“Don’t you have a son?”, the priest casually asked my father as they sat to begin the puja. This is the precise reason that I’ve always disliked Tamil Brahmin rituals. I don’t know about other Hindu rituals, but I believe that they aren’t quite different, at least in this aspect.
It begins with “your daughter is never really your own family. She’ll get married one day and become a part of another family, you’ll have to give her away.”
At any traditional ritual, girls are no more than beautified dolls on display, or extra hands for the puja prep. The men and their sons chant all of the mantras and perform all the offerings. The only time a woman is needed in the process, is as the wife, as the woman of the man. Never as a woman on her own.
The idea continues into wedding rituals, where the daughter is literally given away. (Although, this is an idea that exists globally across many religions. So I’m not pointing fingers at just the culture that I come from.) The precious daughter of a family leaves her name and sense of belonging behind and moves into another family. She no longer has her last name, or her gothram (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gotra). This means that in future pujas that her parents perform, her name is only said following her husband’s, as his wife, and not as their daughter.
Long ago, when life expectancy is low, it was a great occasion to celebrate when someone turned 60 years old. Even more so when they turned 70 or 80. There are dedicated puja rituals for each of these milestone ages. Each of the pujas take place for a couple on the Tamil calendar-based birthday of the man. The woman has virtually lost even her own birthday by this point in time.
What then happens in no-son households? On momentous occasions, they can’t actually carry out the traditional rituals that our religion calls for. In the event of the death of a parents, a virtual random stranger performs the last rites. They’re traditionally not allowed to go the crematorium. It’s a pattern that continues throughout the girl’s life, always relegated to a background role expected to treat her own parents as strangers but adopt her husband’s parents as her own. Why isn’t the son-in-law ever expected to treat his wife’s parents as his own? In a two-daughter household like mine, who then is traditionally expected to take care of our parents when they’re old? Why is it a foregone conclusion that the couple will live with boy’s parents, if at all, but never even consider living with the girl’s parents.
It’s worse for widows. Sure, we’ve made great strides in this aspect on the whole. Women are no longer expected to kill themselves when their husbands die (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sati_(practice)). In most regions, women are no longer expected to continually wear white or be shunned from society. However, widows are still considered to be bad luck at good occasions. Mothers traditionally cannot be a part of their own child’s wedding if their husband is no longer in the earthly realm.
I haven’t even touched upon menstruation and it’s ramifications. A simple example is this. There’s a temple that only men and women of non-menstruating age can set foot in. For some time before visiting this temple, men perform certain specific pujas and rituals. If there is a menstruating woman in the house, the man isn’t supposed to see the woman until his pujas for the day are complete. She can’t be seen. She has to stay hidden.
None of what I’ve talked about is new or groundbreaking. It just is something that I think about every time I attend a traditional Brahmin ritual of any kind. We have to individually keep questioning and pushing back. Gender-defined roles are not enough anymore. We won’t settle anymore.