You know how rituals are colourful, joyous and always accompanied with a variety of food. But these same rituals are restrictive in nature if you scratch below the surface. They keep some people out. Have you noticed how in most Indian festivals and poojas, women are at the forefront. Planning, executing and celebrating. When I was younger, I watched mum keep her vrats (fasts). Both my sister and I never kept any fasts and our entire interest in the festival was from the point of view of wearing new clothes and eating the delicacies that mum made. She would guide us on how to do a particular pooja especially Diwali pooja. She would patiently narrate the Karwa Chauth katha dressed in her finery and do the rituals after seeing the moon. It was quite beautiful. I never had any questions back in those days. No narratives around why a certain ritual was done only by a woman. Why did men not fast? As kids, we follow what our parents tell us to do, don’t we? That is the way traditions are passed on. Do it, we are told, and we bow our heads.

women rituals

Then, I remember the passing of my maternal grandmother. I was only 6 at that time but seeing her mortal remains disturbed me deeply. This was my first close encounter with death. I did not understand it. I asked the wailing adults but no one told me. All the time I was worried that her body was laid out on a large ice slab. She must be feeling so cold, I remember thinking. I hung around her body waiting for her to wake up. She never did. My younger brother was asked to touch her feet, and he didn’t want to. He was frightened of the still person on that ice slab. He started crying when some people insisted. Then there was time for the funeral. Only men went to the funeral ground. The women stayed back. I wondered why? But, I knew not to ask pesky questions. No one answered them, anyway.

Many years later, when my mother passed away, and I sat holding her hand in the ambulance that was bringing her body home, I remember thinking how cold her hand felt. When your mind is numb with grief, it concentrates on details like these. Her eyes were shut tight, her body lifeless. Do you know that a dead person’s body is very heavy, the reason why something very heavy is called dead weight. Even a hand feels very weighty.

Some women were gathered at home. They were wailing. I, somehow, can never wail. Silent tears that had fallen earlier were now held back. My grief is private. I walked out of the room.

They took over the responsibility to dress her as a bride. She had died a suhagan (married woman) after all. Apparently, that is considered very auspicious for the departed soul. With bright vermilion in her hair parting, jewellery and a lovely sari she looked so beautiful and serene. My sister and brother were there as well along with papa. We were going to the electric crematorium for the final rites. Dad and the three of us were together in our grief. There was no question of holding back women. We were there when she was consigned to flames. I don’t know what the rituals prescribed, but I was going to be with my mother for as long as I could. It was easy for me and my sister because we had our father’s support. No one voiced dissent.

Many years later, I was there when my father-in-law passed away. My mother-in-law wanted to be there for the final rites, but the elder women in the family protested. How could a woman go? I wanted her to go, but she asked me not to argue with the ‘elders’. Oh, how I dislike such nosey elders who materialize out of thin air to sermonize. Well, she did not accompany her husband on his final journey. How it must have hurt her? Why, another woman, was unable to fathom her grief? I’ve read how my female friends faced insults when they wanted to do the last rites of their dead parent only because females were not supposed to do so. On what basis? How sad that makes me that even in urban India in 21st century, we are still shackled by such prejudiced thoughts. Why must we face ridicule for doing something that feels right.

Now, I have begun to observe how our customs honor married women. Pre-wedding functions, various poojas, some festivals etc., you get the invite only if you are a married woman. Widows and divorcees are kept out. Single women too. Why should a marital status make so much difference especially to a woman’s life? It does not for a man. What’s so special that a woman needs to be married to be respected and socially included in festivities especially by other women? Can we not try to be more inclusive of all kinds of women? Serious questions that still have no answers. Uncomfortable too because we often choose to ignore these scenarios and continue along the prescribed path.

Don’t you think it is time for us to ponder these questions and modify our rituals and thought processes to be kinder and more inclusive?

35 Thoughts on “Why are Rituals Cruel to Some Women?

  1. Most of our rituals are actually the responsibility of women ( not fair ) and they make the women kind of prove their love for family/husband etc. in many forms like Upawas, pooja, etc. on Karwa Chauth. I think all this should be both ways or not at all.

