By Ashwina Garg Nov. 09, 2018
We are extremely vocal about the inherent patriarchy of festivals like Karwa Chauth, but we still celebrate Bhai Dooj. This is a strange dichotomy because both festivals are based on the same concept – that man is stronger than woman, who is always in need of protection.
Bhai Dooj was fairly uncomplicated in my childhood. Brothers were special, and you prayed for their long life by putting a tilak on their forehead so that they always loved and protected you. If there was a competition based on who protected a woman the best, a brother would be in the third runner-up position, right after the father and husband. It wasn’t that long ago when it was the duty of the brother to man up and step into the role of security guard, driver, and banker if the other two options weren’t available. Most women thought nothing about being coddled by this holy trinity of father-husband-brother like a piece of fragile, expensive crockery that needed delicate handling.
When a woman is not praying for the long life of her husband, she is probably praying for the long life of her brother, even if the brother in question is a scrawny five-year-old with two missing front teeth.
Things are a little different these days with my daughter and son. My son is six years older and 10 inches taller, yet he has the soft heart of Nicholas Sparks and the timidity of Clark Kent. Every year his bossy, matter-of-fact sister yells at him to stand still while she performs the Bhai Dooj aarti. My son always rolls his eyes, fidgets impatiently, and sighs in agony through the whole ordeal, yet he always does what she asks. It’s quite apparent that between the two, my daughter is always going to be the dominant one doing all the protecting. Yet, I let them indulge in this festival because it’s harmless fun. Or is it?
It can be so cute when two chubby pre-schoolers dressed in their little lehengas and kurtas take part in these traditional hijinks, but when these ideas continue to be reinforced year after year, they do have consequences. Here’s a hypothesis: Equality in intimate relationships in adulthood is only possible if there has been equality between siblings during childhood years. Yet, people who are extremely vocal about the inherent patriarchy of festivals like Karwa Chauth still give Bhai Dooj a hall pass. Why? This is a strange dichotomy, because both festivals are based on the same concept that the male is stronger than the female.
Going against the collective power of your parenting peers could possibly impact how your children are perceived and treated by society.
I hear many parents bragging about treating their sons and daughters equally and equality between siblings is easy in childhood. You cheer your son at his Bollywood dance class just as enthusiastically as you encourage your daughter to learn Krav Maga. You help your daughter with her Algebra homework just as earnestly as you bake brownies with your son. It’s only when they hit puberty that things start getting a bit tricky and the peppy determination you had about gender-neutral parenting begins to falter.
“Please don’t encourage dinners and sleepovers,” pleaded the mother of my 14-year old daughter’s friend a few months ago, in a tone that insinuated that I was way too lenient. “Let them only meet for lunch. Times are not as safe as they were before,” she added, making me wonder when times were ever safe for women and whether that means that girls shouldn’t have any fun. So against my will, my daughter stopped going to sleepovers and birthday dinners even though my son did so at her age, simply because none of her friends’ parents approved.
That’s hardly the end of it. Hushed comments are passed among parents and teachers – people who should know better – about girls who “dress inappropriately” or are “too friendly” with boys. So as a petrified mom, I nudge my daughter with the diplomacy worthy of the UN into wearing clothes that cover more and surreptitiously supervise mixed gender outings with the stealth of James Bond.
Even the discussions between parents change as children veer toward adulthood. Casual acquaintances, who were perfectly happy talking about the weather or the latest political or filmy controversy, begin to take a deep interest in the son’s career choices and the daughter’s looks because at the end of the day, it seems that all that matters is that the son get a well-paying job by the time he is 21 and the daughter be pretty enough to attract somebody else’s son with a well-paying job. And I admit I’ve fallen prey to that trap and have been guilty of being more concerned about my son’s career choices compared to my daughter’s – because sons are still married in and daughters are “married off”.
I have noticed a subtle transformation in my daughter’s bold and take-charge personality quite like Anjali’s in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, as she enters her teens. Most people would find it quite charming; she is more feminine and polite. I am pleased – even as a part of me wonders if it’s just a girly thing or the subtle conditioning of society – because if I had to choose between being a good mother and a feminist, the mother would always win.
Gender-neutral parenting is fun to talk about but a tough act to follow in real life. Going against the collective power of your parenting peers could possibly impact how your children are perceived and treated by society. It’s hard to admit that I am a cowardly hypocrite. It’s a constant struggle for me to be completely fair to both my children and make them fit into society’s expectations of them.
Luckily for me, I seem to have done something right. Though it felt unfair at the time, something good did come out of the dinner-sleepover episode. In the interest of fairness, my son too stopped going out with his friends at night. I applauded his decision because it validated my belief that for men and women to be equal, it’s not enough to make our daughters stronger – it is just as important to teach our sons to make sacrifices, and sisters are a great way to practice. That’s what the spirit of Bhai Dooj is all about.
Ashwina Garg is a freelance writer and entrepreneur. She is the author of the best-selling book 'Spicy Bites of Biryani' and writes regularly for Women’s Era, Bonobology and other sites. She has a keen interest in social causes and writes for the Hyderabad-based NGO, SAHE and TEDxHyderabad.