*Anxieties over Sabarimala Temple-entry: Menstruation as Sex Strike

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Devotees queue up to offer prayers at Lord Ayappa’s temple, Sabarimala, during the Malayalam month of ‘Vrischikom,’ 20 November 2018.  Photo:  Press Trust of India.

It needs to be said at the outset, and in the most unequivocal terms, that the still ferocious dispute — about which I blogged here around two weeks ago — over the Supreme Court’s decision of September 28 which opened the doors of the Sabarimala temple to females between the ages of 10-50 is fundamentally about the deep and pervasive anxieties among men over menstruation.  Everything else is a camouflage.

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By a majority decision of 4-1, the Court ruled that the prohibition of girls and women from the ages of 10 to 50 on their entry into the Sabarimala temple was unconstitutional.  Though the court ordered that the temple be opened to females of menstruating age, protestors have blockaded the temple doors and completely obstructed the implementation of the court order.  The Supreme Court verdict over the right of women of menstruating age to entry a Hindu temple speaks to problems that afflict women all over the world, but for the present it will suffice to largely confine these remarks to the implications for Indians.

The terms in which the Court’s decision have been debated are clear enough.  Those who applaud the decision have described it both as an affirmation of Indian Constitution’s guarantee of equality between the sexes and as an individual’s right to freedom of worship.  Liberals decry the custom which has encroached on the liberty of women as a remnant of an atavistic past, and they salute the Court’s embrace of law as a tool to remedy social injustices.  As they point out, though restricting women from entering Sabarimala is generally defended in the name of “centuries-old tradition”, prohibitions on women were first enacted into law as late as 1965.  Indeed, to extend the liberal argument, what is given as a brief on behalf of a timeless custom is nothing more than what historians call “the invention of tradition”.  Customs that are often believed to have persisted from “time immemorial” are in fact very much a creation of the modern spirit.  Some liberals have also argued strongly that construing menstruation as something which is disgusting and polluting is not only indefensible but a sign of ignorance and demeaning to women.

The Court’s critics, on the other hand, argue that women feature prominently among the demonstrators who object to the Court’s decision and they are oddly enough being denied a voice in the matter.  Conservatives are firmly of the view that the Court and its secular allies in the media and intellectual class have disdain for Hindu religious customs, and they have put forward the more compelling argument that social change is ineffective and even resented when it is seen as an imposition from above.  Matters of religious faith, it is argued, cannot be legislated.

The dispute over Sabarimala, however, is also distinct from other controversies that have erupted over judicial intervention in matters of religious faith in that the reigning deity of the temple, Lord Ayappa, is said to be celibate.  Thus the presence of females of menstruating age is said to be an affront to his dignity.  As an affidavit filed in 2016 by those who sought to preserve the ban on women states, the temple authorities and devotees are bound to ensure that “not even the slightest deviation from celibacy and austerity observed by the deity is caused by the presence of such women.”

The trope of a male ascetic or even a god being fatally tempted by an attractive female is as old as Indian civilization and is present in many other traditions as well.  It is, however, the menstrual politics that more than anything else which informs the dispute, even if menstruation remains the unspeakable.  The notion that a menstruating woman is polluting or should remain in the shadows is scarcely unique to India and anthropologists have documented the practice of isolating a woman during her menses across dozens of societies.  Nor should one suppose that only so-called lesser developed or “traditional” societies treat menstruation as discomforting and polluting.  We might wish to remind ourselves that during one of the Presidential debates, then candidate Donald Trump, rattled by some questions from Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, characterized her as having “blood coming out of her wherever”, a barely disguised reference to her periods.  Menstrual pads have been sold in the United States for over a century as “sanitary napkins”.

There can scarcely be a society where men have not sought to regulate women’s sexuality.  The entry of women of menstrual age into Sabarimala, a temple in a state where the female literacy rate is at least 92%, has been curtailed because menstruation is one domain over which men have little or no control. Indeed, if men have often assumed that they have sexual entitlements over women—an assumption in defiance of which the “Me Too” movement has been launched in many countries—a woman’s period constitutes what may be called a sex strike.  It is the one time of the month that, especially in societies where the vulnerability of most women is acute, a woman can refuse sexual advances, whether of her husband, sexual partner, or of any other man, and generally get her way.  This is not a liberty that she is otherwise able to exercise often, but she may still be punished in other ways.  This is the larger and unstated aspect of what may be described as the menstrual politics—of Sabarimala, and, in a wider context, of human societies where a woman’s most intimate bodily function is not merely a “biological fact” but rather a cultural and social fact pregnant with immense implications.

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12 thoughts on “*Anxieties over Sabarimala Temple-entry: Menstruation as Sex Strike

  1. Why do you and the rest of media hated Hinduism and India culture in this manner and never given respect to the land you are from! You are merely over-westernized talking about practices you don’t understand. We should kick all of you media out to America it is where you will b happy

  2. Dear Professor Lal,

    Reading this I realize just how differently patriarchy functions in different places and it makes me consider whether a transnational movement for women’s liberation is even possible.

