October 16, 2011

Is Female Fasting a Covert Form of Social Violence?



I HAD INDEPENDENT CONVERSATIONS WITH two friends recently, about the same topic. Both friends fasted/will fast this week, for Sharad Purnima and Karva Chauth respectively. Since I had never heard of the former and the only knowledge I can claim to have about the latter is a sappy scene from DDLJ, I got to thinking and reading more about the subject. I wanted one question in particular answered: Is gender-selective fasting (females, in all cases I read about) a covert form of oppression, and consequently, socio-cultural violence?

For ease of understanding, let’s focus on the more widely publicized karva chauth. The etymology of Karva Chauth is largely unknown, although bolstered by many possible hypotheses. One theory states that this was the time of year (on the 4th day of the dark fortnight of the month of Kartik) that travel away from home and military campaigns commenced, which led women to fast for their husband’s well-being. The festival also coincides with the beginning of the rabi crop cycle, and hence may have also been a form of prayer for a good harvest, given the transactional nature between deity and devotee in Hinduism, where striking bargains and ‘bribing’ deities is acceptable practice. While Karva Chauth is predominantly a Northern and North-western ritual, it exists in numerous variations all over India (it is less pervasive in the North-east), but always involves women fasting for male kin–specifically, spouses.

To understand the ritual, I also read about the zeitgeist in which it originated. Since we do not know when exactly women began practicing it, we can assume that it was either during the Golden Age of Hinduism—when women were officiating priests and gender-specific practices like child marriage, sati, etc. had not crept into mainstream society—or it began during a time of uncertainty and oppression for women, when their marital status was all that kept them from a life of wretchedness and societal abandonment. In either case, it appears clear that Karva Chauth was adopted and implemented for women’s own preservation, i.e. less for their husband’s well-being and more for their own, since their existence was so closely tied to their spouse’s.

In 2011, my friend’s husband is not going to war. Both she and her spouse travel with equal frequency. And while both my friend’s happiness is certainly closely linked to the well-being of her spouse, her existence and survival is not. It is even less so in the case of the friend fasting for her brother. What then, drives urban, educated women, one living in Bombay and the other in San Francisco, to go a whole day without food and water?

I turned the question over to them. “I am from UP,” one said, adding a sad emoticon to our screen conversation, “it is an important day there.” She explained that there was pressure to follow the ritual and it was hard to say no when “they connect the fast to someone you hold dear,” in this case, her brother. Both she and my other friend were a trifle apologetic about engaging in something that they understood at a cognitive level was illogical. “It does embarrass me,” the other said, “that I who talk of women’s rights and the empowerment of womanhood so frequently, undertake the fast anyway.”  Would her spouse join her and abstain from food as well, I asked. “Oh no,” came the answer, “he can’t stay hungry.”

I get the power of social conditioning. If this is something you have seen female role models do and have been told it is an expression of love and concern for a dear one, you are likely to not push the envelope and err on the side of caution and tradition. What interests me is that neither woman gave much thought to what they were subjecting their bodies to (even if it is just one day—unless the doctor recommends it, is an entire day of abruptly denying your body food and water healthy?) and that there was minimal questioning of their partners’ non-opinion on the issue. I am aware that we are talking of an 18-hour time frame. Ramzan is a whole month of similar deprivation. But do remember that in the case of Ramzan fasting, both genders are expected to do it, and not for each other.

I will admit that it isn’t the fasting per se that bothers me as much as the social expectation that one gender must undertake it for another, while being provided compensation in monetary forms (jewelry, clothes, make-up, henna, etc.) Many of you may say there is no coercion and you undertake fasting of your own free will, but you may want to consider whether free will exists in a vacuum, without socialization, cultural pressures and gender-specific expectations creeping into the mix. How many of you do this only because your in-laws expect it? How many because you saw your mother do it? Because it’s just the way it is and it’s only one day and we may as well please “them” and be done with it?

My individual conversations with both friends were full of banter and joking about how they need to sneak in some gajar halwa and how a Parsi (I am one) must never be separated from her food, but on a more serious note, do give this action deep thought if you are undertaking it and question your reasons other than “because they say so.” There is love for your partner/brother/other male kin and then there is logic. And it IS perfectly possible for the two to co-exist. As women, let’s not do ourselves a disservice by blindly going along with what always has been. If you carefully consider your compulsions and still wish to abstain because you believe starvation on your part will help your loved one live longer and thrive, power to you. Don’t forget to tell me how you do it.

23 comments to Is Female Fasting a Covert Form of Social Violence?

  • Interesting take on this fasting ritual! Thanks for this post!

  • AD

    Extremely simplistic and primitive view. Displays complete absence of understanding given in Indian/Hindu context to woman as ‘shakti’, one of the underlying reasons of fasting for the partner.

    • Aditya

      Is there any particular reason why being ‘Shakti’ requires women to fast for their husbands? I’m not denying that there is context in Hinduism where woman/Shakti performs certain rituals, but by no means are they laid down as law. In fact, if you look back to the great epics, there is no mntion of Karva Chauth anywhere.

