Rakshabandhan- an occasion where traditional families get together to celebrate the warm and reassuring bond between two siblings of the opposite gender. An occasion where bratty brothers and annoying sisters put their rivalries aside, to be affectionate, for once. As a child I always experienced a visceral distaste for the ritual, mostly because I disliked having a red tikka with rice-grains on my forehead. But as I grew older, and put more thought into it, my distaste and hatred of the event grew stronger and more ideological.
“Why is it that I must give her presents and protection? While all I receive is a thread around my wrist, encumbering accoutrements on my forehead, and a mouthful of mithai? “
Prima-facie that’s a rather trivial and juvenile question, but it began making sense when contextualised against the backdrop of the sort of patronising, condescending, and protectionist approach mainstream Indian society has towards women.
Rakshabandhan, in my opinion is both a cause, and a manifestation of the fact that Indian (Hindu) society views the woman as the weaker agent, incapable of confronting the various challenges of life, constantly in need of being encircled by a proverbial Laxman-Rekha. Established by the father, subscribed to by the brother, and eventually outsourced to the husband was the custody of this feeble woman (every woman). This is just another of those traditional values, much like the Christian tradition of ‘handing over’ the bride, that in a tacit way, reinforces the notion that the woman is nothing more than an extension of a male relative.
Even though we’re fortunate enough, in this country, not to experience the blatant, Taliban-esque, acid-on-face misogyny that a significant portion of our world has had to suffer through, Indian misogyny is characterised by the subtle subjugation of women. We tell our girls that it is for their sake that we withhold their freedoms, we tell them that the easiest way for them to gain respect in society is to ‘know their place’ and live in accordance with the self-validating norms of the patriarchy. Even when politicians dare to venture into pro-woman rhetoric, they claim its only because women fulfil the sacrosanct gender roles prescribed for mothers and sisters.
Javed Akhtar, earlier in 2013 implored the Upper House of Parliament to respect women, not because they represented mothers and sisters but because the were people. That notion didn’t seem to resonate with most of our citizenry, who could not conceive of women in ways other than those created with gender-specificity in mind. Rakshabandhan is but a symptom of the fact that Indian society insists on viewing women who choose to take risks and choose to be responsible for their own behaviour with an alien contempt and a paranoid fear. Indian families’ greatest priority with respect to their little girls is to keep them unscathed and free of blemishes, like a brand-new BMW, so that they might re-sell her to willing recipients who would want to quarantine her agency and sexuality and hope never to have to acknowledge it.
And I wish I could, like most of my pro-Rakshabandhan yet pro-woman friends, sympathise with the tradition and treat it only as an archaic, innocuous, and cute symbolism. But like a lot of whiny feminists, I believe it has real implications. Implications that mould our view of gender roles right from the time we’re little children. Implications that tacitly reinforce in the minds of both boys and girls that regardless metrics like age, intelligence, and prudence- that gender would decide sibling hierarchy. Far too often, protective brothers on issues of sexuality, romance, and personal independence have superseded independent girls. Far too often, siblings of the same family have unequal restrictions imposed on their freedom. And most unfortunately so, far too often, women have subscribed to the idea that their relative lack of testosterone is a valid reason to remain wilfully subservient to their father, then their brother, and then their husband.
The Indian male has convinced women that bad men (who presumably have their own sisters to take care of) are out to get them, and they need good men for their protection. Misogynistic environments warrant misogynistic policies, it would seem. This is patriarchy’s perpetual motion machine. A spanner must be thrown in the works.
Now before you think this is some sort of sarcastic parody on feminism that pretends to claim that a piece of thread tied around someone’s wrist is the cause of all of our problems, let me make it clear that I obviously do not believe that the presence of a Rakhi around one’s wrist make no difference, one way or the other.
But it’s a lot bigger than that. Rakshabandhan (ie the brother’s guardianship of his sister) is one of many social constructs that feed the gender divide in a manner that makes gender-specific distinctions the pre-cursors for important choices that need to be made in the life of a little child. It is a crystallisation of the distinct values that parents seek to inculcate in their children. Traditional families admire qualities like aggression, leadership, athleticism, and forthrightness while girls are expected to be silent, obedient, and risk averse. This manifests itself in the sort of gendered upbringing that is all too pervasive, not only in our society- be it parent’s enthusiasm for their children’s sports, or their willingness to allow kids to go out late at night, or have friends of the opposite gender.
And much like religious people are convinced by arguments for the existence of god, not because of logic or reason but simply because that’s what they’ve been told all their lives and that’s the belief they’re most invested in, these gender roles remain deeply ingrained in children from the time they’re very young and are comfortably numb to the fact that the gulf is growing wider as they age.
The macro-level implications of this mindset therefore, ought not to be surprising- the law in Andhra Pradesh in early May this year that banned women from nightclubs post 10 pm, because women should know better than to get drunk and get raped; but when alcohol causes men to be belligerent and aggressive, its because “men will be men.” Or the tons of university campuses in India that have curfews for girls but not for boys. Or the sort of obscene moral policing that we’ve seen from groups like the Sri Ram Sene, who tried to teach girls outside a Mangalore nightclub a valuable lesson- that drinking alcohol and wearing skimpy clothes could get them beaten and molested, by beating and molesting them.
Of course the link between Rakshabandhan and these pragmatic issues of gender inequality isn’t the most direct one, but it’s a lot less tenuous than you’d think. And while an excuse for a familial celebration involving presents and sweets is always something worth looking forward to, and the rakhi and tikka aren’t much more than mild hindrances to comfort, the idea of Rakshabandhan that underlies the subtle, yet pernicious sexism of our society ought to diminish like other traditions like Sati, and soon enough, Karva Chauth.