    Also, the last 4 videos of your Bollywood and Indian Nationalism lectures on youtube are listed as “private videos” and cannot be viewed. Could you please make them viewable?

    Thanks.

    • There are certainly difficulties in a transnational movement for women’s liberation, but that is all the more reason why attempts at solidarity are necessary, even as it is equally necessary to recognize the particularities of social justice movements. Regarding your request, 2 of those 4 videos are blocked because they include small excerpts from films that were shown in class, and Yashraj Films have blocked those videos on grounds of infringement of copyright. They don’t recognize that I have shown excerpts for pedagogic purposes and am not making a cent from my posted lectures. Anyhow, I shall try to post the videos once again.

  3. Dear Prof. Lal,

    I appreciate this article’s clear take on the matter and willingness to call out patriarchy in all its forms, even when shrouded in “tradition”. We must be willing to do that. I wonder, have you ever had discussions with Perry Anderson at UCLA, whose take on Indian nationalism seems to be the polar opposite to your own? Have you had a constructive dialogue given that you are both employed by the same university?

    • I am aware of Perry Anderson’s views. He is a colleague in the same department and I think you may appreciate why it would not be quite correct for me to enter into a discussion of his views. However, various Indian scholars have taken him on, and I would recommend looking at the book called The Indian Ideology: Three Indian Responses to Perry Anderson, by Nivedita Menon, Sudipta Kaviraj, and Partha Chatterjee.

  4. Professor Lal,
    The theme of insecurity about women and their feminine influences is so pervasive that it played a significant role in the killing of India’s own “Father.” I like that you pointed out that the temple restrictions were not a centuries old practice and rather a recent one which seems to coincide with the rise of Hindu nationalism. Nationalism in general is steeped in hyper-masculinity politics, which we see with one recent example here in the US with the abortion laws passed in states such as Alabama, and I think the restrictions of women of menstruating age into the temple is another piece of evidence of that point. Indeed, the cultural and social implications seem to frighten nationalists clinging to a romanticized-fantasy past.

    I also find it significant that this is in Kerala, which, after reading the back-and-forth between Sen and Chasin/Franke, seems to be quite an outlier when it comes to the state of freedom when it comes to women in India. How unique is Kerala’s pre-independence (or even pre-colonial) historical context when it comes to women in society when compared to other places in India? Even if the trope of feminine temptation threatening a god or male ascetic is as old as Indian civilization, seeing that the temple restrictions are recent, that trope doesn’t seem to have embedded the fear that we see in our lifetime.

    Lastly, in regards to an earlier post from March that made me think quite a bit, I am not so sure that patriarchy is really functioning all that differently but that does not make an international movement and less difficult.

  5. Hi professor,

    The religious leaders in charge of the Sabarimala temple should consider allowing women to enter the temple. If the court is used to ensure that there is gender equality in the temple, the religious customs will be undermined. Although gender equality should be addressed, the temple doctrines should also be respected. This is why it is important for religious leaders to look at the issue of gender discrimination.
    The people should also be enlightened about gender equality. This will help to avoid the blockades by those who are against women being allowed to the temple. Using the court to ensure that women are allowed to enter the temple could be a form of tyranny. Religious leaders should realize that it is demeaning to women to restrict them from entering the temples.

  6. Professor Lal,
    The decision by the court to open the temples to females of menstruating age enhances gender equality as affirmed by the Indian constitution. The court’s decision seems to go against the religious customs of the people, however. This is why there have been protests.
    In the modern era, there have been numerous efforts to ensure that there is equality between men and women. This is why women have demanded that they should be allowed to enter the Sabarimala temple. Restricting women of menstrual age from entering the church is suspected to be an issue of gender discrimination against women. Apparently, the issue of gender discrimination should be addressed. The religious traditions should, however be respected.

  7. Hello professor,

    I myself have observed that menstruation is a hush-hush topic not only in India but also very developed societies such as in my country, South Korea. When purchasing sanitary pads in durgstores or cvs, they need to be wrapped in black plastic bags, the term “menstruation” are not literally expressed in advertisements of sanitary pads but refered to as somethings like “these particular days in a month”, and newer alternatives of sanitary pads such as the menstuational cups are viewed to be only used by hardcore progressive feminists. This outdated view on menstruation that is still very prevailant is very much the cause of insufficient sociatel development and education regarding the women. However, the case of the Sabrimala has more dimensions to this issue, as one of the main foundations is religion and tradition, which makes every efforts to offset this view a bit trickier. I liked your reasoning about why there is such a preveilance of opposition against menstruation, that it is somehow a sex strike and that the men lose biological control over the woman during this period (no pun intended).

    Sundo Oh

  8. Although the religious leaders in charge of the Sabarimala temple cited menstruation as the reason as to why they do not allow women of menstrual age in the temple, the real reason might be gender stereotyping. This seems to be so odd in a state whereby the literacy levels of women are so high. The priests have stated that they can be tempted by women since they are celibate. However, I think the priests should not fall into any temptation as they should be strong in faith.
    I think restricting the women access to the temple is demeaning. The priests might have cited religious traditions, but the issue reflects on gender inequality in the society.

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