      But all that is besides the point. If a woman today still has no “real” choice about whether to practice a particular ritual (due to societal pressures), then why stop with fasting? Let’s all go back to the age of Sati and the age where women as young as 5 or 6 were married off to 80 year old men. Claiming history/religion as sound reasoning for continuing barbaric practices is an argument that falls flat. Why don’t we just tell the western world that slavery is acceptable?

    • Carvaka

      I think calling women ‘shakti’ and expecting inhumane things from them like remaining hungry and thirsty all day for the husband is much more primitive and simplistic. Women are as human as men. Calling them some sort of goddess and then expecting sacrifices is contradictory behaviour. I would rather not be put on a pedestal and just live with equal freedom as anyone else.

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  • Not only fasting- you are expected to conform to and know all kinds of rituals and prayers and holy books, whether or not you actually belong to a religious tradition which practices the same, unless your name/mode of dress/appearance/hairstyle marks you out as a ‘legitimate’ minority. It is a particularly insidious form of social pressure:(

  • I don’t know about the fasting part. We in the Tamilnadu area have two days -Kartik poornima and shankaranthi that are meant to be special days when one prays for the brother’s well being. I always wondered even as a child why brothers never prayed for sisters on any particular day. Nevertheless my mother was the one that religiously sent a nominal amount of money to my father’s sisters as a token of their concern for ‘the girls of the family’. I think my dad conveniently let her take over. In my case my brother’s wives do send me some token amount on these days. I think it all started when girls were not given a share in the property and produce from farmland like turmeric and sugarcane,paddy/wheat etc were sent over to the daughters on these occasions to make them feel connected to their maternal home. Later this was changed to gift in cash and kind.

    As for fasting for the husband we too have a day in mid March when we pray for the husband’s long life. But my mother in law did not ask me to fast as is the usual practice and she did not fast herself. According to her one could pray for the husband’s well being even on a full stomach!It was my mom’s eyes that popped out when I told her that I did not fast on the particular day.

  • Aarti

    Interesting that you talk about gender bias when it comes to fasting. In South India, where I come from, we don’t fast for anything. Atleast I was never asked to.

    I did it for a couple of years after I got married to a husband who came from the North of the Vindhyas, always insisting my husband also did it with me for mutual wellbeing. And then gave it up. I simply didn’t see the point of putting myself through torture for a day, for an intent that is constant through life.

    I feel what might have been a detoxification ritual has been torn out of context, and become a power struggle mostly.

  • Sue

    For Bengalis, bhai-phonta is the big festival for siblings. I don’t know how things were in ye olde Bengale, but today it usually means that sisters call their brothers over for a big feast and the brothers (or their wives, if married) give them nice gifts. It’s something I have happily done in the past for my brother, cousins and adopted brothers because it feels like a mutual celebration of the bond. It is important to me that the brothers come over for the phonta (the ritual), that all other relationships are given less priority this one day.

    Having said that, I have got tired of my blood relations being nice to me for this one day and forgetting me the rest of the year so I’ve decided to give the festival a miss this year. I think it’s important to agree with the meanings implicit in these festivals before choosing to celebrate them or not. Likewise, I have fasted for Vicky. The man invariably fasted along with me. I only stopped fasting because I don’t like going hungry but the mutual fasting was precious somehow.

    Gosh, what a long comment!

  • I believe that it should be mandatory to screen how Fire explained Karwa Chauth every time they play the one from DDLJ, no? It doesn’t end with KC, there are girls out there who fast every Monday for a Suitable Boy to come their way
    I say they should throw you a mehendi party everytime you score well in an exam or get an excellent office review or finally get that coffee ring off the table.
    And if fasting/detoxing is connected to a long life , you are doing it all wrong.shouldn’t it be the man who should give his kidney and stomach a good rest so he can live a longer life ?
    I have to confess that in the early years I did fast as it coincided with Ramzan, for one day no one asked me So You Will Not Even drink Water? Not Even Yoghurt? But you have to understand that KC parties act as social networks to tap into for the new arrival. Think of Junior Leagues, soccer moms, with twice the amount of pressure

  • […] better post to what I am on about if you want to read […]

  • I’m half-Nepali and half-Malyali married to a Pahadi. Neither side of the family believes in Karvachauth though my in-laws fast for Shivratri, Janmashtami etc. However, growing up in North India, I have liked the idea of Karvachauth and the sheer pleasure of female bonding. I always keep the fast (only 3 years now) and my husband joins in too. I do rituals (mehendi, puja) as I feel like and drink water (MIL insisted!).I’m glad I do this (thankfully only once a year) and will continue as long as I can.
    However, I hate the idea of forced fasting (direct or indirect pressure) on anyone and find it sad that this festival has got more ritualised every year.

  • Sreeparna Ghosh

    Interesting article Dilnawaz. I am from Bengal and women there fast only for brothers (during bhai-phonta) as one of your readers commented. The importance of a male figure whether a brother or a husband for ‘protection’ of women is emblematic of any patriarchal society. But like most rituals these days I think Karva Chauth has become more of a social event and perhaps most women participating do not think of the implicit and obvious inequality in a one-way fast!

