The festival of Karwa Chauth has become a metaphor for those who oppose it on the claim that it is regressive and loaded against women, and for those who see it as a well-meaning intent by married women. Too much is being read by ‘progressives’ into the ritual
Keeping up with past traditions, even as many Hindu women, in good faith, displayed their dedication towards their husbands, recently observing Karwa Chauth by keeping nirjala vrat (they don’t drink a drop of water), there was another lot of contemporary women who made it a point to ‘remind’ us that in the 21st century, when we talk about gender equality, such a tradition was an insult to the women lot, as it meant subjugation to men.
For etymology, Karwa Chauth is a festival, ardently followed by Hindu married women during the month of Kartik for the good health and longevity of their husbands. The fast begins before sunrise and breaks after the moon is sighted. While this tradition originated in north India, it is now celebrated across the country. Women fast for their husbands, not to keep up with tradition for the sake of it or to please their husbands and family, but because of the ‘faith’ associated with this auspicious festival. Such is the excitement that preparations begin weeks before – from deciding on their sarees to buying jewellery to selecting puja items like karwa to adorning mehndi. Women do it all because this makes them happy (and perhaps they love being pampered by their husbands!). Many working women even take a day off on this day.
Like it happens every year, this year too, during the Karwa Chauth festival, a furious debate played out on social media and elsewhere on whether Karwa Chauth was a sexist, regressive ritual or did it signify the commitment of a woman towards the wellbeing of her husband. While women observe fast on other festivals too, like Navratri, Teej, Shiv Ratri, Janmashtami and Ram Navmi, Karwa Chauth receives the most flak because the ritual mandates that women do, such as nirjala vrat, while staying hungry. Karwa Chauth has become a metaphor for both the sides on the debate.
Those who say it is regressive and patriarchal have argued that the ritual demands sacrifices on the part of the wives while there is no reciprocal gesture from men. Surprisingly, women from the film fraternity, who have done their bit to give a glamorous touch to this festival through their films, have been most vocal in their criticism. Topping the list is actor Twinkle Khanna, whose sarcastic tweet received flak, who said, “These days by 40 you could be on the way to your second marriage, so what’s the point of fasting; don’t need the men to last that long anymore.”
Earlier, actor Kareena Kapoor too had landed in a controversy with her comments, when she said there was no need for her to fast on Karwa Chauth to prove she loved her husband. She added she would enjoy the day eating delicacies . Such views are in sharp contrast to their contemporaries such as Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Preity Zinta, Bipasha Basu, Shilpa Shetty Kundra et al, who, considering their busy schedules, have broken their fast on the sets. They are of the view that the festival is a harmless expression of intent and was never meant to be regressive or symbolic of patriarchy. Television journalist Barkha Dutt and actor Raveena Tandon too had a turf war on this issue in 2015. While Barkha Dutt outrightly condemned this ritual, saying that while Karwa Chauth was a matter of “choice”, no power had yet been able to convince that it was not inherently regressive and patriarchal. Barkha Dutt’s tweet did not go down well with Raveena Tandon, who responded that Karwa Chauth was a beautiful tradition coming down the centuries, where women pray for their husbands and the entire family. How was that regressive, she asked.
The stories behind this ritual are many. The most popular amongst them is the one of princess Veeravati and her seven brothers. As a married woman, Veeravati fasted for the first time at her parents’ house. As she waited for the moon to rise, it became difficult for her to control her thirst and hunger. Her brothers, who loved her dearly, could not see her in distress and, therefore, tricked her into breaking the fast by showing her a mirror image of the moon under a pipal tree. The moment she took the food, news came that her husband was dead. Supposedly, as the princess rushed back home to see her husband, she met Parvati and her consort Shiva, to whom she narrated her story. Moved by her plight, goddesses Parvati instructed her to complete the fast with rituals the following day. This is how Veeravati got her husband back.
Sadly, the inherent nature of this festival has lost its value. There now exists a hierarchical relationship between a man and his wife. With changing times, the way people observe this festival too has evolved. The ritual has slowly drifted away from its original meaning and its interpretation has changed to suit the views of a traditionally patriarchal society. While some have modified certain rituals, others have completely abandoned this practice, as for them, the festival creates a gender hierarchy. But breaking stereotypes, men too have started fasting for women. Moreover, if one believes in the concept of praying, or maybe fasting for the longevity of their spouse, without any compulsion, what’s the harm? What’s wrong if women want to do something that makes them and their husbands happy? Women, or even men, observe Karwa Chauth not due to any compulsion, but out of choice. Surely enough, women have come a long way to achieving gender equality, but mixing it with tradition and sentiment does not augur well. Karwa Chauth is being followed since centuries, when the life of a woman was completely dependent on men. Now that many women are self-dependent and are being treated equal to that of men, should one’s beliefs drift away?
And it is not that those who oppose Karwa Chauth are ‘liberals’ and those who support it are ‘conservatives’. These are convenient classifications. Thousands of women across the country who have established themselves and even become icons, at home and in their workplace, observe it. The famous Gulab Gang is an empowered group, but can it be said that, if some of its married members observe Karwa Chauth, they are subservient to a patriarchal society?
On the other hand, ridiculous attempts have been made to compare Karwa Chauth with polygamy. Some people have argued that, if polygamy is to be abolished, so should Karwa Chauth, as the latter is equally regressive. However, though religious in its origin, Karwa Chauth has never been imposed as part of a religio-legal framework. No woman has gone to court claiming she is being compelled observe Karwa Chauth. On the other hand, tripletalaq is a sort of law – now challenged.
The fact remains that Karwa Chauth has not robbed any fundamental right the Constitution gives. When we think of a progressive India, we think of Indian women having the right to choose. This includes the right to observe Karwa Chauth without being ridiculed.