Madhesi traditions and cultures can be rich even if we get rid of the discriminating rituals. We should address the issues of gender discrimination in Madhesi culture as a sequel to the Apology Campaign.
The Madhesi community has many forms of discrimination spurred by traditional Hindu values. In particular, women face deeper discrimination due to the patriarchal system society. In many cases, the discrimination against women is embedded in subtle ways in the society, and several superstitions and strong beliefs are attached to it. Many traditional rituals therefore, perpetuate gender biases, discrimination and even violence against women. Some can come under Harmful Traditional Practices as defined by CEDAW. These rituals are defended on the basis of religion, culture and tradition thus, not much has been done to eliminate them. In this article, I attempt to point some of these rituals that need our attention and debate.
Dr. Bindu Pokharel, a Professor of Gender Studies, says:
There are certain requirements constructed by the society to be accepted as a woman. Following and maintaining traditions is one of them.
Men are the focus in these rituals but performed by women praying for them. It has been socially defined under the gender roles that maintaining traditions and rituals are mostly women’s responsibility.
One of such rituals is a highly romanticized festival called ‘Madhusravani’, observed and celebrated by newly married brides of Maithil community, especially among the privileged caste people, Brahmins and Kayasthas, during the month of Shravan. It is a fifteen-day festival that includes fasting every day from morning until the puja in the daytime. On the final day, the bride concludes the ritual by getting her knees scorched by the burning thread used in traditional clay lamps by her family member. During this process, which is called ‘Temi’, the bride’s eyes are covered. It is believed that the wound caused by the fire on her knee should be big.
When I inquired about this ritual, many told me that it is done to introduce and prepare the bride for the pain she will be dealing with in her married life. It is supposed to be a ‘small’ test of the bride to see if she is prepared to tolerate future hardships. Some even told me that it symbolizes Sita’s ‘Agni Pariksha’ i.e. the fire test as in the Hindu mythology Ramayana. Just like the fire caused no damage to Sita, proving her ‘purity’, chastity and loyalty to Ram, her husband, Temi is supposed to prove the bride’s chastity. Sita is highly idealized for her submissiveness and similarly the women are also expected to be submissive and tolerant to every situation no matter how violent and discriminatory an environment gets.
No matter which mythology we believe, both are highly misogynistic and perpetuate gender bias, both physical and symbolic. When I talked to some newly married brides who observed this festival this Shravan, they were unaware of the meaning behind it.
Madhesi activist Rita Sah said:
Temi is continued without understanding the real meaning behind it. It is a form of violence against women in every aspect. The process and the meaning, both demean women.
Ironically, it is usually the women who are both the biggest victims and the biggest perpetrators of patriarchy. Patriarchy is so entrenched in Madhesi culture that it rarely leaves space to think and reason. In the case of Madhushravani, women are more engaged in this ritual, the entire festival is organized and managed by the women. Women perform the ritual of Temi as well.
Such rituals are internalized in the society and thus not many raise questions about it. Sah also said that it is difficult to bring about a change when it is justified by old traditions, however, the newer generation should take the step and initiate the change nevertheless. To maintain a happy home and other family relationships has always been the responsibility of women in the family whereas men are supposed to be doing the ‘manly’ work of earning. Madhushravani further makes this misogynistic belief stronger and reduces women’s freedom to choose by blindly following a tradition that is clearly demeaning.
In Madhesi culture, there are no such parallel traditions for men, who have had the privilege to make choices and make their own decisions. This double standard has been the root cause of many discriminations that women face today and are not seen as equals to men. In this regard, the Apology Campaign in this context is a good start. This movement has acknowledged that women in Madhes are highly discriminated and face deeper challenges. However, it needs to start up dialogue and debate on issues that have always perpetuated discrimination against women such as the Madhushwarani festival. The campaign needs to raise questions about such customs and analyze the logic behind them rather than have a blanket approach. It is important to touch upon and dig through the “untouchable” part of Madhesi culture backed by traditional practices that discriminate and violate women.
According to Dr. Pokharel, traditional rituals are constructed by people in the society and something that is constructed can be deconstructed and reconstructed. She further emphasizes that there should be research and reasoning on such issues; traditions and cultures should be preserved but not on the cost of human value. One laudable case is the abolishment of the Sati system, which might have been an unthinkable step in the society during the time. Similarly ‘Madhushravani’ also seems difficult to be deconstructed but it can be done through dialogues, awareness, support and participation of both women and men. Times are changing and we need to bring about the change in our traditional practices. At least in urban centers like Kathmandu, Madhushravani has been modified and fire is not used during the process to scorch the knees. The thread of the lamp without fire is touched on the knees. This is an improvement that should be recognized but the ritual still holds a symbolic misogyny.
These forms of gender-based violence cannot be overlooked or justified just for preserving tradition, culture or the social compliance. Madhesi culture is diverse and rich; it can be richer if these traditions that create inequality or the ones that are unfair are changed for better. Similarly, conservative gender roles are highly challenged in today’s times and both women and men are raising their voices against it. Madhesi women should be provided with the opportunity and space to raise their voices. It is not just the matter of respecting women but also the matter of making this society equal in every aspect, which is highly needed for the wider cause of Madhesh Movement.
About the author
Pallavi is a student of Masters in Development Studies at Kathmandu University with keen interest in gender and women development.