Sabarimala temple row: #HappyToBleed maintains intriguing silence even as #MeToo becomes a rage in India
The #HappyToBleed became quite a rage in 2015 in response to a rather tame statement of the then president of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) Prayar Gopalakrishnan.
At a time when the #MeToo campaign on social media has claimed its most high profile person, a minister in the Narendra Modi government – something few expected, especially after the minister MJ Akbar brushed aside allegations of sexual misconduct by saying that “lies don’t have legs” and filed a criminal defamation case against journalist Priya Ramani – the #HappyToBleed campaign against the denial of entry of women of menstrual age into the Sabarimala temple is inscrutably silent.
This is more intriguing now since the women have the Supreme Court and the state government on their side and a pitched battle is being fought in and around the Sabarimala temple to deny women their agency (the head priest threatening to close down the temple if women attempt to enter it and the faithful indulging in arson and physical assault on women).
The #HappyToBleed became quite a rage in 2015 in response to a rather tame statement of the then president of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) Prayar Gopalakrishnan, who had said in November that year that women would be allowed entry only “when a machine is invented to scan if it is right time for women to enter the temple”, it evoked a huge outrage from young women on the social media. Women were “to hold placards/sanitary napkins/charts saying Happy To Bleed” and post the pictures on their profiles or the campaign page “to oppose the shame game played by patriarchal society since ages”. Nikita Azad, a college student of Patiala, turned overnight into a celebrity for her write up, ‘#HappyToBleed: An Initiative Against Sexism’, in countercurrents.org. Soon #HappyToBleed went viral on Facebook with the conventional media jumping in.
But now there is a virtual silence on that front. The last posting on the Facebook page ‘Happy To Bleed’, hosted by Nikita Azad and four others, was on 11 August (a month-and-half before the Supreme Court verdict) which simply read: “Entry of women to Sabarimala. There is no bar for young women to go to Sabarimala, because there is the Goddess Malikaprathamma sitting close to Ayyappa at Sabarimala. If women are prohibited a Goddess would not have been there at Sabarimala." There is just one ‘like’ to this post.
There is another page ‘HAPPYTOBLEED’ which carries nothing more than a quote from Justice DY Chandrachud’s observations in the Sabarimala case: “The social exclusion of women, based on menstrual status, is a form of untouchability which is an anathema to constitutional values. Notions of “purity and pollution”, which stigmatise individuals, have no place in a constitutional order.” This post has been liked by six. A Twitter handle ‘happytobleed’ too records very little activity – with only two of the four posts of this year making a passing reference to the temple, but not on the issue as such.
This silence may be because, as Azad wrote in her original article, this was “not a temple-entry campaign. This campaign is an initiative against sexism, and the taboos it uphold since ages”. Her concerns were, as she added, “The class structure has created various forms of patriarchy like locking women in kitchens, reducing her contribution in production processes, considering her a reproductive machine, attaching the 'honour' tag, objectifying her as an object of sexual pleasure, impurity during menses etc.”
Indeed, isolating menstruating women is quite pandemic in India. Many authors and commentators have explained that this is because Indian traditions have viewed menstrual blood as “polluting, powerful, and therefore dangerous”. In his 2003 book Kiss of the Yogini:Tantric Sex in its South Asian Context, David Gordon White of the University of California traces its origin to Rig Veda and Atharva Veda and explains how it brought about certain strange rituals. For example, he writes that Rig Veda “enjoin the husband – who wishes to avoid the immediate destruction of his person from the lethal power of the virginal bloodshed on his wedding night – to give the bloodstained cloth of defloration to a Brahmin priest...” In Atharva Veda, he writes, “the defiling power of virginal blood requires that a second complete marriage ritual be held in the husband’s home, following the consummation of the actual marriage. Here a “scapegoat” Brahmin priest absorbs and purifies the bride’s virginal blood of its magical dangers…”
Closer home, mythologist and author Devdutta Pattanaik, who had also joined the women’s-entry-into-Sabarimala debate in 2015, explained in his article, Scanners for Menstrual Blood: “The practice of restricting access to menstruating women is rooted in the pre-modern belief that links purity and power to bodily fluids. Not spilling male genital fluid (semen) makes men powerful and pure. Inability to hold back female genital fluid (menstruation) makes women weak and impure. This is why many babas and gurus of India insist they are celibate. That is why Jain munis rejected family life. This is why Buddha’s enlightenment is closely linked to his rejection of his wife. The red-tilak of Hindu men and the red-bindi of Hindu women have close links to blood and its links to life. Menstrual blood is particularly feared as it came to be associated with ‘death’ as it marked the failure of conception.” In fact, as Pattanaik pointed out in the same article, the taboo relating to celibacy and menstruation exists in other religions and many cultures, except in the tantrik traditions.
As for the entry into the Sabarimala temple, TDB had explained in its deposition before the Supreme Court that the traditional ban on menstruating women was “attributable to the manifestation of the deity at the Sabarimala Temple which is in the form of a ‘Naishtik Bramhachari’ (an eternal celibate), who practises strict penance, and the severest form of celibacy”. It said there were about 1,000 more temples dedicated to the same deity, Lord Ayyappa, which don’t ban menstruating women because the deity in those temples was not in the form of a ‘Naishtik Brahmachari’.
Religious faith has its own logic, beyond rationality and science. It also runs very deep in individuals and society. The day the Supreme Court verdict came, one of the firsts to react was Gopalakrishnan who sparked the rage in 2015. (He has been replaced by A Padmakumar, former CPM legislator, as the TDB president since then.) He said, “I am unhappy... A constitutional authority cannot interfere in religious matters”, adding that his family, mainly his daughters, would not enter the shrine, come what may. When asked whether it was their decision, he replied: “They are my daughters, it is my decision. I think my daughter's decision must be my decision.”
No wonder, in the pitched battle between orthodoxy and constitutionalism – the Supreme Court talked about constitutional morality and values to justify entry of the menstruating women into the temple – women’s agency has become a casualty.
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