Both have a case, says Amulya Gopalakrishnan’s article titled: ‘Feminism versus faith: Both have a case, but we need a middle ground'(ToI, 13-01-2019), pitting feminists against faith. She states in the article that “a solution can come only from negotiation, not confrontation”. But does the faith side indeed have a case that could so easily be equated with the feminists’ case? Of course the faithful have the case that freedom of religion exists; nobody can bar anyone from personal religious practices and beliefs for themselves. But the moment belief is imposed on someone else, and especially if that belief goes against what the Constitution guarantees the citizens of the country, this WILL be questioned. If we stand for equitable society then critical questioning, call it confrontation if you like, is basic. And what of those women of faith who wish to visit their chosen deity and now have the freedom to do so, where would they be placed in this taking of sides?
The author’s framing of the argument as a clash of values – “freedom of religion and association clashing with non-discrimination” sounds reasonable, but then she says “it’s hard to be unreservedly on either side”. It is interesting to observe the difficulty in determining which side to take between bigots and those fighting bigotry. A belief stemming from religion-sanctioned shameful hierarchies of caste that blames those outside the “acceptable” slots in that hierarchy for defiling a god by their presence is a casteist belief. A religious belief that blames women as the cause for lack of control on the part of the believer or the defiling of a god is a misogynist belief. There’s nothing complicated about sides here.
“This Sabarimala consensus and purity-obsession may indeed be relatively recent, may have been solidified by the 1991 Kerala HC judgment and may reflect dominant-caste religiosity — but that’s about as meaningful as pointing out that cows were not worshipped in Vedic India”. How is it not meaningful to point out that purity-obsession and dominant-caste-brahminical-religiosity are extremely problematic?
Why is there a reluctance to examine structures of brahminical power with their violent notions of purity that have kept sections of our society oppressed for thousands of years on the basis of caste and gender? Are we supposed to tip-toe around these issues that are very much alive in 2019? If that’s the case, why even consider negotiating anything? What is the point of the article then, is it to reprimand feminists as trouble-makers who want to confront sexism and misogyny?
“Whether or not one agrees with them, everyone has the right to remedy when their religious freedoms are challenged (unless this amounts to systematic discrimination or coercion). It is not for unbelievers to declare beliefs ‘archaic’ and then bulldoze them. Comparisons to Sati, Ayodhya, etc. are misguided; this practice doesn’t harm others, and we are the ones going into their faith and asserting our way.”
Why is it okay to want to remedy challenges to religious freedoms, but not okay to want to remedy challenges to fundamental human rights or affronts to human dignity? Why must the regressive get a pass and the progressive a reprimand? It is difficult to understand how menstrual taboo can be seen as a harmless practice when it can lead to girls feeling shame and guilt from their bodies, in particular to this case, girls as young as 10. There is much easily available discussion on this subject of menstrual taboo and shaming, here is one recent article in the context of Sabarimala by Dr. Beena Kayaloor: ‘How the Sabarimala issue has promoted period shaming among young girls’.
And what is “our way”? If our way is the way that asks that women and girls not be reduced to sex objects or reproduction machines, why be hesitant in raising this fundamental question with those who hold on to regressive impositions? To dismiss Sabarimala as “one random male redoubt” is to diminish the level of influence of the temple. It is an influential institution withhold over a swathe of believers around the world, and it serves to reinforce gender conditioning among them with rules normalising female impurity and women as objects of provocation.
“That’s not how things get fairer, in matters of faith: you need to engage within its terms.” Imagine engaging with Brahminism within its terms for things to get fairer. Now bring to mind the two greats, Savitribai and Fatima. To expect this sort of engagement “within its terms” is an insult to the work of profound leaders and many who directly confront discrimination, superstition, irrational beliefs, social structures that grew and flourished out of those beliefs. Dalit Activist Asha Kowtal on an NDTV debate has powerful, enlightening words [Sabarimala: Are notions of ‘purity’, women’s right to worship at odds?]:
As Dalit women, we were always impure because we were born into a certain caste. These codes of conduct are in the scriptures that this temple sanctioned, that this entire religion has sanctioned. We need to understand where these lines of purity and pollution are drawn. This whole line of being pure and impure, based on your caste and your gender and where you identify yourself, where you get born, that is where the root of this problem lies. You can go and purify, but the question today for the country to ask is who defined these codes for so long and are we ready to tackle this, are we ready to understand, whether we are a brahmin woman or a brahmin man, if we are talking about structures of exclusion and oppression that have taken our life for so long.
“The women going in have not led a movement within the frames of belief”. In her Time Magazine piece, Rohini Mohan has reported about Kanakadurga (one of the women who entered Sabarimala) who is very much a devotee within the frame of belief. Rohini Mohan offers clarity in her Twitter thread on the article we are discussing, with this tweet:
Kanakadurga IS a devotee, but simply because she wants to go to #Sabarimala (like some other women), she is told that she CAN'T be a genuine devotee. It is the interest of people like her that the SC judgement seeks to protect.
— Rohini Mohan (@rohini_mohan) January 13, 2019
How is Kanakadurga’s belief inferior to that of the believers the author talks about? Kanakadurga continues to face threats to her life due to her standing by her belief in the god and her embracing of the Supreme Court judgement—she has been attacked and injured by relatives after returning to her husband’s house.
“But both sides need to feel acknowledged, rather than invalidated by the other.” This is where the “both sides” framing truly reveals itself to be ludicrous. To expect targets of bigotry to validate the feelings of white supremacists or savarna misogynists and their ilk is unconscionable. To dismiss confrontation in this situation is problematic, as is placing hurting the feelings of bigots over confronting bigotry.
The author herself implores—“Women’s voices have been stifled in all organised faiths, including in Kerala’s Devaswom boards. This patriarchal stranglehold must be fought by progressive parties and activists”. Let’s start with a confrontation with ourselves first—Are we okay with the adult, educated citizens proudly declaring and practising menstrual taboo in a democracy founded on the constitutional principle of equality? How is it okay that in 2019 some citizens are treated as threats to a stone idol because of their biological functions or their “place” in unacceptable social structures?
What are we teaching our children? That even 10-year-old girls are objects in the eyes of believers? Why does an all-powerful deity need believers “help” to protect his own vow of celibacy? If indeed his resolve is so weak, why isn’t he being held accountable by believers, why is the blame shifted to a child?
Isn’t this really the all too common human phenomenon of being unable to confront one’s own hypocrisy, where if one finds it hard to adhere to prescribed behaviour that goes against natural instincts, instead of facing one’s own fallibility we conveniently shift blame to what’s deemed lower in our prescribed hierarchy and hide behind the excuse of a symbol? Enough with the mollycoddling of regressive minds, let’s not shy away from direct critical questioning, open educational initiatives and driving conversations with whomever we can.