    Good point that women only rituals should be inclusive of all women and not ostracize a woman due to her marital status

    • I hope there are more voices and conversations around these customs and rituals from men as well. I hope these customs become more joyful and inclusive and not punitive to some women. Thanks for dropping by.

  2. It’s one issue that I have with rites that are a social construct and sometimes the priest makes money during death ceremony. I remember when Dad passed away..pura shopping list kiya Pandit ne. But, it’s ridiculous not to include women. I remember Nita Ambani saying when her Dad passed away, she bore the brunt of everyone since she was the one to conduct all rites. Just imagine the plight of commoners. I remember once when a Nani passed away, his nieces were denied to get inside. I walked to the Pandit and told him that there she shouldn’t be any issue. He said that the girls are allowed and they were let in. We put so many things in our minds that we assume to be true. Time to get rid of those rules holding back society. I am so glad you wrote about it.

    • Very valid point, Vishal. Sometimes the ceremonies post death are very strenuous financially. Maybe, the rituals have some meaning, but can they be at the cost of people who can ill afford them. Kudos to you for speaking up. Often, I’ve seen that these elderly relatives and priests are quietened easily when a male member speaks up. Yes, time to rectify all these hurtful rules which make no sense at all.

  3. Rachna, i am so happy you wrote this post.

    And because we are asking such questions we will make sure our children grow up in a world that’s fair to both the sexes.

  4. Don’t know the history behind it, but it has been passed on from generations. Maybe somebody back then would have taken a call on all these traditions.

    But things are changing. I was talking to a Pakistani lady sometime back who doesn’t want to wear burka and is afraid of marrying – she is from new generation!

    • Yes, that’s true, Alok. They have just been passed from generation to generation. Perhaps the original wisdom is all but lost and this is a mutilated version of someone that we are carrying on with.

      Things are changing, sure. At least in cities, I see quite a bit of change. My only intention with writing this post is that we often don’t notice these behaviours especially when we are in the privileged position. And also some people are just so scared of going against the norm that they will just continue doing what they feel is not right.

  5. You touched such a chord Rachna. Customs such as these are cruel – they seem to be designed to make mourning sadder, to make a sad person feel worse. They glorify a woman who is married or one who has a son – all a result of years and years of patriarchy. It really is our responsibility bring in this change – high time.

    • Thank you, Tulika. Years of patriarchy, as you rightly pointed out, has conditioned our thinking so much that even women don’t think twice before discriminating other women. Sad, really.

  6. Rachna, things are definitely changing, and changing fast. Sadly the dark side always gets more attention than the good one. I remember when my nani had passed away in the early 1960s and all her daughters had gone to the cremation ground. That was more than half a century ago. We belong to a very orthodox Tambrahm family and such customs are adhered to, assiduously. What I am trying to say is that as Bhagyashree says, these customs are not there in our vedas. Women were never second fiddle to men at all.

    I invite women for haldi kumkum regardless of their marital status. Women accept and come too – even widows. That is a big change certainly! Like me and the like the women who accept the invitation, there are lakhs of other women who are silently changing. It is up to us to change and make the change. Women who feel strongly about such rituals and customs do take a stand and their numbers are increasing.

    The reason why women take the lead in organising festivals and functions is mainly because they are damn good at it. Even so, men participate in the organising as happens in thousands of households across the country. I have written about it in my Nine nights of the Goddess 🙂

    • I am so proud of your family for all the things that you’ve mentioned, but sadly those are exceptions not norms. I have had a fair bit of experience both in the North and South of India and there are still festivals, rituals and customs which are welcoming to married women (suhagans or sumangalis). I’ve been told on many occasions not to bring my mil to a certain gathering. Recently, she was kept away from many marriage functions of a close relative’s son. And there are still instances when a distant male cousin is asked to light the funeral pyre instead of the wife or the daughter.

      Perhaps these customs must not be there in the Vedas as you point out, but the fact is that this version is being followed by most people. Sadly, things are still not changing as fast as they should. And yes, we must speak up, but I find that most people are non-confrontational and hence prefer to toe the line.

  7. It will take ages to change but at least we are questioning it now!That’s a start!

  8. A very poignant post, Rachna. One that shows how deeply this has impacted you. The part about your mom had me tearing up.

