*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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*The Moral Ambiguities of Sabarimala

First published under the same title on ABP Live on 18 November 2018 (IST).

Nearly two months after the Supreme Court on September 28 ruled by a majority of 4-1 to allow women of menstruating age to enter the temple at Sabarimala, the battle-lines appear to have been firmly drawn.  The dispute has been represented largely as one which pits tradition against modernity, religious conservatism against liberalism, patriarchy against women’s equality, and faith against science.   A former Justice of the Supreme Court, Markandey Katju, has stated quite unequivocally that “regarding the Sabarimala verdict, either one can agree with it or disagree with it – there is no middle ground.”

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A protest on the re-opening of the Sabarimala Temple on 17 October 2018, around 20 days after the Supreme Court’s verdict of September 28.

But is that really so?  That someone of Katju’s standing thinks so illustrates the predictably circumscribed nature of public discourse, and is also a stark reminder of the fact that we have become increasingly incapable of recognizing the imperative of moral ambiguity.  A court is obviously burdened with the necessity of delivering a judgment that has the force of law, but it is open to every individual to consider an issue from every perspective.  The Jaina doctrine of anekantavada, or many-sidedness, suggests that, in nearly every case of this kind, every position is partially right and partially wrong.

Let us consider first the perspective of those who are convinced that matters of faith and religious tradition cannot be legislated.   This view is not without merit, and indeed one might reasonably argue that even social equality cannot be achieved primarily through legislation.  If there is no widespread social acceptance of a proposed or legislated reform, the law will not only be ineffective and resented, but it may also have the effect of aggravating social tensions and, oddly enough, obfuscating the problem.  Legislation against the giving and taking of dowry was passed in India over four decades ago, but such legislation never had widespread acceptance; moreover, once the legislation was passed, some people supposed that the problem had been ‘resolved’.  The Indian Constitution states that discrimination against Dalits is a punishable offence, but atrocities against Dalits have scarcely diminished—and, if they did, it would surely not be on account of any new-found respect that the upper castes have developed for the lower castes.  As Gandhi famously declared at his trial in 1922 on charges of sedition, “Affection cannot be manufactured by the law.”

There are yet other arguments that have been advanced against the Supreme Court’s decision, some by liberals and centrists who have declared their opposition on the grounds that the Court’s decision furnishes the RSS with the opening that it had been looking for in Kerala.  This objection is only of marginal interest and is in fact quite erroneous in some respects:  not only has the RSS been making inroads into Kerala for some time, but what Sabarimala brings to the fore is the problem not of religious mobilization but rather the consolidation of social conservatism.  It has also been argued that Kerala is a matrilineal society, with an extraordinarily high female literacy rate, and that many women, perhaps a majority, are themselves opposed to opening the doors of Sabarimala to females between the ages of 10-50.  Some elements of this view, however, cannot be sustained.  The anthropological and empirical fact of matriliny in Kerala notwithstanding, the indubitable fact is that Kerala records one of the highest rates of violence against women in India, and the percentage of women in the workforce is an abysmal 25%.

The arguments in support of the Supreme Court’s decision are, as I have already hinted, many.  To suggest that progressive legislation is often ineffective is not to say that legislation cannot be a tool for social reform.  Those who advocate for change are under no illusion that, under a regime of liberalism and social equality, we will all start loving each other.  But there is a much stronger argument.  It is claimed that by “tradition” women of menstrual age have never been permitted in the temple and that the prohibition on their entry is “centuries-old”.  Quite to the contrary, the restriction on their entry was first enacted into law by the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, and the Kerala High Court in its decision of 1991 unfortunately, and quite erroneously, argued that the restriction “is in accordance with the usage prevalent from time immemorial.”  This is what historians have described as “the invention of tradition”.  The Supreme Court’s decision takes note, quite explicitly, of the presence of women worshippers between the ages of 10-50 in the temple on many previous occasions.

There is, finally, the most pertinent set of considerations. The devotees and protestors who have been gathered to obstruct the implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision argue that the reigning deity, Lord Ayappa, is celibate and the presence of females of menstruating age is an affront to his dignity and violates his asceticism. The trope of the male ascetic and saint being tempted by women is, shall we say, as old as Indian civilization. There is, further, the supposition that menstruating women are polluting.  These twin arguments have long offered a pretext both for the suppression of women and even for suggesting that women do not have the same reservoirs of spirituality as men. We may ask why there is no comparable narrative tradition of holy women being tempted by men, and equally whether it might not be the case that contemporary Indian society has not come to terms with the fact of women’s sexuality.  What can we say about a society that has little faith in its women, and, ironically, in its gods?