Women have been denied access into temples for menstruating for centuries. When their agency is taken away, for performing the most natural of bodily functions, we see the patriarchy seeping into what is seemingly the “holiest” aspect of society.
I was 14 when I started menstruating. One of the first things that my mother did on that fated day was prepare a list of do’s and don’ts, of how to conduct myself around mortals of the opposite gender, how to choose sanitary napkins wisely, how to sleep without staining the bed-linen, and so on. One point in that list that seemed particularly intriguing was my bereavement of access to temples and kitchens during “those days” of the month.
As I grew up, all my refutations of this rule were repudiated with the claim that a woman is ritually ‘unclean’ during her menstrual period and hence cannot go to the temple or worship at that time. While my grandmother tried to validate this argument by maintaining that women in ancient times worked hard and needed to be given a ‘religious reason’ to rest, Aunt Daisy from across the street vehemently believed that the tradition comes from the Manusmriti, a textual tradition of Hinduism
However, many temples go a step further that my mother’s list. Since it is impossible to know whether a woman is menstruating, certain temples have banned all women aged between 10 and 50. Somewhere between engaging in heated arguments with my grandmother and making sarcastic remarks on how we needed a machine which would be able to detect whether women were on their menstrual period, I grew distant from my culture.
But it is not just one religion whose socialization harbors these abhorrent anathemas. A parallel can be drawn between Hinduism and other religions of the world which endorse similar taboos. As a girl, Noorjehan Niaz had visited the well-known Muslim shrine of Haji Ali. Walking down the coastline in south Mumbai, she would push through the throng to reach the inner chamber of the mosque which housed the grave of the 15th century saint. Here, showering rose petals on the green silk cloth draping it, she would seek blessings of the saint by pressing her head against the grave.
By 2011, as an adult, she was shocked to find the entrance shut. Now, the Ulema allowed women into the mosque’s other areas to pray but the shrine’s trustees had decided that only men were allowed inside the inner chamber and the reason for the ban was to prevent menstruating women from going near the grave.
B.R. Ambedkar was once asked why he was so passionate about the issue of temple entry for Dalits. The statesman had replied, “The issue is not entry, but equality.” It was inconsequential for Ambedkar that he, himself, was indifferent towards religion. In fact, temple entry was hardly the solution for Dalit oppression. What he did accept was the fact that denial of equal access to religious and sacred spaces is one of the most powerful tools by which an unequal society expressed and reinforced its hierarchies. He understood that this form of reinforcement had to be eliminated in its totality. More than 80 years later, on 26 August 2016, the Bombay High Court upheld Ambedkar’s views when it held that that denying women entry to the Haji Ali Dargah violated not only their fundamental right to religious freedom but also their right to equality and non-discrimination.
Disoriented with my culture, I had stopped going to temples in 2016. I had decided that if I am not allowed to enter the holy sanctums when blood and tissues lining my womb break down and shed from my body, I wouldn’t want to enter when the lining is getting made either. But earlier this year, an individual I am romantically inclined to led me into a temple despite knowing I was on the 2nd day of my menstrual period. He dismissed my protestation and assured me that “it was a most natural process”.
He made me realise that people have started questioning taboos entrenched in the Indian psyche. Even institutions such as the Supreme Court has time and again asked how a physiological phenomenon like menstruation can be a guiding factor for denying women of a certain age the right to enter and worship in a temple.
But challenges ahead are many. Despite the progressive stances taken by the apex court, in general, the Indian courts still do not have the judicial courage to take a stand in favor of women.
Therefore, the initiative for change has to be taken at the micro level actively. Forgoing social norms that are redundant and reminding your loved ones to do the same is a healthy way to challenge these deep set norms.
Feature Image Credits – Mordi Ibe Foundation
Vaibhavi Sharma Pathak