    I know that some of these traditions are outdated but continue to be followed out of some misplaced belief. With consistent spotlights on the subject let’s hope we can slowly do away with the hurtful rituals.

    • Thank you, Shy. I hope with you that hurtful customs of any sorts must be done away with and that more people find the voice to speak up against them.

  9. I have seen girls performing the last rites or even wife’s and mother’s completing these rituals. So in a way, we are changing, but slowly. What irritates me more is the fact that living women, just because they are widowed or single or even because they aren’t able to produce off-springs are treated differently in various rituals or functions.That is something that has no logic.

    • True, Neha. Things are changing, albeit slowly. Like you, I find it infuriating that women are discriminated against for their marital status and also if they are not able to have children/bear girl children etc. Absolutely zero logic.

  10. The status of women in society gradually changing, hope one day there will be a balance.

  11. Rachna, you deserve a lot of credit for this one article and I support every word of what you wrote. It is a shame how our country men who claim to worship Durga and Sita seldom give the due respect to women

  12. I started typing a comment on Friday but couldn’t understand what to write. I have so much to say on this. I nod my head to everything you mention here, Rachna. I have often wondered why it’s this way ever since I was a child. Look at married women and men and you’ll see the difference too. Why should I wear sindoor whereas S doesn’t have to put on any sign of being married? So, I don’t when I don’t want to. The thing is we should all stop doing these things which make no sense at all.

    • Yes, you make such valid points, Naba. I think about them too. Women have to show that they are taken while men have no such obligation. Me too, hardly ever wear sindoor or mangalsutra. Unless there is some elder around who insists, I prefer to stay away from these symbols.

  13. I couldn’t help but keep nodding to all the things you said in this post. Though we are in the 21st century, the mentality of the people seems to still remain in history. Its time we changed!

  14. In my community a lot of rituals happen around sumangalis … could have stemmed from a belief that they are content and happy and emanate positive vibes but I don’t know which idiots made all these laws against the other women … and I know a lot of women who are very very grumpily married 😀 ….

    • hehe That is very well put, that grumpy part. I have seen people consider widows ‘inauspicious’ hence they are kept away from certain rituals and poojas. That is what I find disgusting.

  15. I loved your post for it asks a very brave question on inclusion! When everywhere women are being asking to be included in the corporate world; I ownder how mnay have give a thought to their social exclusion?
    Be it mentruation or widowhood or divorcee status – just too many pretexts to exclude women socially! Its exausting to try and understand it; let alone reason it with the elders of the society!
    I loved your post for the way it connects with me – thank you sharing this!!

    • You are absolutely right, Shalini. On one pretext or another, women are kept away and mostly by other women. Very few elders are benign and open to conversation. Most times, it is do as we say because we know better. So glad that you connected with the post. Thanks for dropping by.

  16. Our Indian rituals need a major face lift, if you ask. Why should any ritual be gender specific I don’t understand. You father is so liberal and it makes me smile when I read about him.

    Let’s just hope that we bring up the next generation the right away without the unnecessary emphasis of gender discrimination.

    • They do, Soumya. Yes, my dad is the real backbone of the family. He is also responsible for my values, fearlessness and thoughts.

      I hope it is true about the next generation. Considering that rituals and traditions are passed on blindly, I hope they have the gumption to reject what does not seem fair.

  17. Very pertinent post Rachna. The difference our society accords to married versus unmarried or widowed women is really discriminating. Kind of hinges the whole being of a woman on whether she is associated to a man and on her ability to reproduce.

  18. Hey Rachna.. So glad to read your article.. I really don’t understand why women need to declare everything like memsuration, married or single or divorcee or widow.. While men just enjoy no display feature..
    I am kind of living in a battlefield where my mil insists I should tell her whenever I get my periods and I should not enter kitchen and not touch the stuff.. But I refuse to do so.. She keeps on telling this to every old women of the family even to my mom and my mausi.. That my daughter in law is such a stubborn. doesn’t follow the family ritual..
    I mean in 21st century still daughter in laws are being asked of their period dates. So that can be announced In front of everyone.. How disgusted is this..

    • So sorry to hear that, Swati. I hate it when mils do this. Is there any way in which you can get your husband or someone else close to your mill to talk to her?

Do not leave without commenting. I love a good conversation :).

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