Editor’s Note: This story was published by the user before Union Minister Smriti Irani gave her official statement on her earlier comments.
Like anyone in India, I understand where the taboo behind menstruation comes from. A certain uncalled for stigma accompanies any woman who starts having her periods. These taboos are rooted in outdated religious and casteist norms and traditions, and rampant notions of purity and pollution. We are told not to touch the achar (pickle) as it might get infested by fungus post our impure touch; don’t touch the god’s idols, don’t pray at that point in time – I have grown up with these and encountered them at various junctures in my life. In many parts of India, after your monarch, you cease to be worshiped as kanya on asthami during Durga Puja. As a child, a girl is worshiped, her feet are touched, and she is fed special food – she represents the goddess. When she starts menstruating, she enters womanhood, thereby losing her status as a goddess and being demarcated as impure, untouchable, and unimportant. The process of exclusion from religious practices comes to a grand beginning upon menstruation and this belief is reaffirmed by other women from all parts of India.
As a non-believer, I was never too keen on praying anyway, but the fact that God was inaccessible to my prayers during a natural process made my already diminishing belief decline further. It’s not just conservative women who believe in the taboo. We even have well-educated, supposedly ‘forward-thinking’ women insisting that it’s true and that we must hold on to such stigma. Educated and powerful women should start negating such notions instead of propagating them.
Union Minister Smriti Irani recently said “Everyone has the right to pray, but not to desecrate. That is the difference that we need to recognise and respect,” at an event called the Young Thinkers’ Conference, in Mumbai. She said this in the context of the Supreme Court overturning the ban on women of menstrual age from entering Kerala’s Sabarimala shrine and the violence that had followed the same. What is shocking about this is that female ministers are supporting the stigma and taboo that exists against menstruating women even when Supreme Court itself has upheld the right of women of all ages to enter the temple, in a historic judgment.
There are protesters, including women, who are prohibiting women from entering the religious premises. Despite repeated attempts to enter, devotees of Lord Ayappa persistently have prohibited women from entering the temple. This is a true example of women being the agents and upholders of patriarchy themselves. Taboos and stigma, notions of purity and pollution can only come to an end when women don’t hinder the path of progress.
The minister said, “Would you take sanitary napkins seeped in menstrual blood and walk into a friend’s home? You could not. And would you think it is respectable to do the same thing when you are walking into the house of god?” I think she forgets there is a difference in the two. We often do the former, we definitely go to our friend’s house while on our periods and would certainly like to do the same in the place of worship. There is nothing about that act which is not respectable. Any natural process of the body which is laden with cultural meaning cannot prohibit women from entering places of worship even in the 21st century. It’s Our body, our rights, and our call.
If our body becomes a hindrance to access, we should question those practices that prohibit access. If a natural process like being on periods becomes the basis of exclusion, religion itself tends to become an exclusionary practice. To say that Smriti Irani reacted over reports that a woman activist had taken or was going to take a bloody sanitary napkin as offering does not take away the regressive aspects of her opinion.
When she talks of upholding traditions and taboos, she reminds me of her onscreen character – a perfect daughter-in-law and a perfect wife that she played in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, a daily serial on national television. Is she keen on carrying on with those traditions of playing the perfect daughter-in-law when she insists on carrying on with regressive practices regarding periods? One would expect more from women who hold positions of power and represent our country. It is the task of educated women to break boundaries, to pave the path for a progressive sphere where there is no space for age-old practices based on irrationality.
This practice of excluding women from places of worship sounds like a patriarchal one to the core. One is reminded of Gloria Steinheim when she says, “So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much. Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day… Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.” What could suit patriarchy more but the act of turning a natural process into a bane and have women believe so too? Periods are a state of extreme pain for certain women. Let’s finish the stigma to reduce some of the pain associated with it, psychologically if not physiologically.
For me, is entering a temple a path to progress? No. In the process of resistance, even those to whom a temple means nothing, want to enter it. But if it so matters to people who are believers, age-old notions should not prohibit women from entering places of worship. In a democratic society, any place of worship cannot be exclusionary to any gender.
The author is a PhD scholar in the Department of Sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia.