Is Raja just a symbolic festival

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Twitter trends are among new ways of gauging popularity. #RajaParba has been one such twitter hashtag that has trended last year and this. Having settled for the spelling ‘Raja’ and pronunciation as ‘raw-jaw’, it has been letting the world (euphemism included) know about this unique festival in Odisha that celebrates womanhood. Even few articles about how menstrual cycle of mother earth (symbolic of that in women) is celebrated as Raja has found place in the mainstream media. But is this festival mere symbolism in a society and state where females are perhaps not as celebrated as this festival projects?

The sex ratio at birth in Odisha is a deeply worrying 880 (as per Civil Registration System sources). In other words, 880 females per 1000 male child are in the 1 – 6 age group. There has been a constant decline in this ratio over the years and all 30 districts in Odisha.

As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2015 report, Odisha with 81.9 crimes against 1 lakh women stood 4th in India in overall crime against women. 2251 rape cases (to give a perspective, 187.5 per month) were reported in the year 2015, a jump of nearly 300 from 2014.The figure of 2014 included 82 gangrapes too.

In 2015, 6499 cases of assault on women, 2587 cases of kidnapping and abduction of women were also reported. In the same year there were 356 cases of dowry reported. In 2014, of all the murders, more than 1/4th of all murders in the state were dowry deaths. In 2015, with 1416 cases, Odisha was 4th in worst rate and crime number under POCSO.

Female literacy as per 2011 census was 64.01% (as compared to a male literacy of 81.59%) or a more recent data in NFHS 4 (year 2016) suggests this figure to be 67.4%. Half of all the women in Odisha, in the age group of 15 to 49 are anaemic as compared to just about a quarter of all males. 35.2% of married women have reported to have faced spousal violence. Deeply disturbing and gut wrenching news of female foeticide trickles in almost every other day.

What do all these numbers suggest? Do they tell a story that does not fit with the empowered image that Raja as a festival projects? The best of optimists might refute statistics reasoning that sample collection often is faulty. Yes, these epidemiological studies cannot be cent percent accurate but are good enough to give us the bigger picture. Odisha society is patriarchal and it is difficult to be a female in this society.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting how the wedding space in Odisha is seeing changes over the past few years where more inter caste weddings are happening and thus could serve as an indicator for improving situation for women. The urban scenario might be seeing some change but it would be foolish to apply these isolated incidences to the larger population.

The problem with these cynical looking stories is that when conveyed people become defensive. The standard response that is espoused is that of how their household does not fit into this demonizing patriarchal set up that majority of households are. It is only natural to be in denial. Plus deep conditioning makes people oblivious to ill practices. They get internalized and embedded as the normal.

Perhaps Odia society has lost the plot in recent past. For where a festival like Raja existed, the above distressing figures do not fit. But then every society is a work in progress. If the plot has been lost, it can be regained too. While it is not to take away from the celebration of this unique festival, its wide publicity on social media, it should also be a moment for reflection. A deep reflection to first accept, understand and fathom the ills of the society. Only then can a change be contemplated.

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