by Urvashi Butalia
These past few months I’ve been watching an interesting serial on the Ramayana. Siya ke Ram tries to establish Sita as an independent, thinking, caring woman, loved and respected by men and women alike. Equally, Ram is shown as sensitive, intelligent, dutiful – the shadow of what is to come in the shape of Sita’s ‘banishment’ is some distance away. While Sita engages in a tense dialogue as an equal with Ravan’s father, Ram fends off stiff opposition and frees Ahalya from the curse that has been cast on her by her husband for a presumed ‘infidelity’, one in which she had no hand at all.
Not surprisingly, it is Ahalya who is targeted for this infidelity, even though it was the shape-shifting god Indra who disguised himself as her husband and came to her. The lesson is clear: no matter who the real culprit is, especially in matters of sex and sexuality, the blame will always come on the woman.
I was powerfully reminded of this when the Supreme Court made its views known on the Sabrimala temple’s practice of not allowing women - post pubertal to pre menopausal - entry into the temple. The Court called the practice, claimed by the temple to be an age-old one, anti-Constitutional, something that went against the non-discrimination-on-the-basis-of-gender guarantee promised in the Constitution.
How the final judgment – due in a few weeks – will pan out is anybody’s guess. And how it will be received on the ground by devotees in their thousands is not known either. But here is a response from the internet: "The SC will be doing a great disservice to our society by entering a domain that is strewn with land mines…the SC now coming to the rescue of women not allowed in Sabrimala, appears completely ill advised. There are far more important issues that need the SC’s attention…"
I may not agree with the writer that there are far more important issues, but in one respect he is right – the domain is one that is strewn with landmines. The temple’s defense, in the words of its administrators, is disingenuous – they claim they don’t bar women from entry, that there are indeed hundreds of thousands who do come, but it’s only women in the menstruating age group who are barred. Menstruation is dirty, polluting, the journey up the hill at the temple takes 41 days, so menstruation is inbuilt.
Some opponents of the menstrual argument have even gone so far as to say that if women are allowed, the path will be littered with sanitary napkins which will spread pollution – although I’m not sure how many women will just drop them by the road and move on!
So there’s the pollution argument, but there’s also a more powerful sexual argument. Ayappa, the god of the temple, is a brahmachari, and women, especially young women, can be a temptation, therefore it’s best to keep them away.
Fear of women’s sexuality, and their fertility, are not new, and in many ways the argument that because of this, it’s best to keep them away, is merely the flip side of the argument that says that women should stay at home to avoid being raped. If over 80 percent of rapes take place in the home or in familiar environments and from known people, there is a high statistical likelihood that a large percentage of the men making the pilgrimage have, at some point in their lives, raped, assaulted, or forced themselves on women. Perhaps even menstruating women – for here, as all intelligent people know — is a natural contraceptive. What then does pollution mean?
There is another tragedy in the argument, and several complications too. Temples all over our country – and indeed also gurudwaras – do their best to keep Dalits out. Sabrimala is one of the few places that is said to not discriminate where men are concerned: anyone can enter. Except women in the menstrual age group.
And then there’s the political argument. The courts are often called upon to pronounce on what are seen as religious issues, and faith, sometimes irrational belief, sometimes ahistorical and manufactured traditions (as in this case) are brought out to battle against laws and the Constitution. Even if the latter wins, as may happen, who will implement the law on the ground? Who will tackle the temple administration, which woman will take the first step?
And further, we might ask, when all those hundreds of thousands of male devotees go home to their wives and families, how do they deal with menstruating women there? It would be hard to believe that they isolate their women, do not touch them, do not eat from their hands. So why the hypocrisy? Could it be that it is because they are in a state of Brahmacharya, forty one days of no sex? Which presumably leaves the self control so fragile that even the mere sight of a woman can destroy it.
Indeed one might also ask if our gods are so weak and so fragile that their state of brahmacharya can be broken similarly.
And last of all, there’s the issue of exclusion – a dangerous and fraught idea when used thus. All of us practice all kinds of exclusions: we form clubs and groups and leave out x or y. while much of this is for fun, and some of it may even be dangerous. It’s when exclusion amounts to discrimination, and particularly discrimination based on birth, that we need to start thinking about it. And it’s not enough to explain one kind of exclusion by another. The temple authorities at Sabrimala routinely counter the criticism by saying there is another Sabrimala where only women go to offer pongal. But the question is: do the women exclude men? Or is it the temple authorities who decide? And if yes, which is likely, are these authorities men or women?
Whatever the courts decide on the issue, the resolution of this fraught issue will not be a simple or easy one. What’s important though, is that there are protests, and discussions and debates and issues that have remained hidden or silenced – such as women’s very natural function of bleeding every month – are at least being talked about.
The author is a publisher, writers and co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publisher