I have been thinking of this ever since Raksha Bandhan was celebrated last week. I randomly asked Migu who she was going to tie a rakhi to, and she solemnly replied, “To myself.”
At two, my daughter does not know the significance of rakhi or any festival. She probably did not even understand my question and gave me a random answer. But that answer to me had profound significance. In essence, she seemed to be saying “I will swear to protect myself.” In the years to come, there will be other people in her life, to whom she wants to tie a rakhi, but I know that every year, I will always remind her of what she said at two, and ask her to consider tying a rakhi to herself.
It is not just rakhi, so many of our festivals can be symbolically interpreted to be empowering for women, but somehow seem to get lost in a patriarchal discourse of women being ‘pati-vrata.’ Ever since I got married, I diligently do pujas like Varalakshmi, Gowri and Nombu. I do it because it is part of my cultural heritage. And I want to do it along with my daughter, to reinterpret it in more feminist terms if you please, to see these festivals as asserting women’s power, of establishing a relationship with the sacred feminine, who takes different forms.
Yet this interpretation is mostly lost in the usual talk on how it shows your devotion to your husband if you do these rituals, how you are praying for your husbands welfare etc etc. The biggest example I can think of this is the legends behind Savitri. Every year, in Mid March, most Tamilians celebrate a ‘Nombu’, where the story of Savitri is read, and people commend her on her devotion to her husband and how she was able to fight Yama for his sake. But when you read the story, what stands out is not so much her devotion to her husband as her courage, her tenacity and her resourcefulness in convincing Yama to revive her husband. Sure it was her devotion to her husband which probably motivated her to do it (but I would like to see it as love, rather than devotion. After all, according to the story, she chose to marry him, and did it despite the fact that she was a rich princess and Satyavan’s father was a dispossessed king and she had herself been warned that he would have a very short life). So why is the story of her courage lost in the admiration of her ‘devotion’ to the husband.
Why is every vrat observed by a woman meant for her husband and to show her devotion to him. Can women not assume the identity of the nurturer of the family, and the fast a symbolic way in which she shows her commitment and concern not just for her husband, but for the entire family. After all, all the work on women’s empowerment has shown that educating and empowering women has an effect not just on the individual but on her entire family. Can these festivals not be reinterpreted as ways in which women reaffirm their primacy in the family, their role as the protectress.
I dont intend this post to be a put down on any of the religious practices. But I feel that religions do offer ways to reinterpret gender relations. As a Hindu, I know that this religion does, and I am sure for someone who is able to critically engage with religious discourses, every religion does offer that.
Can we, in our efforts to address gender inequalities start reinterpreting our myths and stories to focus more on women, beyond their roles as a ‘wife’.