Sabarimala: Patriarchy Consumes and Subjugates
Menstruation remains a taboo
“Freedom of mind is the real freedom. A person whose mind is not free though he may not be in chains, is a slave, not a free man.”
I was reminded of this quote by Dr Ambedkar when I learnt about the “ready to wait” campaign as a protest against the recent Supreme Court decision on the Sabrimala temple ban issue.
Protests were inevitable in the light of such a progressive decision, however this absolutely appalling campaign belonged to that group whose rights to equality and dignity were given effect to by this decision. Can it be termed anything else but slavery of mind that the women of the most literate state of our country do not feel any sense of discrimination or inequality in being called impure and polluted while they are undergoing menstruations?
They are highly discomforted by the infringement of their customary rights and their culture and tradition which has been imposed upon them by their religion; however, the incessant infringement of their fundamental rights on a daily basis fails to bother them even a bit. Rather, more shockingly, they dismiss the rights discourse as a concept of western patriarchy.
There are reports of thousands of women flanking the streets of Kerala to protest against the judgment and to “protect” the temple and the Lord. In order to save their age long tradition and belief, the women are “ready to wait” to enter the temple as per the desires and commands of the deity. T
There were young women on the television defending this campaign and questioning the devotion of those who were not ready to follow the wishes of their Lord. There were also reported incidents of protestors who tried to kill themselves in order to prevent the women entering the temple when it opened on the 17th of this month.
What is the rationale behind this campaign and what are its possible implications?
As per the women devotees who are part of the campaign, the protest is to protect their right to practice their customs and beliefs which form part of their religion and they are not ready for any interference in the said right. The activists were reported saying that they stayed away from the Sabarimala temple out of their devotion and respect and not because of any patriarchal compulsions.
However, as a matter of fact, all these customs, beliefs and practices are ordained by male figures who, inevitably, have self-positioned themselves as the superior and the revered beings who are duty bound to strictly “control” women who are devoid of any capabilities or intellectual faculties to be independent.
The origin of the reasoning behind the prohibitions imposed on menstruating women can be traced back to the text of Manusmriti which provides that- “it is the very nature of women to corrupt men here on earth; for that reason, circumspect men do not get careless and wanton among wanton women. No one should sit in a deserted place with his mother, sister or daughter; for the strong cluster of the sensory powers drags away even a learned man. (2.213-2.216).
It is only due to such status assigned to women in the society that the male pilgrim undertaking the ‘vratham’ is required to separate himself from the women folk of the house and it is also not uncommon “for a wife, daughter or sister to be sent away during her menses if a male member of the household has taken the vratam” (Radhika Sekar, The Process of Pilgrimage: The Ayyappa Cultus and Sabarimalai Yatra). The male pilgrim is to strictly refrain from interacting with any young woman in the observance of a ‘Sathvic’ lifestyle and ‘Brahmacharya’ so as to keep the body and mind pure. It is for the sake of pilgrims who practiced celibacy that young women are not allowed in the Sabarimala pilgrimage.
Moreover, it is contended by the devotees that the prohibition is not a social discrimination but is only a part of the essential spiritual discipline related to this particular pilgrimage and is clearly intended to keep the mind of the pilgrims away from the distraction related to sex as the dominant objective of the pilgrimage is the creation of circumstances in all respects for the successful practice of spiritual self-discipline.
A menstruating woman, therefore, is not considered capable or worthy of spiritual consciousness, which is the main object of the 41 days ‘vratham’ to be observed prior to temple entry and she is merely seen as a sexual object harming the self-discipline of the pilgrims.
It is the effect of an institutionalised subordination and slavery by the self-appointed superiors that the victims of these practices fail to find any patriarchal design in such ideologies.
Can these exclusionary practices based on biological factors be termed anything else than grave infringement and disrespect to the individuality of a woman?
What are these women ready to wait for- for always being considered lesser individual, for further humiliations and for more dehumanising behaviour. Such voluntary abdication of rights through such campaigns will only further strengthen those forces of Hindu religion which is governed by the lessons inscribed in the Manusmriti as per which women are rightless beings who are the blind carriers of the traditions and beliefs.
This campaign is also a reminder of the violent protests which had hit the country during the introduction of Hindu Code Bill which was aimed at elevating the rights and status of Hindu women. However, the Bill was seen as an attack on the Hindu religion and was bitterly criticised even by several women leaders who were against any legislative interference in matters of their religion. This is so because for a patriarchal society, the idea of the slightest challenge to male superiority is obnoxious.
This subjugated position assigned to women in the Hindu religion has been challenged by the Supreme Court providing a dignified equal status to every women. But alas, in the battle between belief and rights, the women ‘devotees’ have succumbed to the beliefs imposed upon them by the patriarchs, by wholly negating the rights jurisprudence.
The real freedom for women of our country will be celebrated on the day when the women free themselves from the shackles of such devotion based discriminations.
And this freedom can only be achieved through education as literacy may be one of the ways to education but education is the only way to a free mind.
(The writer is Advocate and Barrister, Supreme Court of India).