Kanyadaan = kanya (girl) + daan (donation) = Literally, the donation of one's girl/ daughter
Kanyadaan is often dubbed as 'mahadaan' - a donation of the highest order. As one of the irrefutable rituals of a Hindu wedding, the father of the bride is entrusted with the 'sacred responsibility' of performing kanyadaan as one of the greatest daans of his lifetime.
The idea of 'donating' one's child generates from our patriarchal norms and traditions which are unabashedly male-centric. The focal point of the universe is thought to be men, and women, instead of complementing them, are marginalised at the peripheries. Women are seen as merely an instrument to fulfil masculine purposes - particularly that of 'putra-praapti' or begetting sons so as to keep the lineage alive.
For producing male progeny later in her life, an unmarried female has to be kept 'chaste' and 'pure' by her father as part of the larger plan of survival of human race. Her personality, spirituality and psyche is expected to be so moulded as to unquestionably fit into her pre-destined role of the second sex. Nowhere is it ever mentioned that begetting daughters is a desirable (or even one of the not-so-desirable) goal of society, even though they are as much a part of evolutionary progress as sons would be.
Nothing is more atrocious than the concept of 'kanyadaan'. It is against the basic human values. In fact, shockingly, parallels can be drawn between 'gaudaan' (donation of a cow) and kanyadaan. Cows are useful to the extent that that they produce milk and calves, hence they need to be fed and kept properly. Similarly, the practice of kanyadaan draws from certain religious ancient texts which actually mention that a woman's place is at home where she should be given sufficient food, ornaments and clothes to wear - all so that when her husband comes home from work, he finds her attractive for producing male progeny.
Marcel Mauss wrote: "To give something is to give a part of yourself." This worries parents, especially fathers, making them extremely cautious about their daughters' marriage arrangements. Kanyadaan quite literally takes part of the girl's father with it - in the form of her father's blood, and his money. On the other hand, the gift of kanyadaan is likened to a gift to God. The daughter’s husband is akin to Vishnu, while the daughter herself represents Lakshmi (not surprising, considering the amount of dowry she brings to her marital home).
According to the scriptures, a daughter is the finest gift a man has to give to another man. Though he loves his daughter, he cannot keep her. In fact, to keep her past her puberty was considered a great sin for a father in olden days, which was why tiny pre-pubescent girls were married at a very early age, often as young as five or six.
However, the humiliation of the daughter, now a daughter-in-law, doesn't end there. Her acceptance involves the receiving family in risk. Conveniently overlooking the absolute dependence of the lineage on her reproductive powers, the ideology of marriage focuses on the dangerous substances the bride brings in her blood to mix with the husband’s patrilineage.
"The boy will enter the householder stage and he is taking the girl to enter; hence it depends on the girl. If she isn’t of good blood line, his whole grhastyam is spoiled. So purity of blood is essential." So say the 'wise'!
What is even more baffling is that often traditions like kanyadaan are not questioned, since on the superficial level they are not perceived as being overtly gender discriminatory. However, the problem is they serve to perpetuate gender inequality and reiterate a woman's tertiary existence and male supremacy. This plays on a woman's psyche and strengthens the in-built injustices of society where women are subject to violence and abuse, even death. Another problem is that since kanyadaan takes place during a wedding, gender-sensitised citizenry are also hesitant to disrupt the ceremonies to protest against this regressive practice.