We don’t just have the moral police in India. We have the culture police too.
The moral and culture police work in tandem–each benefits greatly from the work of the other. For instance , the moral police ensure that women conform to their exalted ideals of chastity and that people of opposite sex do not meet or interact freely. In effect, they make every effort to ensure that arranged marriages continue to rule the roost. Arranged, intra-community marriages set the stage for the culture police to work on.
The culture police then pick up from where the moral police left, and work tirelessly to ensure that the wonderful customs and traditions of our culture, which serve unfailingly to show women their place in the society, are followed to the T.
While the work of the moral police is uniformly clear-cut for the most part, the culture police is a more complex entity–inevitable in a country that boasts of a maddening array of diverse regional cultures. The culture police thus exists in distinct regional avatars. All these avatars, though, are united in their espousal of virulent misogyny.
Like the moral police, the culture police makes its presence felt very frequently and sometimes rears its ugly head in the unlikeliest of quarters–like it recently did in a high court judgement which said, amongst other things, that not following certain traditions and rituals associated with marriage amounted to cruelty on the part of the wife.
Cruelty ? Really?
The way I see it, the whole point of the elaborate customs of all types of Hindu weddings seems to be to demean and humiliate women and their families. Women are decked up, like dolls, and expected to go through the motions mechanically, in the manner of an unthinking, un-feeling robot. The whole purpose is to mollycoddle the male ego, to make the guy and his family feel like they are God’s gift to humanity, while simultaneously rubbing it all in the face of the girl and her family.
These customs are an exercise in celebrating patriarchy and it’s inherent corollary of male superiority. They are a loud and very public proclamation of the inferior status accorded to women and their families in our socio-religious culture.
The ritual of kanyadaan, that central point of almost all variations of Hindu weddings, illustrates this the best. To be fair, the concept of giving away the bride is hardly unique to Hindu weddings–it’s traditionally a part of Christian weddings too, and while in medieval times the idea might have been to denote a transfer of authority from the father to the husband, today it apparently only symbolizes a public approval of the groom by the bride’s side of the family. And herein lies the difference–the Hindu Kanyadaan remains true to the spirit of our ancient texts. The little rituals associated with it, and the ‘mantra’ chants that accompany it, ensure just that. Unbelievable as it might sound, the mantras actually speak of the girl being gifted away, along with the jewellery on her person, to the guy–like cattle, as I’ve always felt.
And then we wonder why so many Indian men tend to behave like they own their wives, –why blame them, they did receive their wives as ‘gifts’ after all. What’s to stop these men, and their families, from treating their wives shabbily and placing unreasonable controls on every aspect of their lives when that curious mix of culture and religion appears to actively promote this viewing of women as property?
The bride’s departure to the groom’s place is another saga altogether. In my community, the girl is made to sit in her mother’s lap and the husband is made to hold her by the hand and pull her up. It is meant to symbolise a severing of natal ties. This, not surprisingly, makes the bride, and the mother, cry–just as it is meant to. This sets off a chain reaction of sorts amongst those present. Why this insistence on making the bride and her family weep? The groom proceeds to lead the weeping wife, amidst her weeping family, out of her parental home.The symbolism is hard to miss–the husband will always take the lead, and the wife always has to obey, willingly or not. Her wishes and feelings, and those of her family, are immaterial.
And oh, I almost forgot to mention another gem of a custom we have in my community. Right on the day of the marriage, early in the morning, some male relative of the bride is sent to ask the groom for permission to start the proceedings that would lead up to the marriage ceremony proper. Of course the guy is not expected to not ‘grant permission’ at that late stage but the fact that the groom’s, and only the groom’s, permission must be sought before starting the proceedings is loaded with meaning. I can only imagine what a boost to the collective male ego this must be.
I’ll not even get started on the custom of the bride’s family giving gifts to the groom’s family on every little occasion. That is a topic for another day.
I’d say each of these customs is cruel to the girl and her family. I do not know what to make of the culture police wanting us to believe that to not follow these customs would amount to cruelty towards the guy and his family. Is this some kind of a zero-sum game of cruelty, where if one side does not suffer, it will mean that the suffering has been transferred to the other side?
The culture police, in the garb of this judgement, have done their bit to ensure that these toxic customs do not get challenged by those who do not benefit from them.That the apple cart does not get toppled–not just yet, anyway. They forget, though, that oppressive customs survive only as long as people are willing to tolerate them, and they might not be able to stop an idea whose time has come.