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Sabarimala: Women And The Gods At Crossroads

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“I like stories where women save themselves.” – Neil Gaiman

Picture a young lady squatting on the cold cement floor on a winter evening, incessantly coughing, frying fish, with a purdah covering her face. I a small boy at the time, who called his mother by first name, would often pull the veil down and get scolded. I was agitated on why she had to undergo this needless transformation visiting our paternal home-town and how could she cease to just be my mother.

By the way, the lady had a master’s degree in Chemistry and could not take up a job apparently because the permission was ‘denied’. A lot has changed since then, and the respect is now acceptable without any voodoo on display. So, it has often bugged me on how could I not write on the Sabarimala issue, which though transcends socio-political and religious boundaries, has some eerily similar fundamental problems at its core.

This piece would be at the risk of being totally unoriginal, as has been the political imagination and landscape in India, painted through the decades, in the same broad absurd strokes. We have all witnessed the political game that has been deftly played out in Kerala for the past several months. That it has been at the cost of social harmony and a complete breakdown of the law and order situation is anyone’s guess.

So, What’s The Issue?

Lord Ayyappa, the deity of Sabarimala temple is considered a celibate and as a practiced tradition there has been a restriction on the entry of women of menstruating age. Supreme court had recently ruled in the favour of entry of women of all ages into the temple recognizing their right to freely practice religion. However, this incited sharp reactions from a section of the society, especially religious and political groups who pulled no punches to ensure that the order was prevented from being carried out.

Protests against the Supreme Court verdict. Image via Getty

Blatant disregard for Supreme court order is nothing new nor is the lack of will or the ineptitude of the political class to uphold the same. This has happened with the law reversing the verdict in Shah Bano case, opposition canvassing against the government position on Triple Talaq, or the ruling party’s own stand on Sabarimala. Any progressive movement whatsoever has been marred by political implications and ‘mis’ alignments in favour of popular mob opinion or vote-bank compulsions, rather than on what should have been paving the way for a gender neutral and women empowered society. Furthermore, the use of violence in creating an environment of fear, to get women to forcibly submit to the demands of an outdated thought system is both concerning and condemnable.

‘The gates of the temple closed for purification rites after the entry of two women’

The veil of religious sensibilities and long prevailing traditions have often been used as smoke screens to give credence to our collective misogynistic mindset. Though it’s quite ironic that on one hand we have a sustained government backed awareness campaign to promote the usage of sanitary pads and on the other the proponents of the same, stand in shameless hypocrisy to prevent the entry of women of menstruating age inside a temple. What’s more disturbing is the complicity of learned women who remain silent by-standers or in some cases try to muzzle the voices of their counterparts and doom them to continued tyranny. In a scientific society (which we claim or better aspire to be) it’s strange that whims of divinity or its ill-informed followers always take precedence over women rights.

Our Dear Confused Gods

“You should do things because they’re right. Not because gods say so. They might say something different another time.”Small Gods, Terry Pratchett

It’s strange that whims of divinity or its ill-informed followers always take precedence over women rights. Image via Getty

Myths surrounding Gods are seen as great tales of prevalence of good over evil. However, when at times gods feel threatened by the so called ‘impurity’ of women, or better even deities ‘case in point Sita’ or get offended ‘as happens in many religious institutions and places of worship including Sabarimala’, then maybe we are in need of some better stories and sensible storytellers. People taking offence on behalf of their gods is nothing new in any part of the world. But our society with its fair share of gods, hundreds of thousands of them, just compounds this multitude of ‘hurt sentiment’ problems.

“Belief shifts. People start out believing in the god and end up believing in the structure.” – Small Gods, Terry Pratchett

The argument of upholding traditional customs and values falls flat, especially when considering that, ‘not so long-ago practised’ Sati, child marriages, dowry system and the discriminatory ‘purdah’ have all been a part of the same culture and tradition. Though recognizing that no society is perfect, what we do need is a conscious effort on our part to keep evolving and not be stuck in our ‘illustrious’ past.

‘A woman cast out by her in-laws for entering the Sabarimala temple’

All of us came across this news some pitying, some sympathising and some sneering at the outcome. This practice of inextricably linking women to the honour of the family invariably plays out to create obligatory requirements in which she has no say at all, and which moreover serves the sole purpose to align with the ever-changing notions of social propriety. The foundations of these practices are built on her sacrifices and any deviance from these locally accepted norms are not received very kindly. The spate of honour killings across India, if anything is indicative of this mindset gone awry. The extent of a woman’s freedom becomes a by-product of the limits of our male ego and the tolerance of a patriarchal society.

The extent of a woman’s freedom becomes a by-product of the limits of our male ego and the tolerance of a patriarchal society. Image via Unsplash

“Thou shalt not submit thy god to market forces.” – Small Gods, Terry Pratchett

What’s saddening is that the people in public life who often profess to support feminism have preferred to stay politically correct or asleep on the issue, rather than taking any firm, strong, ‘not so convenient’ stand. Fear of the self-anointed full-time caretakers of religion and part time arsonists looms large in their mind space. After all what’s not good for business is not worth their while. And besides, I guess political patronage is ever more important in these trying times.

While some might still be debating whether this is an issue of women rights at all or simply about preserving the traditionally followed practices and leaving the overtly sensitive religious nerves untouched. But putting aside all these inherent contradictions, the fact that it has already become symbolic to the liberation of women from the clutches of archaic, poorly drawn out, exclusionary rules, it’s all the more imperative that – we by our silence don’t let our women down. Women do not and should not seek validation to change systems which are discriminatory in nature. We often forget that these rights were never ours to grant and that we as society should stop taking a high ground and this false sense of grandiose generosity when – what we will simply be doing is righting the wrongs.

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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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