Women fast for their men on Karva chauth, but why?
Nov. 2 was Karva chauth. I wouldn’t have known it if it weren’t for the special discounts at stores, the diamond and sari advertisements, and articles wondering whether newlywed actress Kareena Kapoor would fast.
Karva chauth, a primarily northern Indian festival in which women fast for the men they love, looks like a glamorous affair and the ultimate selfless, romantic gesture. There is little space for discourse on how it perpetuates the notion that women should be dependent on men.
In India, there is nothing that a good old fast cannot cure. But this one is particularly interesting. Women fast the whole day, without a drop of water, until the moon appears. Though the idea of men fasting for their sweethearts is not unheard of, they are not expected to do it.
As I write this, there are millions of Indian women who have followed the same routine. I wonder why women in a modern society engage in such traditions. Foreign readers, don’t be fooled.
This is not some rural tradition forgotten by India’s emancipated urban women with university degrees and independent lives. Like many holidays, it’s good for moving product, with special discounts and an air of romance that might bring Valentine’s Day to mind in people from other countries.
Even the tools of the ritual have become opportunities for gift-giving as the newly middle class and upper middle class flex their newly thick wallets. Consider the Swarovski crystal-studded channis, the sieve traditionally used to look at the moon before breaking the day’s fast are available in the market.
There are many such traditions that women follow in Hinduism. Married women wear vermilion along the parting of their hair, and the mangalsutra, a beaded necklace around their necks. Men don’t have to do such things.
The age-old notion of “pati parmeshwar“, the idea that a husband should be worshipped as a god, a lord, a master or an owner is reinforced time and again.
Some feminists have cited Karva chauth as a symbol of cultural repression of women. Some say that the holiday is an instrument of social control.
Others argue that there is no coercion, and women fast because it’s their choice. Still, social and cultural pressure from parents and, frankly, the eyes of all the people around you, are always there.
Many women whom I know fasted. Some think it’s romantic. Some of their husbands will fast with them. Some do it because they do not know another way. Regardless, I find it difficult to make my peace with it.
(A woman selects bangles as her hand is decorated with henna on the eve of Karva Chauth festival in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh in October 2009. Reuters photo: Ajay Verma)