With my wedding a few months away, I started taking greater interest in the rituals that are a customary part of traditional Hindu nuptials. I have always loved the idea of a traditional wedding but have wondered about the meaning of some of the rituals. "Kanyadaan" is one which has bewildered me the most. It is defined as a ceremony in which, "The bride's father pours sacred water in his daughter's hand and places her hand in the groom's hand, officially giving away his most precious gift to the groom." It is believed that this ritual not only increases the parents' prestige but also purifies them of sin.
While the name itself, which literally translates as "giving away of the girl", is pretty shocking, the description and interpretation is even more difficult to digest.
Firstly, daan is most often used in the context of donation and charity. How does a woman fit into this category? I am a human being and not a commodity that can be passed on from one to the other.
Yes, it is perhaps just a ritual but why should I begin a new and important chapter in my life doing something that I find demeaning?
Secondly the notion that I will be given away by my father to my would-be husband is frankly cringe-worthy. My father has, without doubt, been one of the most important influences in my life, but that does not give him or anyone else the right to give me away.
Thirdly -- and this one baffles me the most -- is the interpretation that performing this ritual will increase the prestige of my parents and rid them of any sins so they can go to heaven after death. How can giving away a daughter who they have raised with so much love, care and attention wash away their sins?
For me, a ritual like this is downright misogynistic and I decided to share my concerns with the people around me. The reactions I received were surprising, to say the least. While some suggested that I should opt for a court wedding, others pointed out that it is just a ritual and makes no difference to real life. One well-wisher even went to the extent of saying that reading too many feminist blogs has filled my mind with negative thoughts. Another family member said that not having this ritual at my wedding would upset my would-be in laws and hence I should simply go through the motions.
Yes, it is perhaps just a ritual but why should I begin a new and important chapter in my life doing something that I find demeaning? Why should I begin a partnership with someone on an unequal footing? Why is it not possible to have a traditional wedding that is devoid of rituals that make the individual(s) getting married unhappy especially when alternatives exist? Why should I sit through a ceremony that leaves me with an unpleasant taste in my mouth on a day that is supposed to be one of the most memorable in my life?
If a woman is happy being part of Kanyadaan or Karva Chauth, that is absolutely fine. But if a woman is not, that should be equally fine too.
This experience has yet again made me realize that misogyny is a deeply ingrained mind-set that is reflected in every aspect of our society and culture. If we want to change the status quo we need to consciously modify social structures and practices to accommodate free choices made by both men and women. If a woman is happy being part of Kanyadaan or fasting for her husband on Karva Chauth, that is absolutely fine. But if a woman is not, that should be equally fine too. We should not make women feel guilty about their choices, either way. Whether it is with respect to the clothes they wear, the profession they choose to follow or the wedding rituals they participate in.
Also, it is important to note that making a choice in my life has nothing to do with going against an age-old ritual for the sake of it. My wedding is definitely not the occasion I would choose for launching a feminist campaign. It is simply about deciding what works for me and what does not.
So why did I choose to speak up? Well, very often we let things pass either because they are seemingly unimportant or because they do not directly affect us. If misogyny bothers us so much, how often do we speak up against the discrimination that happens in our own homes? How often do we speak up for a female colleague who is being treated in a prejudiced manner? If we feel strongly about something it is only we ourselves who can change it.
Ultimately, in the interest of keeping things cordial and not upsetting the apple cart, I might go ahead with the Kanyadaan ritual. However, even if I am "given away", I hope that one day we will evolve to a point when choices made by women are not perceived as radical or feminist statements but simply their ability to live life on their own terms.