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Modern period

Menstrual taboo is at the heart of the shaming and exclusion of women in Swaminarayan sect’s hostel and Sabarimala temple. Can we look at menstruation as a bodily activity that requires a sanitary napkin, not one that should be silenced and stigmatised?

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Feb 22, 2020, 11.00 PM IST
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It was the first time I was seeing Swami Krushnaswarup Dasji of Swaminarayan Bhuj Mandir, Gujarat. In a video, he was saying, "A menstruating woman who cooks food for her husband will certainly be reborn as a bitch. If you eat food prepared by a menstruating woman, then your next avatar will definitely be that of an ox."

Many on social media were shocked. Some were amused. But I have met him before. As have you all. I have met him in the men and women who told me to never enter a temple during my period. I have seen him in my friend who said his mother would not step inside their kitchen during her menstrual cycle. I have seen him in my former colleague who searingly wrote of how she had to take a dip in a turgid pond before she could "emerge pure". I have seen him in the politicians and priests, in the "devotees" who ran riot across Kerala against the 2018 Supreme Court judgment on Sabarimala, saying they would not allow women between the ages of 10 and 50 years to enter the shrine. I have met him in my own old self who was reluctant to go to a temple during my period.

At a college hostel run by the Swaminarayan sect of which Krushnaswarup is a leader, 68 girls were allegedly asked to remove their underwear to show they were not menstruating. Girls having period, the Ahmedabad Mirror reported, should record their names in a register and shift to the basement.

They are not allowed to mingle with others, move in the campus and enter the dining hall. On the website of People's Archive of Rural India, journalist Kavitha Muralidharan has reported this week about five villages in Madurai where buildings are constructed to house menstruating women.

At Koovalapuram, just 50 km from the city, the women are forcefully isolated in two rooms and food for them is cooked and left in sacks hung on a neem tree to avoid any kind of physical contact with them.

In a country where a girl, at menarche, is handed a piece of cloth, if she is lucky, and a code of unwritten prejudices, the Sabarimala temple, the Swaminarayan hostel and the "guesthouse" of Koovalapuram are not exceptions: they are publicly enforced expressions of the horrifying reality of menstrual taboo that many of us internalise, accept and enforce in our personal space and immediate circle.

You can argue on its gradations but we are conscientious practitioners, enablers, accomplices or at the very least colluding witnesses of this social evil. If the taboo at Sabarimala temple and Swaminarayan hostel leads to a public, visible and violent denial of fundamental rights, ours is a silent, private, debilitating acceptance of our uncleanness and unequalness.

But we inflict wounds all the same on the bleeding woman as we insist on her exclusion and shame her into believing that she is polluting. Her self-assertion of impurity and voluntary withdrawal from places of worship, holy objects and texts, rituals and poojas are considered a sign of virtue. But it is anything but voluntary.

While menstrual taboo is practised across many societies, it is pervasive in modern India. What are the origins of our shaming and exclusion, the vestiges of which are slapped on our minds every month? The website of Swaminarayan sect has a clue that goes back in time to the Smritis. In a section called "Fundamentals of Philosophy", it defines "Religion" or "Dharma": "Virtuous conduct as defined in the 'Shrutis' and 'Smrutis' are known as the Dharma (sic)."

Manusmriti, the most famous of Smritis, emphasises on the pollution of menstruating woman (George Buhler's translation below):

"3.239. A Kandala, a village pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating woman, and a eunuch must not look at the Brahmanas while they eat."

"4.40. Let him, though mad with desire, not approach his wife when her courses appear; nor let him sleep with her in the same bed.

4.41. For the wisdom, the energy, the strength, the sight, and the vitality of a man who approaches a woman covered with menstrual excretions, utterly perish."

"4.207-208. Let him never eat.. that which has been touched by a menstruating woman.."

Sankarasmriti (Rules of Sankara), which the Brahmins of Vaikom, Kerala, waved before Mahatma Gandhi as the rulebook they lived by in 1924, less than a hundred years ago, emphasises on the exclusion of menstruating women: "If a woman gets her period during the day, she should leave her home without saying anything, without touching anything except for the few items she is allowed to like a water pot. She should sit in the space meant for her, without bathing or brushing her hair."

"A woman who touches a woman having her period has to take a bath." A menstruating woman was untouchable. She used to be called 'theendari' in Malayalam, one whose contact was polluting.

"Theendal" (contact) and "thodeel" (touch) of lower castes too were considered polluting in Kerala not too long ago. At the heart of the still prevailing menstruation taboo in Swaminarayan hostel and Sabarimala temple is the Hindu notion of purity and pollution.

Which is why Justice DY Chandrachud said in his Sabarimala judgment that "any form of stigmatisation which leads to social exclusion" would constitute a form of "untouchability". While the casteism in Smritis has been criticised and condemned and countered by modern laws, the menstrual taboo in them has been allowed to survive uncontested in the dankness of religions and the darkness of homes.

Interestingly, even as these Smritis considered menstruating women as impure, tantric texts before 10th century did not, says TS Syamkumar, a Kerala-based Sanskrit and tantric scholar. "A tantric text called Jayadradhayamalam, for instance, describes menstrual blood being used to consecrate the trishul where the goddess is invoked, while Sidhayogeshwareematham and Tantrasadbhavam say women have equal tantric rights as men. It is only after 10th century when Brahminical patriarchy and priesthood become dominant that even tantric texts treat menstruation as impure," he says.

An affidavit filed by the Sabarimala tantri before the Supreme Court, in fact, had banked on a tantric text called Tantra Samuchayam to argue that women would not be able to complete the 41-day penance because of period. The text, though, considers not only menstruating women but also lower castes as polluting.

Every misogynistic act, every anti-woman ritual will find sanction in some religious text or the other, some tradition or the other.

The Constitutional bench of the Supreme Court, which is looking at gender discrimination in religious practices, including entry to Sabarimala, should be careful in what it signals to the society. Does it really want to shore up the misogyny in Manusmriti?

Syamkumar says that while a few temples like Kamakhya celebrate the menstruation of goddesses, the taboo remains for women devotees. It is time we freed menstruation from the extremes of worship and taboo, puja and prejudice. We need to look at period as a bodily activity that requires an easily available sanitary napkin and a Meftal Spas tablet maybe, not one that should be silenced and stigmatised, controlled and cast out. It's time for a regular period, a modern period.
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