  • I remember a Punjabi friend once asked me why there is no Rakhi celebration in Northeast. I replied that we respect women folk and they have a higher position in the society. He was offended by this, however casual I may be, I spoke wisdom (pun intended). Anyways, I believe nowadays this rituals are performed even in Northeast as this is the trend. You may hate Ekkta Kkappoor but she made this things trendy and no more a feminist issue.

  • Uma

    To add to the list of oppressive fasts here is one I didn’t see mentioned already: Jitiya/Jootiya which is observed in UP/Bihar for the well-being of sons (traditionally it’s for sons though most women these days also pray for their daughters). I guess since women might outlive husbands/brother the third level of protection is through sons.
    To add to your opening question yes I think it is oppressive but I’ve also noticed that most traditional women are actually reluctant to give this up because to them it also represents a little bit of control. Husbands/brothers/sons have to be grateful for the fast so it gives them some power not usually available.
    On a related note have you heard of the practice of “being possessed by a goddess”. I thought of it because of the power angle. In Maharashtra women would sometimes claim to be possessed by a goddess (usually Kali) and the goddess would voice her demands through the woman such as clothes/food etc. I’ve seen this in movies/tv serials etc and once in person. It would usually be women who would ordinarily be the lowest in the pecking order e.g widowed sister.

  • NM

    I think a perspective on this can be found in Kandiyotti’s Bargaining with Patriarchy, where she details the nuances of patriarchy and the manner in which it is ‘practiced’. I would hesitate (and I hope I am not alone in this) to easily term women’s cultural practices as their ‘blind’ submission to tradition. We run the danger of vilifying women for choices that are deeply personal and perhaps even strategic. As a feminist, I wouldn’t be so quick to judge women’s choices in heavily patriarchal spaces such as the family. While recognising Patriarchy’s hold on the way that we perform as gendered individuals is important, I argue that our analysis must go beyond a call to resist/reflect, and recognise the often-complex and difficult landscape that women have to navigate in order to create their lives.

  • A wonderful unbiased take on the practices! Sharing it! 🙂

  • Naina

    We need more people to think like this. I hope reading this article makes at least one Punjabi woman think whether fasting is fair and is it the only way to express her love to her husband. And what about him? How does he have to express his love to his wife? Any mandates about that? None I presume.

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    Thank you all for your comments. :)I regret I haven’t been able to respond to them individually. Keep them coming!

  • Some how as time has gone by… maybe we humans are too busy to question anything or understand why we do things… maybe we have become too conditioned to just do things because we are being told to…

    I love revolting to all such customs and thoughts for which I cannot understand the logic… in my family there is no karva chauth etc… yet in 11 years of my marriage last year my wife got inspired to do it… coz a lot of her colleagues were doing it… out of romance… I told her not to do it and i wont stay hungry… but she was adamant she wanted to… then upto almost 11 she could not see the moon and was seriously worried but would not go back on her decision no matter how much cajoling…eventually she called one of her colleague to learn they all broke fast at 9 that the moon had been spotted elsewhere adn that in my town it was too cloudy…

    I couldnt help laughing and my wife didnt want to look at anyone just finish her meal and sleep :-/

  • rashmi

    agree with u dilnavaz it is simply coz others do it that we follow….it doesn’t make any sense especially if we look at the reason behind it…but as far as fasting is concerned i think that part is ok, for it is gud for our metabolism with a bit of flexibility…this is more of a serious concern in the parts/ families where compulsion is involved…they need to think over for the change which might be there some day…hope..

  • Neha

    Me and my husband haven’t been able to err the side of tradition but we certainly reinvented the traditions, we decided to fast together for each others well-being, pack gifts together, have fun shopping, my hubby takes the mehendi cone and paints his heart out on my palm-canvas, we cook for ourselves or go out.. We don’t believe in ostentacious show-off but more of simple celebration of being together…! Infact many a times we hop out of a movie hall during intermission, run out on the road, do the moon jiggy, eat sweets, hug on the road and run back to catch our film, leaving people agasht…! We believe the solution to patriarchy is not matriarchy but equality… And change in perspectives is not sudden defiance but a gradual re-defination of conventions…!

    And why pounce on karwa chauth when their are many other customs n cultures that have similar or greater gender biased traditions…

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    hitchy: 🙂 I found the “out of romance” bit amusing.

    rashmi: I agree. Do it for health, metabolism, fitness, a medical condition–but don’t make it gender specific and then defend it to kingdom come when common sense questions it.

    Neha: It’s sweet that you and your spouse have created your own little rituals. 🙂 I don’t get why fasting is necessary “for each other’s well-being” though. Going without food for the benefit of another doesn’t make sense. And the answer to your question about “pouncing” on karva chauth is embedded in the article: For ease of understanding, let’s focus on the more widely publicized karva chauth.

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