Notion of impurity

Print edition : May 13, 2016

The Facebook campaign "Happy to Bleed".

Should a natural and biological process be used to discriminate against women, all in the name of religion? The debate spearheaded by “happy to bleed” campaigners brings the question into the public domain.

ORTHODOX HINDU HOUSEHOLDS HAVE traditionally kept women out of the main portions of the house, for instance the kitchen and the household shrine, during their monthly menstruation periods. Even today, in several social milieus across the country, women are not allowed to visit places of worship or attend religious festivals and family functions because of the “impurity” associated with menses.

The impression that the periodic biological function is “impure” gets so deeply ingrained in the minds of young girls that they find it difficult to break free of the regressive thinking and as adults continue to carry on with the “customs and beliefs”. Even women who are not religiously inclined admit that “it becomes difficult to break from the tradition”.

There has been no public debate on the topic and hence no attempt to remove the shame and guilt associated with menstruation. With the Supreme Court hearing a plea against restricting the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, a discourse on the constitutionality of denying women entry into some parts of temples has begun in the public forum. The medical profession has woken up to the absurdity of denying menstruating women entry into places of worship. The legal fraternity sees it as a fight against gender discrimination and has demanded that the Supreme Court safeguard the fundamental right of women to worship.

Actually, the discrimination women have faced silently within households and in the community to which they belong became a topic of national debate when the president of the Travancore Devaswom Board, which is in charge of the Sabarimala temple, commented in a casual manner in November 2015 that women would be allowed entry into the Ayyappa temple premises the day a machine to detect whether a woman was menstruating or not was found. (The Sabarimala temple allows girls who have not attained puberty and women above a certain age entry into the temple.) His remark went viral on social media, prompting Nikita Azad, a college student in Patiala, Punjab, to write an open letter to the Devaswom Board chief on a website, “Youth ki awaz”. She started a campaign on Facebook called “Happy to Bleed”. The girl, who is pursuing a degree in English literature, questioned the shame and guilt aspect of periods and declared that since as a girl she had no control over the process, she was happy to bleed and did not feel guilty about it. Nikita Azad and some “Happy to Bleed” campaign supporters have filed an intervention application in the apex court in the Sabarimala case and are represented by the lawyer Indira Jaising.

“For me, the real issue is not only to get women entry into the Sabarimala temple, but to end the discrimination against women on this ground and also to ensure larger menstrual care for women across India,” Nikita Azad told Frontline. Nikita has been associated with Left-oriented students’ organisations. Surprised by the huge support her campaign got on social media from across the globe, she said what prompted her to take up this issue was the audacity and brazenness of the remark made by the Devaswom Board chief. “It is one thing to experience discreet discrimination because of your periods, as one gets used to this, but quite another when a responsible official makes such a ridiculous comment. I found it demeaning, denigrating the dignity of womanhood,” she said.

Nikita said the real aim of her campaign, in which she was assisted by her friend Sukhjit Singh, was to ensure government support for the good health of all girls, including in menstrual care, and to free them of the feeling of guilt and shame associated with periods. “This feeling of guilt is so much internalised by girls that they feel they deserve to be punished for this and this makes them tolerate all sorts of abuses which a patriarchal society heaps on them,” she said.

It was her clarity of thought that made Indira Jaising take up the intervention application in the Supreme Court on her behalf and make her an intervenor in the Sabarimala case. “I have been fighting for women’s issues for a long time, so for me this was quite an obvious choice. But what I found interesting was that here was an opportunity to discuss a topic in the public domain which had so far been kept under wraps. The boldness with which these energetic youngsters have taken the issue to the public domain is laudable and I thought they should be supported,” she told Frontline. She said because the Constitution guaranteed women equal right to worship, denial of this right, simply based on their sex, was “superbly unconstitutional”.

Indira Jaising said: “So long as we have our Constitution and the law stands as it is today, denying entry to women in the temple is a denial of their womanhood, a slur on the rule of law.” Although the issue of sex education had been discussed widely, this particular issue of women’s untouchability during their periods as per Hindu upper-caste norms needed to be challenged and done away with, she said. “In upper-caste Hindu households, women during their periods are still treated like untouchables and discriminated against. It is high time we challenged such norms,” she said.

But will religious leaders allow centuries-old notions to be tampered with? Not easily, if their reaction to the debate is any indication. Acharya Jitendra, a Hindu religious representative associated with the Save Ganga movement, said: “There were only three temples in India where women were denied entry: Sabarimala, Shani Shingnapur and Triambkeshwar. Nowhere else are they prohibited. As for prohibiting pooja [worship] during periods, this is the universally accepted tradition, why talk about it unnecessarily? Why do the media not talk about Muslim women not being allowed to offer namaaz in mosques?”

The Sankaracharya of Dwarkapeeth, Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati, went a step further when he declared that if women were allowed to enter temples during their periods, they would invite miseries on women the world over and become the reason for increasing crimes against women. He said Hindu religious texts forbade women from entering temples during the menstrual period, and this was followed by all devout Hindus, including women themselves. “What has been written in the shastras cannot be questioned. Our shastras have said that if a menstruating woman were to touch pickles, they would go bad; if she touched drying papads, they would become black; and if she touched a fruit-bearing tree with her toes, the fruits would get infected with insects.” But when asked to name which shastra provided these rules, he was at a loss for a while, and then came up with the name, Bhagwat purana (see interview).

It is science that can take on religion in this debate. But the medical fraternity has not come forward to dispel the notions of impurity. Many doctors told Frontline that in private they would often joke about the “silly” notions attached to menstruation, but they never thought of educating the public about it. However, they were all unanimous in their opinion that there was nothing in medical science to justify the concept of “impurity” associated with menstruation.

“There is nothing in menstruation that can make a woman impure because the blood that flows out in the process is the same blood that is otherwise present in the body. The blood is not impure. It is just a biological process which takes place due to hormonal changes,” explained Dr Umakant Gupta, a general physician.

Dr Rita Saha, a paediatrician, said the notion of impurity may have had its origin in issues of hygiene because in earlier days women had no access to sanitary napkins and were forced to use and reuse cloth. “Maybe because of the concept of cleanliness, women were barred from entering temples during this time,” she said.

Asked why medical doctors had not commented in a conspicuous way to the public debate on this case, Dr Vipul Tyagi, Secretary of the Indian Medical Association, said it had never occurred to them before. “But this definitely is a good idea, and if we can contribute in whatever manner to clear the misunderstanding about menstruation, we will do so,” he said, adding that if the Supreme Court wanted their opinion on this issue, they would be happy to give it. According to Tyagi, instead of stigmatising women of the reproductive age group for menses, men should be grateful for this because otherwise they would not have been born in the first place.

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