Hindu wedding

BANGALORE, India (WOMENSENEWS)– Usha and Ravi are in the middle of their wedding rituals in Thane, in western India.

“Time for the saptapadi,” the priest announces. The groom takes his bride’s hand and the couple begin their ritual seven steps around the sacred fire. (Saptapadi means seven steps in Sanskrit and is an important part of Hindu weddings.)

The first step is for togetherness, the priest explains, as the couple put their right feet forward; the second step is for mutual respect and affection; the third for good health and happiness; the fourth for promises of protecting each other through thick and thin. And so it goes, with a pause after each step for the priest to explain the significance to the couple. With the seventh step the circumambulation of the fire is nearly complete, but the couple add an impulsive eighth step, solemnly making an extra promise of their own. “We promise,” they say, “not to commit female feticide.”

This addition to a traditional wedding ritual came to my attention through media reports shared by my network of female journalists. It’s a novel initiative for which 2014 will go down in Indian history.

The sex ratio in many parts of India, including the National Capital Territory in Delhi, is under 900 females per 1,000 male children born, thanks to a deeply ingrained culture of son preference and the perception of daughters as “burdens” (because at their marriage they have to be given hefty dowries that often wipe out a family’s life savings).

The availability of modern technology facilitates sex selective abortions following ultrasound  tests for sex determination. In some communities the skewed sex ratio has led to social anomalies like sons of a family sharing a bride (because there are not enough brides available from within the community). Prenatal sex determination tests were forbidden by law two decades ago, but social mindsets are harder to change than statute books and clandestine sonography tests continue.

Landmark Day

Aug. 8 became a landmark in fighting discrimination against the girl child, when the Delhi administration decided to request couples registering their marriages to take a voluntary vow not to resort to female feticide, reported a story in the English-language Deccan Herald.

Rohan Hanjura and Poonam Kunjur opted to take this vow and took home an extra certificate from the magistrate’s office, according to the article, attesting to this promise, along with their marriage certificate. Within a month over 70 bridal couples had taken such a vow in Delhi alone. And the movement is spreading.

In the rural village of Dharampur in the western state of Rajasthan, Santo Devi likewise took an extra step at her marriage promising to treat sons and daughters as equals. Given her setting, her break with tradition is bold and cause for more applause than the initiatives by couples in urban Delhi.

In the state of Rajasthan “macho” images are widely exalted through mythological and socio-cultural traditions, and temples are built in honor of women who burnt themselves as sati on their husbands’ funeral pyre in a display of conjugal loyalty.

Gynecologist Dr. Shantha Gopal told me that although sex determination tests continue to be requested and performed, the rules governing the use of ultrasound technology are being tightened to prevent female feticide.

Usha Mane, 26, opted for the extra “eighth step” too at her wedding, which took place in western India in September. She made the decision, a staffer for a girl child advocacy group told me, after reading media reports about this initiative promoted by government officials.

Her mother-in-law, Ramya, 58, is from a very conservative family, and her blessings to the new daughter-in-law included the traditional benediction, “May you be the mother of a hundred sons.”

When Ramya gave birth to her third female offspring, three decades ago, the family had gone into mourning, because it turned out to be a girl again. (With the fourth child she had a boy, who grew up and became Mane’s husband.)

Mane will live with her mother-in-law in a joint family, but is determined to ensure that any daughters will be cherished by the family as much as sons.

As a teacher in a government school, she also plans to show off her extra certificate with pride to spread awareness about gender equity among her colleagues and adolescent wards, both boys and girls.

‘Save the Daughter’

Registration of marriages is not mandatory in India. However, most urban families go through a traditional wedding ceremony before presenting themselves at the registrar’s office, in bridal finery with flower garlands round their necks, for an official marriage certificate for use while applying for passports or visas. This helps the registrars to encourage newlywed couples to support the move called “beti bachao” (save the daughter).

The fight against female denigration by traditional customs saw other landmarks in 2014. For the first time, the state government of Karnataka in south India sanctioned the employment of women as priests in temples.

Things also changed in Brindavan, a town in north India known for the large number of destitute widows who end up there as mendicants after being abandoned by their families as “inauspicious” and “harbingers of bad luck.” For the first time widows there dared to celebrate Holi, the spring festival of colors from which widows–expected to wear white–were normally barred.

“Are we not humans too?” asked 82-year-old Dipti, grinning toothlessly as she smeared bright red Holi color on her roommate. Both were married at 13 and became teenaged child widows. Life begins for them, at last, even if only in small and symbolic ways.

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