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Sabarimala: Equating Feminists’ Case With Faith Is A False Equivalence

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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?

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.

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.

Women during the Ayyappa Jyoti campaign against the Supreme Court verdict allowing the entry of women into Sabarimala temple.

“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’.

Are we okay with the adult, educated citizens proudly declaring and practising menstrual taboo in a democracy ?

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:

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.

Why does an all-powerful deity need believers “help” to protect his own vow of celibacy?

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.

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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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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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