The recent debate on the entry of women (especially of menstruating age) into temples, holy shrines, churches and durgahs has revived a long-standing debate about the ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’ of women. As women and as students of law, it pains us to see the discriminatory practices hailed as ‘integral’ to faith.
We are afraid this is utterly flawed and unacceptable at many levels. At the outset, we would like to clarify that we have been raised in the Hindu faith and continue to follow the same.
Firstly, at a time when we have begun celebrating a ‘Constitution Day’, it is unbecoming of us to say that gendered rituals supersede the fundamental tenets of equality, civil liberties such as freedom of speech and expression and the right to religion. It’s unlikely that the Supreme Court would uphold unjust and discriminatory practices in a country governed by the Rule of Law.
Secondly, regarding faith and gender at the micro-level, one’s relationship with the Lord is simply one’s own. No amount of social boycott and ostracisation will let her down. In fact, we have met many men in our circles who have been exceptionally open about menstruating women, whether it is entering temples, celebrating religious functions at home or simply lighting the lamp daily. Not all households impose such harsh preconditions on women.
Women are biologically different from men, and that does not make them inferior. God did not make only one gender, and there’s no record of the superiority of the male gender in religion, especially not in Hinduism, which is replete with stories of powerful goddesses. Those who believe that women are somehow inferior, and those prohibit them from public places of worship, try to illustrate that women enjoy a lesser right to God. They are mistaken. My God does not treat me any less because I’m a woman. My faith is as valuable and as important as yours. Nobody can take that away. Centuries of subjugation and ill-treatment towards a menstruating woman need to be overturned and must pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable society.
Moving beyond the legal arguments, what enrages us are the arguments against letting women enter temples. A survey of popular posts on the issue and the comments on them brought cases to light which reconfirm that this is nothing but a misunderstanding of menstruation and vaginal health. Well, you can call it pure sexism. Had the people making these arguments checked their facts, they would have known how ridiculous they sound. Some of the arguments stated are as follows:
1. Temples, Shani Shingnapur in particular, require devotees to be dripping with water before they touch the stone. Menstruating women and women suffering from candidiasis (a yeast infection in the vagina) would create hygiene issues while performing such practices.
2. A woman is dirty when she’s menstruating. (Let me point out that there isn’t a way to determine how many times a man has bathed before entering a temple. Those who say this are apparently referring to women being inherently dirty or “doshi.”)
3. That certain Gods are celibate and women should not be touching them. (Then why do male priests tend to idols of goddesses, if I may ask.)
4. Tradition. (Traditions have been questioned and updated time and again. Some examples are abolition of sati and widow remarriage.)
5. That the menstrual cycle of a woman signifies a sin and her bleeding is repentance for it.
6. That these bans are restricted to certain temples and certain Gods. They advise women to have their own temples and pray in them all day.
7. That sexism and gender-specific ritual practices should not be confused.
There are articles and comments, talking against denial of equal treatment. Women raising their voice against discriminatory practices are termed as “cultural terrorists” and “faux feminists.” This is an appeal to pause and understand that demand for equal rights is not an assault on Hinduism or any other religion for that matter. It is the reverse. Gone are the days when men had dominion over the definitions of religion. To anyone who is used to a position of privilege, a demand for equality will look unwanted. In our view, none of the objections to the entry of any gender in places of worship hold water. It is the lack of awareness and apathy about ‘women’s issues’ which has made people treat a sanitary napkin as a forbidden object and has forced women to wrap it in black plastic while returning from the store.
The ones who go far to respect their deity should first recognise that the deity’s creations are equal. Everybody is born equal and deserves to be treated that way. Much like how we do not need religion-inspired stories about the holiness of hijras to respect transgenders!
We are all equal. Period.