Few days back while having a conversation with a friend about the weddings with a guest list of 200+ people during the pandemic, she casually remarked “Ignorant people” before quickly correcting herself saying “Of course there is nothing wrong with people not having or being able to afford a formal education” and reflecting on the need to have better terms for calling people out on account of their recklessness. Deciding to be politically conscious is not an easy choice. It is a continuous process of unlearning the biases and undoing the indoctrination of your formative years. And that’s not easy! You grow up with the vision of an ideal world order only to realise it is the Universe of Godot expanding continuously into a nothingness. I am still not sure if the decision to be politically correct is worth it but with that logic, what is? How do you make sure that something is worth it? It makes you understand the world around you, if that matters at all. Better yet, it makes you understand that the world is too huge to be fathomed. I apologise for sounding cynical at the very outset, but it is important to interrogate everything you do once you decide to be politically conscious.
The month of August, beaming with its augustus sunshine and regal colors, ushers in the festival season beginning with the seemingly selfless and close-knit affair of Raksha Bandhan. As the social media begins to advertise and sell the sweetness of bro-sis code to the masses, we see even the most politically conscious men and women succumbing to the same old patriarchal notion of Raksha Bandhan. The damsel in distress needs to be saved and if it isn’t Prince Charming, it’s the “Pyaare Bhaiya”. The term “Raksha Bandhan” means “tie of protection”. As a matter of fact, the term “bandhan” doesn’t imply a bond rooted in love but the kind of the tie that is imposed upon you by the social norms, the one that you are not supposed to break because of course, log kya kahenge? This bandhan constructs a dichotomy offering the pedestal of protector to brother because of course, a woman isn’t smart, wise or strong enough to protect herself. Don’t get me wrong! I am not proposing that a brother shouldn’t protect the sister. Instead, I intend to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that only a brother is expected to protect the sister and not vice-versa. It doesn’t only snatch the woman’s agency to be her own person who is in charge of her life but also burdens the man with the responsibility to do something that you should be doing out of love for your siblings, irrespective of their gender.
It is the perpetuation of this power dynamic of protector-protected that has validated the dichotomy of oppressor-oppressed at the first place. Doesn’t it go against the notion that we are fighting: the idea of female being the weaker sex? When we tell a man that he needs to protect a woman, we also validate his power and authority to be an aggressor. But, that’s not where my problem with this traditional way of celebration ends. Even though the idea of brother finding a perfect gift for sister is romanticised, the interrogation of symbolism behind it reveals another problem. The idea of brothers giving gifts or money to their sisters is typical of the society that believes women cannot or need not be financially independent, and men are burdened with the need to furnish their monetary needs. And I am not blaming men for that. This idea is never going to go unless women realise that financial independence is not a choice. I am sure most of us follow these traditions without even giving it a thought. So, if you have read so far, maybe give it a thought! There is symbolism behind everything we do and it is these perceptions that lay the groundwork for most of the biases and prejudices behind the gender stereotypes.
There are a number of mythological stories related to the festival. The most popular one is about Rani Karnavati who wrote to Humayun along with sending him a thread for protection when Bahadur Shah invaded Chittor. Although Humayun could not protect Karnavati who performed Jauhar but he reclaimed Chittor and handed it over to Karnavati’s eldest son. It is the secularist idea of a Muslim King coming to save the Hindu Queen from a Muslim invader that makes this myth the most popular of all. But what is secularism without feminism? Another one is of Draupadi who tied a piece of her dupatta around Krishna’s injured finger who then came to rescue her when she was being disrobed in Kaurava’s court filled of men cognate with ethos. Another one is of Yamuna who tied a rakhi to Yama, the lord of death. Yama granted her immortality and proclaimed that any brother who was tied a rakhi and offered to protect his sister would become immortal. There are also speculations that Porus didn’t attack Alexander personally because Alexander’s wife had sent a rakhi requesting Porus to not harm her husband. Although these mythical as well as historical anecdotes are fascinating, yet applying the same logic of protection to rakhi in 2020 steals the woman’s agency. The brother begins to feel that he is perpetually in charge of who her sister is dating, hanging out with and so on. In the 16th century, a Queen needed a King to protect her kingdom. Today, women have begun to reclaim power and authority. They can protect themselves as well as the men around them. The problematic archaic stories and notions can’t be undone but the practices around them can be redefined.
It is for the reasons stated above that I have had a bittersweet relationship with Raksha Bandhan. On one hand, I am a hopeless romantic who devours family gatherings and never misses any moment to celebrate really. On the other hand, my feminist consciousness does not allow me to validate the power dynamic of this otherwise innocuously-perceived festival. Three years ago, I decided to do something about it. I came up with an alternative that would allow me to celebrate the festival and do so in a feminist way. I told my brother that I won’t be getting a rakhi for him unless he does the same for me. I am six years elder to him, and I have changed his diapers, got him through his first crush and what not. If anything goes wrong, I am the first person he calls. Of course, he is equally supportive of me. He makes me chai every night while I am working, pampers me when I am stressed out and completely supports me in family arguments. However, my mother (who had been supportive of my feminist ideals otherwise) was aghast, failed to acknowledge my concerns and outrightly rejected the idea. Nevertheless, my brother got me (like siblings do, most of the times at least when they are not squabbling). Ever since, we tie rakhi to each other every year, and it has attained a special meaning for us personally. Rakhi is no more an imposition but a politically conscious choice that we have made to celebrate our love and support for each other.
Like any feminist, I’ve grown up to acknowledge various patriarchal traditions embedded in the fabric of our society and consciously tried to undo them as and when I encounter or acknowledge them. But if we start ditching everything that is patriarchal, we’ll need to relocate from earth because everything from the parliament’s makeup to something as basic as the tax levied on the sanitary pad reinforces patriarchy. The oppression of hundreds of years can’t be undone in a few decades. It thus becomes important to reinvent the traditions rather than ditching them altogether which might not be acceptable to the majority of the public. Tying rakhi to your sister thus becomes a way to resist the patriarchy embedded in the festival. In the words of one of my Professors, reading about consumerist culture does not mean you ditch the window shopping. It only means you know why you are doing what you are doing next time you go window shopping. Understanding the politics of gender behind Raksha Bandhan and embracing a personally-redefined Rakhi to celebrate the symbiotic bond of siblings can thus be an emancipation.
About the author: Urvi Sharma is a PhD Research Scholar enrolled in the Department of English and Cultural Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh. She has an unhealthy obsession with Grammar, Social Media and Politics. If she was part of Road race, she would go on even after crossing the finish line because she just doesn’t know when to stop. She is still distraught about 3 grammatical errors that ended up in the last article she wrote. If you find any in this article or for anything else at all, reach out to her at email@example.com
The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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