A colleague once asked me if I have any brothers, when I said no, she replied saying, "now your freedom makes sense". Her statement made me uncomfortable, but it gave me something to think about.
There is no denying the fact that men enjoy special positions of power and privilege in Indian society, and as Indian women, we are constantly expected to celebrate our relationships with the men in our life.
Raksha Bandhan or Rakhi, as it is popularly called, is no different, it is true that most now celebrate it as a day to honour your sibling and like Karva Chauth, clever marketing has helped it transition smoothly into modern-day India of equal relationships and cute sibling rivalries.
But it would be a convenient lie to deny the fact that the festival has its roots in patriarchy.
At the core of its sweet façade lie the values of honour and protection. Like most Indian traditions, it also places immense importance on having a "brother", a symbolic male figure in your life.
This male figure or the lack of it, has haunted me all my life.
Image: Reuters photo
I have imagined my life with a brother, and I am certain it would have been different. Yes, there would still be rebellion and equal opportunities but the stakes would’ve been higher.
The agents of patriarchy would have been closer home, and maybe I would have been repressed. I would still have my voice but it would be a different voice.
I am not blind to the prejudices of my culture and the immense value and the privilege of the male child. It is reiterated to me when my 16-year-old cousin (brother) declares that he will not let us step out of the car and walk into the village fair because he deems the crowd "inappropriate". Or, when another tells me that he will have to have a chat with my father about me, when I laugh at his face for trying to get me to be more "adjusting". It is reiterated when a woman came wailing to my mother, mourning the loss of her son, 28 years ago and cry at what could have been but isn’t.
It is reiterated when people tell my father that he is foolish to have spent so much money on educating his girls when he could’ve just given them a good dowry. It is reiterated when women tell me that I am free because of the lack of a bother and when women my mother’s generation tell me that they migrated to other countries because they wanted to be independent because "their brothers and fathers would not let them work here".
It is reiterated when a brother calls a sister a “slut” for having a boyfriend and then tries to emotionally manipulate her into control. Or even in the simple less dramatic things that I have seen in homes throughout the country, like asking a five-year-old boy to chaperon his teenage sister. Like educated women declaring proudly that they are mothers to sons. Like telling a newly married daughter-in-law that her utmost duty in life is to produce a male heir.
Basically, just using any opportunity that one gets to remind a woman that she is nothing but a sum total of her relationships with the men in her life. Yes, things are changing but metropolitan cities don’t break social norms. In fact, reports on female foeticide have clearly pointed at the fact that this is not a rural problem alone.
So the majority of Indians need to stop pretending that they treat their boys and girls the same, when most raise the children on the privileges of their gender.
Staying amidst such a deeply patriarchal milieu, it only makes sense that a festival like Raksha Bandhan is widely celebrated. But it makes me deeply uncomfortable. When you look beyond the obvious joy of receiving gifts in exchange of tying a band, you see scores of women tied to the often misused terms of honour and protection that they seek from their brothers.
It somehow successfully manages to reinforce the fact that a girl must look beyond herself, to seek these seemingly self-contained qualities. And that is tragic. Perhaps what is more tragic is that living in a city, far removed from blatant sexism and sensitised to gender, we often forget that for most girls still, days like Raksha Bandhan are not just about sibling love, but they come with a baggage of choices that perpetuate male privilege.