By Humra Laeeq
Karvachauth is a Hindu festival widely celebrated in northern parts of India. On the fourth day of the Hindu month Kartik, married women fast from dawn to dusk and take part in traditional rituals that celebrate it in the evening. In some parts of India, the custom has it that women buy karva (pots) in which they keep sweets, jewellery, and handicrafts as gifts and exchange them with other women on the day of the festival. In the evening, women hold a ceremony of worship and devotion, sing prayers, dress up in shades of red, and apply henna to one another. At moonrise, they break their fast and feast with their in-laws.
The origins of the festival
Why Karvachauth is celebrated remains largely mythical. Legend has it that women started fasting in ancient India when men had to leave for far off lands to fight in the military. Fasting was seen as an act of devotion that would ensure the husband’s longevity. Other stories have been circulated that mention the celebration of Karvachauth as a season of harvesting wheat or as creating sisterhood among married women across a community. What remains constant among these theories is the fact that women necessarily celebrate it as a festival, and that fasting is crucial for any woman who identifies herself with Hinduism.
Issue with Indian sociological systems
Issues arise when we look at Indian cultural and religious practices through a socially critical lens. Indian festivals and ceremonies dictate the ideological underpinnings beneath them. What we celebrate is who we are and what defines us. The Indian system of social organisation has been historically and religiously heavily divisive among men and women. Since time immemorial, women have been a subject of domesticity and men the holders of public forums.
This is particular to Indian society vis-à-vis the West because, in the former, this societal structure was given a religious sanction that holds enormous value attachment for its followers. Hinduism preserves the binary between men and women in a marital institution. The husband is valorised as the dominant male who ‘protects’ his wife, and the latter is expected to follow her womanly-devotion of being a sacrificial, ‘honour-worthy’ wife. This structure reinforced how wives are perceived in Hindu society, and because women had traditionally internalised their roles as upholders of domesticity and morality, they had no qualms about expressing their love through sacrifice. Men were at the receiving end of spiritual devotion, while women at the end of material devotion in the form of clothes, jewels etc.
Karvachauth as a socially unequal ritual
Viewing Karvachauth against this backdrop, we see a certain ritual that is itself not inherently patriarchal. Love can be expressed through the sacrifice of food and water. It becomes a point of contest when it is made mandatory, and for only one partner to follow. To say that all women have to fast for their husbands becomes doubly problematic. Firstly, it assumes women to be the sole devotional partner and places men at the privilege of receiving it. Secondly, imposing it at every woman is the normalisation of that structure-that every woman is a domestic woman, the ‘happy domestic goddess’. Those who do not subscribe to this structure, receive religious glares.
Feminists have exhausted debates on the patriarchal reinforcement of Karvachauth in the modern day and age. Given the fact that ancient India did not ascribe military or war roles for women to risk their lives with, it was perhaps a natural outcome on part of women. However, today, when women can aspire for such roles and are at such positions, the credibility of the devotion holds no ground. Rather, it backfires and propagates a narrative that has traditionally oppressed women into opting for these roles. It clearly loses relevance today.
On the other side, cultural feminists argue that the ‘sisterhood’ bond and women-only ceremonies enable women to assert their identity and demand gifts from men as an act of submission. However, the problem remains that such practices only strengthen gendered divisions of labour and roles. It instils men as economic providers and women as domestic ‘goddesses’. It is a subversion of men which ends at the doorstep. Outside the home, the woman would still be an abnormality in a male sphere of economic productivity. The fact is, women don’t have to subscribe to any role and can have the liberty to choose to devote or not. On the other side, men do not have to be breadwinners or not allowed to devote in a similar manner for their wives. If such a practice of ‘love’ exists, it could be made gender neutral and non-subscriptive.
Feminism in its wake has put our cultural practices under threat. While a lot of communities revere the festival as a cultural heritage, they evade the social baggage it carries along with it. This practice is not patriarchal in itself, but become a rallying point of instilling patriarchy into our systems.
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