Monday, November 29, 2010

When sons trump daughters

Every time I visit India, I am hit in the face with gender discrimination. Some obtuse remark, action, or general sense of “women are lesser than men” reminds me we still have a long way to go when it comes to mass societal acceptance that women can do everything men can equally well — sometimes better.

This time around the realization that we may never be able to reach the end of the journey was even more obvious.
As I sat cross-legged and moist-eyed in a room full of mourning relatives, I couldn’t help but question the “done things.” My cousin brother who lived halfway across the world had been flying in every other week to check up on his ailing mom. This time he had flown across two continents to light her pyre.

My aunt lost her battle with cancer. A breast cancer survivor, she couldn’t ward off the disease that had sneaked its way into her brain and liver.

Her youngest daughter sat across the room, head bowed, tears streaming down her face relentlessly. She was the only “local” child. Her older sister, like her brother, lived abroad. Three years younger to me, she had shouldered the responsibility single-handedly. Taking my aunt to the hospital, consulting with doctors, managing day-to-day household chores, being the caregiver for my uncle who had recently suffered a heart attack. She had left her job and moved in with her parents, so she could be there for them full time.

She did everything — and more — that folks in India expect of sons.

And yet, during the havan, she was sitting by the door, her role relegated to that of an usher.

She couldn’t handle any of the puja samagri, she couldn’t help distribute the prasaad, she had to ask if it was ok for her to touch anything that made its way to her during the ritual. The reason? Someone somewhere eons ago decided that the departed soul could only find peace when the last rites and other funeral ceremonies were performed by the son (or another male relative in case the deceased had no male offsprings).

And here we are, in 2010, blindly following that custom.

While the whole idea of the havan and other ceremonies associated with death doesn’t sit well with me (what’s the point? … the person who died is gone; all this “stuff” is only being done for those left behind … to give them some sort of closure and help the pundits expand their coffers), what irked me even more was the fact that the person who did the most for my aunt when she was alive, was not allowed to partake in any activity related to her death.

Things had to be done the “proper” way, i.e. by the son. If she participated, everything would become “impure” and the departed soul would find no rest.


I haven’t found any evidence in our scriptures that daughters can’t perform the last rites or actively participate in any funeral-related traditions. It may be considered a man’s “duty,” but is there any reasoning why?

For years I’ve heard how daughters are always so much more caring and affectionate than sons. For years I’ve witnessed the reciprocation of love and emotional nourishment between parents and their female offsprings. For years I’ve experienced zero gender discrimination in my immediate family. But at a time like this, all of that means naught.


I think my cousin sister had as much right –if not more! — as her brother to perform the last rites. But our culture doesn’t allow for that.

And I doubt it will anytime soon.