by those who benefit from such unequal power structures to try and convince women that an attack on their fetters is indeed an attack on them and their ‘choices’! How cleverly have rituals such as ‘karvachauth’ been created to reinforce the supremacy of a man in marriage, and markers of patriarchal ownership of married women such as ‘sindoor or mangalsutra’ are sold to us as ‘women’s own choices’. And this brings me to the second concern- the issue of ‘choice’!

There are also those who have been trying to find a feminist argument for observing ‘karvachauth’ and coming to their rescue is that one magical word- ‘choice’. Ever wondered why wanting to be size zero, suffering pain to have those perfect eyebrows and the smooth non-hairy arms, the desire to stay hungry for a day so that their male partners live long, wearing sindoor or any other marker so that the world may know of their marital status, giving their up career to take care of their children- are choices that only or mostly women make! Have our socio-economic, political and historical contexts no role whatsoever in shaping our choices? Is it really feminism to decontextualize practices rooted in inequality and irrationality and present them as choices? Can we really not conceive of more equal ways of nurturing and demonstrating love?

In the past few days, I have read comments posted in social media that suggest that some women in current times observe fast as a token of appreciation for ‘modern day husbands’ who allow them to wear what they want, enjoy an occasional drink, retain their surnames and jobs. Some have also gone on to argue that it could perhaps be seen as a way how women could make their husbands feel obliged by doing them a favour! After all, several ads persuading men to shower their wives with gifts on karvachauth or for that matter on Women’s day premise themselves on this principle that since women ‘sacrifice’ for you, you too must reward them and ‘buy’ them what they desire.

To begin with, if anything, feminism is about equality and in my understanding neither ‘allowing choices’, nor forced ‘sacrifices’ or feelings of ‘obligation’ fit into an ‘equality discourse’. Moreover, I hardly find them romantic either. Who gives my partner the power to allow me choices – be it of drinking, or retaining my surname post-marriage or any other? My choices are my rights, not acts of concessions granted by my partner. I am further uncomfortable with a discourse that would rather ‘reward’ women occasionally for the sacrifices they are forced to make instead of creating conditions where such one-sided sacrifices would not be required. Also, I don’t see why I must make my partner feel ‘obliged’ for what I do for him. Do we love and care because that is what makes us happy, or are our acts of love and care investments merely that we hope will bring us some returns later? Returns that do not amount to rights but only occasional indulgences!

For those, who see in observing a karvachauth fast for the long lives of their husbands, an exercise of choice – is it really difficult for us to exercise our choices and come up with ways of celebrating love that is not rooted in inequality, deep-seated anxiety for the other’s life or for that matter, ways that are not based on the concept of a ‘redeemable token’ that can be used later to procure little ‘allowances’? The other day I was just thinking- is it really about a day- this responsibility of a man’s health on a woman’s shoulder. Just look at the pattern of the majority of cooking oil ads- a middle aged, pot bellied man who gets easily tired and a worried wife wondering what she can do and then her worries get a response when she is told that by using a particular cooking oil she can reduce her husband’s chances of getting a heart attack.

An ad that talks to her is not about her and neither is there- an ad that tells men that if you wish to live long, ‘you’ better take care! A man’s long and healthy life, we are told, depends on the ‘choice’ his wife makes! ‘Choice’ indeed! Am sure, if one tries hard enough, one can always manufacture a supporting logic no matter how weak, but why can’t we spend the same energy replacing regressive practices by progressive ones!

Lastly, after not having talked about this with my mother for ages now, this time, worried for her health I called her up in order to request her that since she is on medication and treatment, if just this time she would not observe her fast. She laughed and responded- “Oh I stopped observing it a couple of years back. Didn’t I tell you? Doesn’t make sense”. I didn’t ask more; I was just happily relieved. Maybe the 25 years of marriage gave her enough chance to undertake a longitudinal correlation study in her own head regarding life span of those whose wives did observe fast and whose did not and the results were startling! Or maybe the maturing and increasingly more equal bond with my father over the years has convinced her that their best chance of happiness in old age lies in that they both be healthy and together for as long. On the night before karvachauth, when I had this talk with my mother, it was too personal a moment for her and me at that time, which I just shared with a few friends, but today I just felt that the hope it filled me with, was best shared.