When sons trump daughters

November 29, 2010

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.

16081BD1A60533E0F1173D28DE4F0D3F When sons trump daughters

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3 Responses to When sons trump daughters

  1. SmithaNo Gravatar on November 29, 2010 at 9:15 am

    That is indeed the tragedy. No matter how much a daughter does or tries, I guess society would still want to follow traditions made, ages ago, whether it made any sense or not..

    As you say, it does not look like it is going to change in a hurry, either.

  2. anon1No Gravatar on November 29, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Here’s where I disagree..

    “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).”

    It isn’t about what someone decided eons ago anymore, it’s about what people present in the room that day decided to do. I’m not sure if your cousin really wanted more of a role than the usher. But if she did, it’s about time we stopped looking back at the scriptures to decide what should be done.

    My condolences for your loss…


  3. YogasavyNo Gravatar on December 1, 2010 at 12:41 am

    Mansi things are slowly changing and must begin with the family members first. I was with my FIL through his illness and his last few days. Where the older generation insisited that only they (men) had to be there my husband would refuse to let that happen and insisted I stand with him at all ceremonies. I chose to opt out of 1/2 because it was my personal choice.
    However there is a law that now the daughters name must be enlisted in the ancestory books held in Hardwar or Rishikesh etc. I am the first woman among my in laws family to have her name entered into it. It now reads son and daughter in law with our respective names.

    The tradition that was there eons ago was there for a reason but now it is up to us to change that.


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