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Karva Chauth and the freedom to choose

Author: Smita Barooah
Publication: Niticentral.Com
Date: October 11, 2014
URL: http://www.niticentral.com/2014/10/11/karva-chauth-freedom-choose-240530.html

This evening, as I walked around my neighbourhood in Singapore, I encountered an interesting sight. My quiet neighbourhood had suddenly come alive, and dozens of women of the Indian community, walked around holding diya platters, dressed in their traditional finery. It is Karva Chauth and the women were returning from a prayer ceremony. I enjoyed seeing the beautiful colours of their elaborate costumes, the traditional jewellery and intricate mehandi on their hands. The mood was joyous and festive.

Earlier in the day, I had spent a great deal of emotional energy arguing for the right of women to keep the Karva Chauth fast. It was ironic, since I come from a state where the tradition is non-existent. Eastern Indian customs differ from other parts, and the people there have a clear preference for feasting over fasting.

The big fuss:

For the uninitiated, Karva Chauth is a North and Central Indian festival, where married women fast for the longevity of their husbands. It is a tough day as the women usually even abstain from water till they sight the moon, & offer prayers. The festival has been romanticised and glamourised by Hindi movies, and now even young unmarried women, and those from other parts of India, sometimes fast as a mark of love for their beloved.

While the tradition has grown in popularity, it has over time incurred the wrath of a section of people who consider it regressive and patriarchal. After all, the women fast for their husbands, but there is no corresponding event where the husbands are required to fast and pray for the well-being of their wives. This, they argue, reinforces the subjugation of women and perpetrates the myth of male superiority.

Maybe Karva Chauth and some other traditions are rooted in patriarchy, but the objective of this article is not to dissect the origins of traditions. I seek only to make a limited point about freedom of choice.

As a Hindu, I strongly believe that I have the right to disagree with my traditions. I also have the right to reject various customs. But I do not have the right to impose my views and choices on others. Nor do I have the right to assert my opinion by putting down or deriding those whose customs might differ from mine.

Of course, there are circumstances where external intervention is necessary. For instance, practices like the stigmatisation of widows or untouchability cannot be allowed on the basis of “freedom of choice”. These extreme customs are not choices individuals make. They are imposed by force. Thus, there is a clear aggressor and a clear victim. Those who seek to equate Karva Chauth with such practices are either intellectually lazy or dishonest.

When people choose a custom out of conviction, not compulsion, others don’t really have grounds to interfere or do sanctimonious sermonising. In fact, the interference can set unwelcome trends. After all, who decides what is right and what is wrong, when it comes to matters of lifestyle or religious choices? Who sets the bar for what is “acceptable”?

Today, the problem is that the same people, who preach about regressive customs, would be the first to cry hoarse if another group decided to impose curbs such dress restrictions, based on a certain concept of “modesty”. There would be protest marches and newspaper editorials galore. Yet, the principle violated in both cases is exactly the same. They are both about infringement on the freedom to choose!

The fact is that a one-day fast is not a health hazard, nor does it have any impact on people who are not participating. What is amusing is that the same set of people also had issues with Prime Minister Modi keeping a fast during the Navratris. Clearly, a fasting male did not violate any “feminist” principles. So is this outrage really about feminism or a general disdain for Hindu traditions?

I suspect that the covert pressure to shun customs like Karva Chauth is not about liberation at all. It is about one group imposing a certain set of values on others. Thus, it is merely another form of control masquerading as rationalism.
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