When I was young, a feminist friend taught me why "Kanyadaan" was the epitome of patriarchy. This friend was slated to get married at that time and was against a Hindu-style lavish wedding. She was pushing for a court marriage. Her principles dictated that she should not bow down to patriarchal rules, or have herself be treated as a property which gets transferred from one home to the other. However, she gave in and decided to indulge her family in a lavish wedding.
Recently the topic of Karva Chauth was raised in her in-laws' house. She decided to take a stand. She won't hold a fast. Her stand wasn't received well by the family. They insisted that she hold the fast and assert her dedication to the family and her husband.
My friend gave in again. She decided that maybe if she pleased the family, it would ease her life. But, at what point should women decide to put themselves first?
My mother too holds a fast on Karva Chauth. She is so conditioned to the process that she doesn't protest at all. But did she and the millions of women like her at any point of time find it weird to hold a fast for the longevity of another person's life? Did it cross their mind that if the man is an alcoholic or a chain-smoker, no amount of fasting on their part will give him an elongated life? In modern medicine, is there place for such superstitious beliefs? Or, are these mere tools to reign in free will?
Patriarchal mindsets are rarely questioned, and rituals and their settings get standardised for young girls. Films like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam have made these rituals sound cool. The notion is quite romantic. A woman wants to spend a lifetime with her paramour, and she is willing to sacrifice food for a day to make it happen. But packaging this ultra-sexist ritual into a modern-day romance is hardly going to make this festival seem any cooler. It just points out how the society is hell-bent on breaking the notion of individuality for a young girl.
History: How it came to be
Older generations of women in a family often feel obliged to teach the younger generation the etiquette associated with married life. They walk them through the ordeals of this pious day — dress up, show up, sing and dance, appear homely, perform temple rituals, break fast when the moon shows up, and then worship the husband. Sometimes the husband eases the process by slipping in a few sweet treats to appease the woman. But is that enough? Was this what our forefathers had in mind when they gave inception to this festival?
The apparent history of this "auspicious" day is associated with the tale of queen Veervati and her penance to keep her husband alive. The legend goes that Veervati held innumerable fasts as a married woman while living at her parents' home. She would begin fasting at sunrise and end it at moonrise. Her seven brothers couldn't bear her condition. So, one day they tricked her into breaking the fast earlier. The moment she ate, word arrived that her husband was dead.
Heartbroken, Veervati turned towards God to seek solace. Goddess Parvati appeared before her and suggested her to repeat the "Karva Chauth" with full devotion. This would bring her dead husband back to life.
She held the fast. He came back to life.
There are many such tales strewn across pages of Indian scriptures and the import for most of them is the same: Man dying, woman rescues the man with penance and fasting, man lives.
Karva Chauth in 21st century
The 21st century woman or "superwoman" as many have touted her is different from her ancestors. She manages the home and the office. She holds a position in the outside world which gives her a daily paycheque, and she gears into the role of a wife, mother, and daughter when she reaches home. She is no longer a dependent. She pays her dues and yearns to be treated as an equal in society. So, in such a role, if an age-old patriarchal tradition rears its head out, isn't it justified to fight back?
Various Indian families boast that they "allow" their daughters and daughters-in-law to work, but traditional expectations remain. While celebrating days like this one, women are made to wake up at 4 am, eat a small meal, stay hungry and thirsty throughout the day, then wait till 12 am to get a meal, and worship their husbands.
This automatically puts the husband on a pedestal, rendering the "request for equality" quite useless.
Indian culture is filled with these reminders of a woman's position (at a step below the man's position). Jivitpatrika — where mothers fast through the day and night for the well-being of their children; Rakshabandhan — where a woman ties a thread on the brother's arm for protection; Kanyadaan — where a woman is treated as property and transferred from one house to other, are all rituals where women and their bodies are sacrificed for the global good.
The problem is systemic, and is not a one-off. The system urges the woman to provide for the family, feed them, fast for them, and rear children, leaving no room for argument.
The wheel which feminist groups are trying to turn in a positive direction, is constantly blocked by societal pressures which stem from the idea that woman and man are not equal.
The will of a woman is quite strong, but it is constantly put to test by irrational demands. I for one don't intend to fast, nor do I intend to be treated as a property. I am sure I belong to a silent majority who feels the same way.