Karvachauth, Burka and The Illusion of Choice
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Karvachauth, Burka and The Illusion of Choice

Women following regressive traditions aren’t ‘choosing’ to do so

By Samina Motlekar

Published on :

There is something alluring about the concept of fasting across religions. Little girls (and boys) look forward to completing their first Ramzan, their entry into the big leagues. For their abstinence from food during the day, they will be rewarded with iftaar party invitations from near and dear ones, pampered with choicest treats and gifts. Their share of the Eidi loot will triple that of the non-fasters. There is no compulsion in the Koran, and yet many girls who undertake their first arduous 30-day fast are as young as 8 or ten. For waiting till they are older means the arrival of their menstrual cycle with its mandatory non-fasting diktat on the impure days, rendering the 30-day ritual impossible.

In theory, the 13-year-old Jain girl who died after a marathon 64-day fast undertook it out of her own free will too. Were she older, she probably would have understood what the community elders are now harping on — the concept of individual ability in the fulfillment of this ritual. However, given her age and the fact that she had seen her predecessors worshipped for their abstinence, their families revered and rewarded for the act, seen the very act of fasting and piety as a competition, it was far easier for her to internalise the idea that her goodness and her family’s well-being would came from eschewing food and water for as long as she could. And which 13-year-old is averse to the final prize — being paraded like a bride/ princess through the streets, hailed as a goddess.

The modern Karvachauth junkie too revels in her choice. For her it is an Indian version of Valentines day — new clothes, mehendi and the exclusive attention of her husband. And in its modern day avatar, some indulgent husbands share the burden of the fast with their wives. None ever questioning the absurdity of abstinence from food becoming proof of love. Could not the mehendi, sari, romantic dinner ritual be enjoyed sans the fasting? Would the value of the devotion be downgraded in that case?

These are our traditions, they say, and any questioning of them is seen as a direct affront to the religion they come from. The burden of all these traditions, and many others, it goes without saying, falls on the woman. Once women bore the brunt of Sati. That was tradition too. And many still hail it as the ultimate proof of love, this annihilation of self with the husband. There is a Rani Sati flyover in Bombay, the irony of an outlawed custom being revered in the naming of a public amenity, escaping most. Women still pay the price of dowry, outlawed but all pervading. The occasional man who refuses it is hailed as hero, as if he is doing the woman a favour by marrying her without being compensated for his efforts. Some men also token fast in support during Karvachauth; their participation is seen as a sign of their sensitivity, while women’s adherence to tradition is a given, both by the community at large and the women themselves who have been indoctrinated to believe in the virtue of their action and the cool quotient bestowed on it by a certain brand of cinema.

It starts early, the brainwashing women believe is their choice. Seeing their mother’s dress up, the camaraderie of women propping each other through the difficult day, gifts received and paraded — girls begin to aspire to what seems like an annual wedding day. The markers, after all, are the same — colourful saris, mehendi and flowers — and it all seems tremendously exciting and auspicious. They see also (as do their brothers) that their fathers are hardly around, make an appearance only at the very end of the festivities and yet are still given the centre of attention. This gender imbalance to them becomes normal, and it is through this normalisation of inequality that traditions are perpetuated as positive. That the fasting is for the long life of the husband, essentially means, that in this tradition women are disposable, second-class citizens, is a nuance lost amidst the festivity.

Thus indoctrinated, the woman finds nothing offensive in touching her husband’s feet at the end of the ritual, an act so loaded with discrimination and condescension that any woman allowed a sense of self would cringe. She, however, sees this gesture as respect, never realising that, respect to really exist, has to flow both ways. The modern woman, who follows this ritual with a sense of irony, seeing it as an opportunity for good-natured ribbing of her husband, fails to see the trickle down effect the fashion fetishising of her actions has on those for whom it is mandatory.

Some traditions are seen by women to be transcending choice; they are seen as actually empowering. Many see the no fasting during menstruation edict as proof of the benevolence of the religion. True freedom would mean the freedom of the woman to choose, to obey her body’s needs, instead of a book or a preaching, almost always by men with no real understanding of a woman’s needs. A truly free woman would protest at the impurity ascribed to her entire being for a physiological action beyond her control. But accustomed to nothing, the average woman has learned to be satisfied with little, seeing the few tokens tossed her way as beneficence.

Convinced that crumbs are her only due, she forgoes rights that are hers, choices the law empowers her to make, choosing instead to follow traditional customs.  In absence of the uniform civil code, the Muslim woman, revels that her personal law gives her the right of inheritance, not even questioning why her share is half that of her brother’s. And the Hindu woman, who can fight for full inheritance under amended laws, that are almost never adhered to, is content with goodies given to her as part of her dowry. By adhering to these archaic decrees, the only choice they are making is to perpetuate traditional family values aka patriarchy.

The choice of dressing as dictated by tradition is also a loaded one. To be forced to defend the right of women to wear the burka during these Islamaphobic times, does not mean that the right exercised is a choice without coercion from the men in her life. For every woman who chooses freely to veil herself, usually a woman of privilege with an identity to flaunt or one who lives in a community where such dressing is fashionable, there are countless to whom the black cloak is the burden of patriarchy. The modern woman who makes a virtue of this choice actually does a great disservice to her sisters, making their fetters her fashion.

Sure these are all choices, but to call them free would be to deny the generations of insidious messages that define a woman’s place in society. Women who look upon fasting for a man’s long life as a positive are no different from women who support the idea of a man having four wives, because at least they not alone and are looked after. Both are internal conditioning of a man’s place in their lives as protector, sometimes literally referred to as pati parameshwar, God.

When an educated modern woman undertakes a regressive ritual, she is under the illusion that she has a choice in the matter. A little bit of harmless fun could hardly hurt the woman’s movement that has come so far, she feels. But then a 13-year-old girl emulates her, a girl too young to understand the meaning of her actions. Sometimes she pays with her life. But she almost always pays with her self-respect. And by extension, the dignity of the larger community of her sisters.

In the end all women are prisoners of their illusions. They may think the choice is theirs, but almost always somebody else is doing the choosing, for which the consequences will continue to be borne by generations of women.

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