30/10/2015 8:17 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Karva Chauth And A Woman's Right To Choose

NARINDER NANU via Getty Images
An Indian Hindu woman poses while performing a ritual on the occasion of the Hindu festival of Karva Chauth (Husband's Day) in Amritsar on November 2, 2012. Married women observe Karvachauth by fasting and offering prayers seeking welfare, prosperity, and longevity of their husbands. AFP PHOTO/ NARINDER NANU (Photo credit should read NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images)

It is that time of the year. The crisp air holds the promise of festivities. And if Dassehra is past, can Karva Chauth be far behind? As the evening haze envelops Gurgaon, a strong whiff of Karva Chauth emanates from mushrooming mehndiwalas, sweet shops and bangle sellers.

As a bride, hailing from a family where women were unfamiliar with Karva Chauth, I wasn't really excited by the idea of fasting or decking up for a story session. Given that my mother-in-law, bless her soul, was cool enough to respect my choices, I decided to test Karva Chauth waters with selective participation. Fasting entailed taking fruit and water, and prayer at moon sighting was personal, minus the customary story session. If anything, the idea was to test my patience and tame my appetite. Over the years, I have embraced the festival and many other rituals that were not a part of my growing up years. And no, Ekta Kapoor had no say in my celebrations, if anything; her portrayal of Karva Chauth on television was a deterrent. All because discretion trumped traditional expectation.

"Whether it is Raksha Bandhan or Karva Chauth, most festivals are about celebrating relationships and not about celebrating gender one-upmanship."

The trigger for writing this post is the fact that the rituals of the kind Karva Chauth entails are held in contempt by some who call it "sexist". Regressive. A few months ago, a noted journalist called the festival of Raksha Bandhan "nonsensical". The basic concept of the festival, according to him, was flawed because his sister was capable of defending herself. Another feminist activist tweeted that Raksha Bandhan should be renamed "Snehabandhan" for the sake of gender equality. For me, Raksha Bandhan was a celebration of sibling bonding and it did nothing to make me feel inferior on the gender platform. As long as festivals come with a discretionary choice, taking the nomenclature literally appears trivial to me. Moreover, in the world I live, sisters are a constant pillar of emotional strength and brothers seldom rush to rescue distressed sisters.

Coming back to Karva Chauth, it is interesting to note how Gurgaon couples have devised ways to celebrate the festival that is now regarded as punitive for women. From being an attention-seeking dominant partner, the husband is gradually emerging as a supportive friend. Guilty of being placed on a pedestal where he is the deity and his mortal wife prays for his long life, it is actually amusing to see the sheepish grin on his face. So the guilty partner has devised ways to make up for the guilt. Pampering the wife by buying gifts is one. Keeping a partial fast in solidarity is another. Going out for dinner is equally effective. And so is spending the entire day together. Showered with all this attention, many women feel equally special, if not more.

Triggered by market-driven consumption forces, most festivals and traditions will survive the test of time if the inherent idea is to respect free choice. Most urban working women, I find, are free to drink water, eat fruit or not keep a fast at all. And yet, in today's age women download apps where they can see their husband through a virtual sieve. Interesting, right? From what I observe, it is not an Indian phenomenon alone for my US-based sister-in-law and her friends adhere to strict fasting and celebrate most rituals.

Given the patriarchal society we live in, disapproval from feminist voices is welcome, but it is also true that several bright spots are visible amid the pervasive darkness of sexism. When I skim the surface, I see change when an Indian politician had to apologise for comments made about a porn star. I see change when an AAP advertisement depicting a homemaker performing household chores was slammed for perpetuating stereotypes. I see change when a woman officer leads the Guard of Honour for the US President during his visit to India. The lady was an officer first and then a woman -- a woman free to celebrate or ignore Karva Chauth.

Whether it is Raksha Bandhan or Karva Chauth, most festivals are about celebrating relationships and not about celebrating gender one-upmanship. This is not to blame feminists because their grumpiness stems from a sense of victimhood. From an historical perspective, Raksha Bandhan and Karva Chauth might appear regressive, and rightly so, but from a discretionary angle, the celebrations are slowly tuning in with contemporary sensibilities.

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