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Are the festivals in India unfair to women? Are our festivals male-centric? Sandhya writes a thoughtful post.
Festivals are joyous times. Times to celebrate. Times to get together with family and friends. Times to put aside everyday worries for a while. There is, however, a dark side to the festivities – they are invariably discriminatory to women. Do not believe me? Think about the taboos that women are subject to, more so during festivals, and the premise of many of these festivals.
Menstruating women are considered impure. There are places of worship of many religions which do not permit women of menstruating age, usually 12-55 year olds, (for example, the shrine at Sabarimala) into their precincts, or at least not in the sanctum sanctorum. Certainly a menstruating women is not permitted at most shrines, and her touch is supposed to ‘polluting’. I come from a generation (plus a generation before me) that has taken countless tablets (in the process probably messing up the hormones) to postpone this biological function if it came at an ‘inconvenient time’– read festivals – a vexatious proposition in a community that insists on making you feel unclean. A menstruating woman is not welcome during a religious function, at a wedding ceremony, at anything considered auspicious – her touch is supposed to contaminate all things godly, and alsospoil the festive food prepared.
Speaking of food – it is always a big part of any festivities. Again, here, it is the women of the house (non-menstruating, of course!) who are supposed to cook, while the men usually loaf around and take part in the actual fun. And then, this food is usually served first to the men, women eating last, even if they have fasted all day; in most observances, it is the women who fast.
In most festivities, married women are given precedence – only those who are deemed to ‘belong’ to a man are considered worthy of honour. Called by various terms in different parts of the country – saubhagyawati, sumangali, suhagan, etc., this is a woman who is considered to have good fortune. Widowed women are discriminated against, as are those who are separated, divorced, or, in the olden days, ‘cast-off’ by their husbands. They cannot participate in auspicious ceremonies – even mothers who are not suhagans are often made to feel unwelcome at their children’s weddings. Many Hindu festivals have a custom called haldi-kumkum, in which only these ‘fortunate’ are honoured, rubbing salt into the wounds of those bereaved.
Poojas cannot be done by sole women. They can only participate sitting beside their husband if a couple is required, or not at all. Men, on the other hand, can. If a couple is required, but the man is unmarried or a widower, custom provides for loopholes. At these ceremonies, only men could officiate as priests. It is only very recently that some women have begun officiating, or even setting aside these unfair traditions.
Most of these actually began well – as consideration of women who had other challenges, biological or otherwise, but have decayed into ritualistic discrimination. In these enlightened times, many educated people,too, still fall prey to them, unwilling to upset the customs entrenched for centuries, usually following them during festivals. Festivals where women pray for their brothers or husband, many of who might be actually abusive to their wives. There are no festivals that we know of, on which men return the favour – praying for a long and happy life for their wives.
On rakshabandhan, traditionally the sister ties a rakhi on a brother’s wrist to remind him to protect her at all times. A society in which women can be considered autonomous human beings would not need brothers to ‘protect’ their sisters. Then there is Naag Panchami in the month of Shravan, Bhai Dooj during Diwali, and Kanu Pongal in Tamil Nadu, on which women, especially married ones pray for the long life and prosperity of their brothers. Instead, these could ideally celebrate the bond between brother and sister, without placing one above the other.
Then there are festivals on which women are expected to sublimate their individuality for the spouse, pray for their long life, and give up much else beyond their food for the day.
Then there are festivals on which women are expected to sublimate their individuality for the spouse, pray for their long life, and give up much else beyond their food for the day. Karwa Chauth, among these, has been much popularised by Bollywood, and therefore the most well-known. There are various versions of this festival, depending upon the part of the country. Then there is the Atla Tadde in Andhra Pradesh, observed the day before. Then there is Hartalika on the day before Ganesh Chaturthi, one among the three Teej days observed by women. Vat Pournima, which celebrates the story of Savitri who brought her husband back from death. Mangala Gauri Vrat which is observed by newly married women in Maharashtra. Karadaiyan Nombu, or Savitri Nonbu Vritham, similarly observed in Tamil Nadu. KokilaVrat observed by the women of Gujarat.
Navaratri is in honour of Shakti, or feminine power, in its different forms. Kanya Pooja on Ashtami, the eight-day, is practiced by some communities, and equates a young, ‘non-menstruating’ girl with the goddess. It is significant that this is observed by a community known for its reprehensible practices of female foeticide and infanticide, as well as honour killings.
The list could go on if individual festivals of the subcontinent were to be examined. Festivals like these can only have been conceived of in a society which vilifies its women for any freedom outside the home, not recognizing their right to individuality, to public spaces, and to free choice.
Cover image via Shutterstock
In her role as the Senior Editor & Community Manager at Women's Web, Sandhya
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