“Mera phool hain tu, talvaar hain tu
Meri laaj ka pehredaar hain tu
Main akeli kahaan iss duniya mein
Mera saara sansaar hain tu.”
In the 1974 film, Resham ki Dori, Kumud Chuggani devotedly sings this song as she goes around in circles, puja thali in hand, worshipping her brother, played by Dharmendra. 34 years of feminist consciousness later, imagine my frustration when I see that ‘woman-centric’ channels like Girliyapa are STILL trying to sell me ‘bro-sis code’ videos on Raksha Bandhan, and otherwise politically conscious women are still complacently participating in this exhibition of women’s oppression.
At its most basic level, Raksha Bandhan involves a woman tying a ‘rakhi’ or a string around a man’s wrist and praying for his prosperity, while he, in return, promises to protect her. In our retellings of this principle behind Raksha Bandhan, we often forget to point out what it is exactly that the woman must be protected from.
One of the most popular mythological stories of ‘raksha bandhan’ is that of Draupadi and Krishna. When Krishna cut his finger, Draupadi immediately tore off a strip of cloth from her sari and tied it around the wound. Later, Krishna is the one to protect her during her ‘disrobing’ by the Kauravas. Kavita Krishnan writes, “Brotherly protectiveness of sisters, invariably, involves avenging her sexual violation – a notion that stretches to include ‘protecting’ her from unwanted emotional and sexual entanglements.” The role of the brother, then, is to protect the woman from dishonour, from laaj, from the loss of her chastity. A woman in this world, full of men, must be protected from the dangers that present a risk to her virtue and her purity- and for all of this, she must look to another man.
Implicit in this notion is the unquestionable belief that the danger to her virtue must lie outside the house. The ‘world outside’ is a realm that must either be avoided by pure and chaste women altogether, or must be accessed with the mediation of a man, for a woman’s purity and chastity is where lies the community’s honour and lineage. This is the fundamental belief not just behind centuries of women’s oppression in South Asia, but also, the benign festival of Raksha bandhan. Perhaps the next time a young girl is assaulted by her uncle or her father right inside her own home, she should call upon her brother to save her. Perhaps the next time a young girl is assaulted by her brother, she should remind him of the rakhi she tied for him.
However, those who support this version of Raksha Bandhan at least deserve credit for honesty, over those who argue that it is simply an expression of love and respect. Anyone who has been exposed to Bollywood would remember those scenes of men trying to avoid getting a rakhi from women they are attracted to. What becomes clear then, is that all women except those who have pronounced themselves as sisters of men, are fair game, and can be seen as sexual objects. This, along with the concept of honour and protection that Raksha Bandhan also reinforces, gives rise to sexual exploitation by some men being legitimised while consensual relationships and women’s sexual freedom are demonized. This is why sentimental pictures of young girls tying rakhis on soldier’s hands are circulated, even while the army enjoys the power to rape women without consequences in various parts of the country, this is why the RSS can announce tying rakhis as a strategy against ‘love jihad’, this is why women can be harassed by Romeo-squads and be forced to tie rakhis on their partners- all while those in power continue to exploit women with the utmost impunity.
The more sentimental and liberal supporters of Raksha bandhan would perhaps go so far as to secularise Raksha Bandhan and argue that it is a practise that has been used to strengthen communal ties. A common example given is that of Rani Karnavati who sent a Rakhi to Humayun to ask for protection when her kingdom was about to be invaded by Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. Besides the fact that she was still asking for ‘protection’- what is important to note here is that the tying of rakhis by women and men of different communities has been allowed to exist for exactly the same reason that inter-marriage has been a threat- control of women’s sexuality. Of course, a woman can seek out ‘brothers’ from a community that is lower to hers- because they are not a threat to her chastity, on which the property and purity of her community has historically depended on.
Of course, many women would rather knowingly participate in this ritual than have this conversation with the family that enforces it. However, even outside of this specific ritual, there exists amongst women an anxiety to designate familial bonds onto men they know. It is not completely uncommon for young women interacting with older men to say, ‘you are like my brother!’, or ‘you are like my father!’, depending on the age difference. The inability to have platonic relationships without a familial link is perhaps an expression of the constant and default sexualisation that women have to face and do so much to avoid.
It is dangerous to forget how the twin-concepts of ‘honour’ and ‘protection’ have been used again and again, to shame us into giving up our freedom, to blame us when we’re exploited, and to take over our fight and use it to target people by those in power. It is dangerous to be complicit in a tradition that forces us to be constantly seen as wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers, to avoid sexual exploitation. Some feminists may see reform as the solution. Sure, as a woman, giving a rakhi to your sister might be a great instagram moment- you may feel very subversive and empowered. We’d however argue that it is too weak, too counterproductive, too little, too late, too lazy an attempt at creating a truly feminist culture. Feminists must reject institutions that come with the history and ideological assumptions of women’s oppression- and we must reject them in their entirety. Here we rest our case, and urge you, in 2018, to ditch the patrirakhi.