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2 Issues That Show Where Hinduism Really Stands On Women Rights

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By Nijam Gara:

While much is said about the supposed respect and rights that Indian women receive, the reality is quite different.

One staggering statistic proves this point beyond doubt: around 12 million girls were aborted in India between 1980-2010 according to a study published in Lancet in 2011. If that does not speak for itself, consider this: according to the 2011 census, the child sex ratio is at 914 females to every 1000 males and this is the lowest in decades. How can a country claiming to be a ‘superpower’ afford to forge ahead by discriminating so blatantly against women?

In this background, two issues that happened last week speak volumes about the pitiful state of women in India, particularly in the Hindu religious fold:

Recent SC Judgement

The first instance is the Supreme Court judgement in a divorce case filed by a husband. In delivering their verdict, the justices opined that, “a wife is expected to be with the family of the husband after marriage.” They suggested that it is ‘cruel’ on part of the wife to separate the husband from his parents and it is grounds enough to grant divorce. The judgement read: “It is not a common practice or desirable culture for a Hindu son in India to get separated from his parents on getting married at the instance of the wife.” The choice of words is just appalling and makes one wonder if this is a khap panchayat verdict.

How can a court, functioning under the sanction of the Constitution of India, talk about what is “desirable culture” for a “Hindu son”? Clearly the rights of the wife as a female citizen of the country were trampled by the juggernaut called “Hindu son.” If we set the legal ramifications of such a blatantly patriarchal verdict aside, what the judge was saying about Hinduism speaks of larger realities

This is a religion that has had a questionable history of treating women as second-class citizens and perhaps far less than that. Right from Sita being forced to the jungle first and then in to raging fire because of the inane humility of her husband to Draupadi being forced in to wedlock with five brothers, Hindu mythology abounds with examples of the lack of any basic human rights for women. The plight of dark-skinned women (typically shudra, Dalit or tribal women) was much more disdainful in the ‘holy’ books as evidenced, for example, in the case of Surpanakha.

Real life is perhaps far worse with restrictions on menstruating women, omnipresence of dowry, social pressures dictating the appearance and clothes that women ‘can’ wear and curbs on their mobility outside the house. The irony is that, as we look around, it is women that are keeping the ritualistic pyre of Hinduism raging in this day and age. Women throng the temples in utter devotion and worship the same gods under the aegis of the invariably male Brahmin priests that quote from the same scriptures that have kept them as slaves for millennia.

Hindu women are not alone in this phenomenon where people seem to work against their own interests. Similar examples are seen in the way Muslim women embrace their religion despite certain inhuman restrictions they are subjected to or in the utmost Christian piety seen in African-Americans, whose ancestors may have been once kept slaves quoting from the same Bible that they now hold dear to their hearts. The root cause is the ignorance that the powers that be, perpetuate by demanding complete obeisance and demonising any rational forces by labeling them as ‘external threats’ or ‘foreign forces’.

Getting back to the divorce case, the justices used this same age-old tactic and vilified the urge of a woman to live separately with her husband as a manifestation of the evil “western culture.” But alas, these ‘learned’ men were supposed to uphold the Constitution and not act as agents of Manu. Where does the government of the day and the erstwhile opposition party stand on this important issue? We have all seen their penchant for women empowerment in the issue of reservation for women in elected houses but what about this important issue of the status of women in the Hindu religious fold? Where is the media attention on this issue that cuts to the core of institutionalisation of gender discrimination? They all want to play it safe lest they might hurt the sentiments of the majority religion. Talk about appeasement!

The Rohith Vemula Issue

The second instance is that of Justice A K Roopanwal decreeing that the revolutionary student Rohith Vemula was not a dalit. More than anything, that conclusion is reflective of blatant disregard for women’s rights. Such an approach summarily ignores the caste of the mother and continues the age-old patriarchy that the edifice of caste Hinduism is built upon.

Described to the minute detail in the press, it has been evident now for several months that Radhika Vemula, Rohith’s mother, was born a Dalit. So, by denying the Dalit roots of Rohith, the justice system, and by extension, the saffron government of India is upholding the tenets of Hinduism but not that of a constitutionally functioning democracy.

Hence if it is disadvantageous to be a woman in this society, to be a Dalit woman is exponentially miserable. What is stunning is the deafening silence of feminists and women’s groups on such an egregiously anti-woman decree by this government. The moment the issue of Dalit rights and Dalit identities enter the picture, the caste feminists seem to look the other way.

While it was considered a great leap ahead for women to gain entry in to the Shani temple (in fact a counter-productive move that further takes women in to the sanctum of the Hindu fold and away from rationalistic revolt against the very religion that denies their rights), where is everybody when the state itself is forcefully denying a mother her rights by automatically assigning her son the caste of his father. Once again, the upholders of the Hindu law are sticking to their scriptures. They are using the Hindu rule book to their advantage by ignoring the actual rule book of the country i.e. the Constitution of India.

This is wrong on so many levels because Dalits were never treated as integral to the Hindu Savarna system. They were regarded as ‘panchamas‘ (outcastes) and today, Savarna rules are being applied to decide on Rohith’s caste! To deny the Dalit woman her due share is nothing short of treachery and double-cross.

These two issues collectively highlight the fact that Dalits and women have been subjugated by Vedic Hinduism for thousands of years and continue to do so even in the digital age. And more and more Dalits and women are becoming impervious to the teachings of such role models as Ambedkar and Savitri Phule. Our economic liberalisation, 24/7 media presence and pervasiveness of social media have not changed the basic reality i.e. socially oppressed groups are being targeted even more viciously.

These two issues should serve as rallying points for a renewed fight against the hegemony of caste Hinduism. It is a pity that we still have to fight the same traditions and entrenched forces that Buddha fought two thousand five hundred years ago.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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