Do sisters need protection?
Veenu Puri Vermani offers a different perspective on Raksha Bandhan. Illustration: Dominic Xavier
Rakhi or Raksha Bandhan symbolises the bond between brothers and sisters.
It is a big festival back home and growing up in India I witnessed the distinctive celebrations that marked that day. We were two sisters, with no brother really to observe the festival with at home. But we had an extended Punjabi family. There were several cousins we could potentially tie rakhis to. Like other festivals in India, Rakhi also meant meeting family, making delicacies, eating sweets and having fun playing with cousins.
There was still a difference. Something was not quite as right with this festival as it was with the other festivals. Growing up in an educated, progressive family, I felt a certain hesitation when Rakhsha Bandhan came around. My parents always believed that daughters were as good as sons when it came to just about anything and their daughters did not need brothers to protect them.
I think the hesitation arose from the underlying reasons for which Rakhi is celebrated. If it were a day celebrating just the love, the bond and the beautiful relationship between siblings then all would have been okay with it.
Mother's Day, Father's Day, Valentine's Day are all based on that premise. It is very simple. Sons and daughters would like to express special affection towards their parents by giving them more importance than usual. So we celebrate Mother's Day and Father's Day. On Valentine's Day, lovers wish to display more affection than usual and recognize their love for each other.
It is a topic for a separate debate to decide whether or not so many days are required in a year to express affection towards different categories of relationships. But at least the basic premise of these occasions does not conflict with the concept of equality.
I went to several online forums to get a good definition of Raksha Bandhan. Everywhere it is defined as a festival during which it is a custom for sisters to tie a sacred thread, called a rakhi, on their brothers' wrists and the brothers, in turn, promise to protect their sisters and keep them safe from all the evil forces.
The word raksha in Hindi means 'to protect'.
On some sites they say: 'sisters wake up in the morning, take a bath, offer prayers to the almighty and visit their brothers to perform the rituals of Rakhi. The ritual of Raksha Bandhan essentially includes the tying of a sacred thread (which is called rakhi or raksha sutra) by the sisters, on their brothers' wrist. This symbolizes the sister's love and prayers for her brother's well-being, and the brother's lifelong vow to protect her.'
Hence, it is the task of the sisters to get up early, pray for the long life of their brothers, tie a thread and get a promise that the brothers will protect them in return. So the underlying assumption is that the sisters are neither capable of protecting themselves nor their brothers, irrespective of their age or size. To me personally that is saying a lot and teaching your daughters from a very nascent age that your brothers will always protect you, whether or not you need their protection.
There is no festival to tell boys that their sisters are capable of protecting them and will always make sure that they are safe guarded from all evils? It seems to me that the sister's duty is to wake up early and pray for their brothers while brothers just get the rakhi tied and make sure they give gifts or money and a promise to keep their sisters safe.
A little presumptuous, if not offensive, I say.
The fact of the matter is that Rakhi is a festival based on a predominantly patriarchal social order, like some other Indian festivals. I think this was the dilemma in the minds of my parents, when they pretended that this festival was not as important as some others. Being a part of an extended traditional Punjabi family, my parents have followed this custom with my father's sisters but always kind of underplayed it for us.
There is a flip side to this and that is my way of rationalizing festivals like Rakhi. Festivals are celebrated in India both because of the underlying beliefs -- which I am, in at least some cases, assuming the modern generation is fast forgetting -- and they are also celebrated for the sheer fun of it (something the glamorous world of Bollywood has taught people to do).
Every festival is a special day of meeting the larger family, eating good food, wearing new clothes, bonding with each other and participating in the community. It is difficult to ignore these festivals. But it is not worth brooding over the irrelevant and irrational reasons why some of them are celebrated.
Hence my family gave Rakhi a more gender-neutral twist. For us Rakhi symbolizes a mutual love and respect between brothers and sisters and a promise to stand by one another in times of need.
This is what I tell my boys, who are growing up in America, when I explain the meaning of this festival, as they tie the Rakhis that they get from their cousins in India and Canada.
Over the years, I have had a great relationship with some of my brothers. We have gotten along really well. Needless to say there has never been any need of a "rescue". Thankfully my inability to remember this festival on numerous occasions hasn't affected the relationship either. My brothers have given up on me and don't bother to remind me.
While I strongly believe in celebrating all festivals in their entirety, I also strongly believe that for certain Indian celebrations it is important to provide the underlying reasons with a more rational twist for our children. And then go out and enjoy the festival more for the fun and frolic and bonding that they bring rather than the socially-regressive rituals for which they were originally celebrated.
Veenu lives in San Diego, California with her husband and two sons.