No, I’m not about to define a daughter. That’s not where I’m going. My objective is to drive your focus to the choice of interrogative pronoun that I just used. “What” rather than “Who”. And most of our Indian people would go on to answering that question, never realizing that the “what” just reduced a female from a person to an object. But why does this objectification of women run so deep in our culture? Right now, I’m not talking about the objectification of women in cinema and advertisements. That is a separate topic of debate. But right now, I’m talking about the objectification of women that is deep rooted in our religious texts. Majority of our population may not have read these texts themselves, and may not be as strictly religious, and may not follow all day-to-day religious practices, but still follow some customs under the guidance of the religious pastor on some special occasions like mundan (customary shaving of a baby’s head), sanskaar (funeral rites) and different kinds of havan (this one could form a separate list). Not going into the essential meanings and reasons of these rites, let’s move onto the one that binds two people, and subsequently their families, into a LIFE-LONG BOND – Marriage.
Very recently, I attended my cousin’s marriage ceremony – an overnight affair of mantra and phere that none of the witnesses can understand, and who are just sitting there to witness the couple performing some actions on the pandit’s command. And that’s when my contempt for a custom was sparked anew as I heard the mention of “kanya daan”. For anyone who does not know, it’s direct translation means “girl donation”. Done by a girl’s father or the next elder male member of the family (along with his wife), it is regarded as the donation of the highest order – the one that would earn the donor the most punya (credit of doing good deeds). The religious texts of Hinduism – which I haven’t read myself, nor anybody in my extended family as far as I know, but whose teachings we hear all around us, translated by those who claim to have read them – declare a female as a property, an object of ownership. How? Because you can only donate what you own.
And talk about the vachan (vows) of marriage exchanged by the bride and groom, which are probably the only part of the whole ceremony that we can understand as the pandit translates them into the commonly spoken language for the benefit of the couple (because you can’t really make a vow without knowing the terms of that vow which were mentioned by a different person in a language that you don’t understand, right?), these vows sound like the terms of a 50-Shades-of-Grey style of BDSM contract for LIFETIME! (which still wouldn’t be as sick if the terms were enunciated by the couple themselves and mutually agreed upon after negotiation). BDSM is actually sane and gives the highest regard to consent. But these vows? They roughly translate into telling the woman that she will no longer be her own person. Seriously!! One of the vows that the bride is supposed to make states that she is not supposed to go to a park or garden or lakeside without the “permission” of her husband or his family. And the rest of the vows are also along the same lines. They bind a woman to “taking permission”, which is different from “informing your folks of your whereabouts”. These vows are basically telling a woman that she is not supposed to make her own decisions. Just consider having to depend on your husband’s or in-laws’ permission to go to the mall. How stupid does that sound? Or controlling. This leads me to realize how the Hindu marriage system is actually a Power-exchange dynamic that all the people sign up for at the time of their marriage without even realizing it. And we don’t see our modern wives taking on the submissive role in the relationship, nor the husbands being the dominant ones. The modern youth believes in equal status and responsibilities of both man and woman within a relationship which leads me to believe that most of them just go with the flow of the mantras and agree to such vows just to complete the formalities of the marriage ceremony. “How many of your marriage vows did you actually believe in and still practice?” I ask you, my readers, who have been married. If we aren’t exactly practicing what we vowed to do, then where’s our integrity? What’s the value of our words?
Coming back to what the religion preaches, despite all that is preached about respecting women as mothers, we can all agree that it regards the females as second-class citizens – always a male’s “amaanat” (possession, property), passed on from one male (the father) to another (the husband) as a donation, and always subject to the male’s permission for her life’s smallest of decisions. But as the modern youth who no longer believe in such patriarchal norms, isn’t it our duty to bid them away even from the customs and formalities? Why not make our own vows that we mutually consent to abide by as a couple, or revamp the old customary vows according to our modern beliefs, rather than nodding to whatever the pastor says when we don’t really agree with them? Why lose the integrity of our vows?
As for those who might be worried about losing out on the punya of the most sacred donation, no need to fret. Let me introduce you to the highest order of donation in the modern world – Organ Donation. Yes, the highest, because your one pledge can save 8 different lives and improve another 50. And this is a true form of donation, NOT controlling a woman’s life in the name of some rusty norms. A daughter is not your property. So, go to one of the organ donation websites and pledge to donate your organs. And while you are at it, also pledge to do away with sick customs like girl-donation aka kanya-daan.
Author Lipika Aggrawal is a millennial Indian who has expressed her views on modern Indian society and gender disparity