Fasting for Spouse’s Long Life? It’s a Woman’s Duty!

The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti sees women fast and pray for their husbands’ well being. Why is there no similar ritual for men?

Makar Sankranti is a Hindu festival related to the end of winter. It is celebrated in January across India and some other parts of South Asia to celebrate the beginning of longer hours of daylight. There are acts of worship and customary rituals associated with this day with regional variations. In Maharashtra, as in some other western and northern states of the country, women perform specific rites and rituals. These rituals are performed by women to pray for an increased lifespan of their spouses. Men, needless to say, are exempt from any such spousal duties.

Kasabai Kakde performs these rituals and fasting dutifully with hordes of other women gathered at the banks of the river from early morning. Where is her husband? “I live with my two sons now. He [her husband] has taken another wife,” she smiles almost apologetically. Community Correspondent Maya Khodve asks her why she still prays and fasts for a man who has abandoned her? “I prayed for his long life. What to do? I am still a married woman!” Kasabai rationalises.

Unfortunately, the reality for millions of women in India, irrespective of their location, class, religion and other loci of identity, remains that they do not have an independent identity. They are tethered by their surnames first to their fathers and later to their husbands. In Hindu marriage rituals the ceremony of ‘kanyadaan’–literally giving away the daughter–transfers her ownership from one patriarchal mooring, that of her natal family, to another–her marital family. And this is not just the reality for women in the so-called backward rural areas. This is very much the reality of women in urban contexts: often couched in the language of empathy, it is the anxiousness around the age of an unmarried woman or the disapproval when she refuses to change her surname after marriage.

Sharda Pise from Nashik gets up 4 am on Makar Sankranti. She first bathes and purifies herself and then worships the household gods. After this is done she heads for the holy river where she makes offerings to “pray for my husband’s long life and that we remain a couple in our coming lives,” she says. What does her husband do for her? “This is a women’s ritual,” she answers. Community Correspondent Maya Khodve asks Sharda’s husband Sahadev if he would like to perform the same rituals and fasting. “How I can I when no man does it? It’s for the wives!” he laughs.  

This same practice is mirrored in rituals like Karva Chauth and Bhaidooj where the female relatives, either wife or sister pray for the long life of their husbands and brothers. Karva Chauth particularly is glorified in popular culture through Bollywood films and television series which valorise the trope of the all sacrificing, long-suffering, loving, traditional women who perform onerous fasts for their errant, negligent and often abusive spouses. This is reflected in increased adoptions of such rituals in the urban milieu. Bratati Chakravarty, a professor in a reputed college in Kolkata, testifies that at least five of her colleagues perform rituals on Shivaratri to pray for the welfare of their husbands. “In schools, there are girls who, influenced by Karva Chauth, refuse to eat their lunches before meeting their boyfriends,” she adds. Karva Chauth has become so mainstream that even a well-known lesbian couple based in the city enacted the ritual.

If indeed, this is freedom to exercise one’s faith and beliefs, to show love and devotion, why is it so skewed in favour of men? When asked if she wanted her husband to also pray for her health and well being, Sharda retorts “This has always been the custom for women, and that’s how it will always be.” This unquestioning upholding of ‘tradition’ is how patriarchy’s iron hold is strengthened. We need to examine and reflect why we continue to perpetuate inequality and obvious misogyny in the name of tradition before we can aspire and change towards a more equal future.

THIS SERIES DOCUMENTING EVERYDAY PATRIARCHY IS SUPPORTED BY UNFPA | ARTICLE BY MADHURA CHAKRABORTY.

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