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Every festival and every ritual in our society reeks of patriarchy. Narrow-minded and parochial, isn’t it time we ushered in a change?
Come August and the festive season is in full gear. Janmashtami, Rakhi, Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja, this is just the beginning of an unending list. That’s when my 11-year-old posed an interesting question.
‘Ma, why is it that in every festival, only the women slog. They are the only ones who fast and eat nothing. Not even a sip of water! Women work all day long. But the men! They bear the expenses, supervise the preparations and interestingly earn most of the credit. Are festivals really joyous for women?’
For years now, I’ve seen how big the festival of Janmashtami is, among my family members. I have also been witness to how hard the women work, they begin work at least 15 days prior to it! They toil hard on the day of the festival and continue doing so long after the festival is over as well.
The men, meanwhile, barely contribute to the physical labour. In fact, they only attend to the guests and oversee the preparations. Once, I remember asking an able-bodied male relative why he doesn’t lend a helping hand to the women.
He responded, “Can you imagine a man sitting on the floor and lighting a diya? Or making the sandalwood paste? No, not befitting at all. Some activities are best suited for the womenfolk. Let them handle. If they have to work double, let them. But doesn’t suit a man’s image.”
Lakshmi Puja is celebrated with grandeur by our neighbour. The couple cooks bhog and offers it to the Goddess. Both the husband and the wife participate in it with great zeal. But on closer inspection, one notices the power anomaly.
They are Brahmins and only a Brahmin is allowed to worship the Goddess. Only a Brahmin man. Not a woman. No matter how well-read she is or how familiar she is with the rituals and the customs, only a man has the right to worship the Goddess.
The lady assists her husband in all the rituals and customs. She fetches the items while the man sits on a mat and barks orders at her. When the time comes to offer the bhog to the goddess, it is the man who does so. The logic was simple. Brahmin women are superior to other women but not to Brahmin men. Such an irony!
Rakhi, the festival which celebrates the bond between siblings is another festival deeply rooted in patriarchy. A family I knew during my stay in Ranchi had three daughters followed by a son. The lady told me how after three unsuccessful pregnancies (read three daughters), the family had finally been blessed with a boy.
An heir to their legacy. A continuation of their family line, they were grateful to the divine power. Rakhi was a much-anticipated event in their family. The girls were given pocket money every month which they were supposed to save and then pool in to buy a gift for their precious brother.
On the other hand, the brother was never taught the same. His pocket money was for his own perusal. None of it was supposed to be spent on his sisters. The mother explained it to me, “My daughters should be thankful for the gift of a brother.” But the opposite was never applied. Much later I heard how the pampered boy landed himself in trouble and the sisters bailed him out.
A son is what the society has indoctrinated every parent to yearn for. And a couple blessed only with a daughter is considered incomplete. Who would perform the parents’ last rites after they die? Or who would light their funeral pyre? Who would give water to their souls when they revisit on the thirteenth day after their death? And who would offer the pinda for the departed? Definitely not the daughter! It’s strange and unfair how society places onus on a male child at the cost of the girl child.
Mahalaya is a customary ritual observed during Amavasya in the autumn season in West Bengal and some states in South India. An auspicious day, it is believed that our ancestors come down to our realm and remain in close proximity with us.
Men sit beside water bodies and chant prayers for the departed, offering them water and food. Folklore says that our ancestors remain thirsty and hungry throughout the year and wait for this specific day to descend and satiate their hunger and thirst.
The ones who have committed grave sins supposedly suffer the most and usually have no one to appease them. These souls roam around in desperation in search of a benevolent mortal.
This is the background behind the ritual known as ‘tarpon,’ performed on the dawn of Mahalaya. Every year one can see scores of men, clad in a dhoti, covered with a flimsy shawl making their way to the nearest water body.
Women accompany them carrying the necessary items for the Puja. Relegated to helpers, they remain a mere spectator to the rituals. Nowhere the woman is allowed to participate.
If a woman loses her parents, either her brother has to observe it or she has to take the assistance of a male member in her family to perform them. Till date, none of the priests or the learned men have been able to offer an explanation behind this exclusion.
“Women cannot do. Their sex prevents them.” Another told me. “Women have their menstrual cycle and so are deemed to be impure.” But the same impure woman helps in getting the rituals in place.
We are three sisters. Every time my mother conceived, people would pray and hope for a son. The first daughter was celebrated, the middle one dimmed everyone and when my younger sister was born, my parents were pitied.
“Who would light your pyre?” they asked them. My father declared with great pride, “my daughters.” And true to his point, he taught us to participate equally in every ritual.
Menstruation or impurity has never been a big deal. We have participated in the rituals on Mahalaya, offering food and water to our ancestors. My father has expressed his desire that his daughters perform his last rites and not his sons-in-law.
If we analyse this in today’s scenario, every festival and every ritual in our society reeks of patriarchy. Narrow-minded and parochial, isn’t it time we ushered in a change?
For example, I don’t hire the services of a priest to do the worship. My children arrange and perform rituals. While the father grates the coconut and keeps the sandalwood paste ready, the mother handles the chores outside home.
There is no gender-specific role. Both the parents cook the bhog. And no, we are not Brahmins. We celebrate each and every festival for the sake of passing on to our children the ethos of our culture and the spirit of festivity.
De-gendering festivals and breaking down social taboos is what we need to impart to the next generation. Only then can we dream of a future where festivals are celebrated for enjoyment and not for the preservation of power hierarchies.
Picture credits: Still from Bollywood movie Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham
Sreemati Sen holds a Masters in Social Work from Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan. She is a Development Professional, specialised in Psychiatric care of Differently Abled Children. That hasn’t stopped her from exploring other fields. Years read more...
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