The Divine Untouchability Against Menstruating Women

Manasi Gandhi

When Trupti Desai stepped on the chauthara, the sanctum, of the Shani Shingnapur temple,on Gudi Padwa, the Marathi new year, it was the beginning of a new chapter in the history of India. That a woman entering a temple in the twenty-first century is being lauded, is a paradox in itself. However, she ventured into a no woman’s land, a feat attempted by many before, unsuccessfully.  Many commented that it was a trivial pursuit, called her an attention seeker. But it was symbolic of a  victory for a group of people, loosely organised, if any. The women.

Trupti Desai and the Bhumata Brigade march on to show a mirror to the society, of the practices of discrimination that a woman is faced with.
Trupti Desai and the Bhumata Brigade march on to show a mirror to the society, of the practices of discrimination that a woman is faced with.

Often, while visiting the famous Sai Baba temple of Shirdi, in Maharashtra, one may encounter many vehicles lined up by the street, with drivers enticing you to travel to nearby Shani Shinganapur. Many devotees choose to hop on and treat themselves to an additional deity. Homes with no doors or locks whatsoever appear as the destination nears. There is a strong belief that Shanidev of Shinganapur is punitive, and anybody with even a slight intention of theft or robbery would be summarily punished by him, miraculously . It could be a very interesting visit for the first timers. When it comes to darshan though, things change, especially if you are a female. Asked to stand aside, while the male members of family or friends offer prayers, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if the women feel discriminated. Not anymore, though. The Mumbai High Court responded to a PIL filed by women activists Vidya Bal and Nilima Vartak on April 1, by stating that any temple or person imposing a restriction on the entry of  women could face a six-month jail term under the Maharashtra Hindu Place of Worship (Entry Authorisation) Act, 1956. The act itself was the result of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s crusade against untouchability.

Dr. Ambedkar launched the Kalaram temple movement in Nashik in 1930, to gain an entry in the temple for the Dalits, only to find the gates closed. He attempted to enter the Vithoba temple of Pandharpur and was stopped at the nearby burial site of Chokha Mela, a famous saint of the Varkari movement, a Mahar by caste, who himself was never given entry into the temple. When the Constitution, drafted by him, was adopted at the Constituent Assembly in 1949, the term ‘untouchable’ was deemed illegal.

Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, states ‘Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of Untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law’. The Untouchability (Offences)  Act 1955, makes it a punishable offence to prevent anyone from entering a place of public worship or offering prayers on the grounds of untouchability. It also enforces punishment for social disabilities, based on untouchability, barring anybody from entering public places like a shop, restaurant or a well. Nowhere does it mention the term ‘caste’, it only says ‘untouchability’. Can it be interpreted broadly, bringing under its purview the criterion of gender, the untouchability associated with it and the social disabilities women have to face as a result? When a woman is denied entry to a place of worship, is she not being treated as an untouchable? Article 14 (Right to Equality) and Article 25 (Freedom of Conscience and Free Profession, Practice, and Propagation of Religion) of the Indian Constitution are often referred to during the cases heard with respect to temple entry for women. However in the light of the current events, Article 17 also needs to be referred to, bringing into the picture the clause of ‘offence punishable in accordance with law’.

The Travancore Devaswom Board president Prayar Gopalakrishnan, said in Kollam on Nov 14, 2015,

“A time will come when people will ask if all women should be disallowed from entering the temple throughout the year. These days there are machines that can scan bodies and check for weapons. There will be a day when a machine is invented to scan if it is the ‘right time’ (not menstruating) for a woman to enter the temple. When that machine is invented, we will talk about letting women inside,”

This high-tech innovation transpired by him  was followed by a counter-campaign with a hashtag #happytobleed after Nikita Azad wrote him an  open letter   in ‘Youth Ki Awaz’, questioning his stance. Many uploaded their pics on social media saying that menstruation is natural and that they are happy to live with it. The Supreme Court slammed the Devaswaram board asking, “Is menstruation a tool to measure the purity of women? How will you measure the purity of men?” . Surprisingly, it was in Travancore that the Temple Entry Proclamation was issued  in 1936, allowing the entry of the Dalits into the temples.

The Vasistha Dharmashastra says on a menstruating woman,  “On the first day, she is declared to be [as polluting as] an untouchable; on the second, [as polluting as] a Brahmin-killer; on the third, [as polluting as] a washerwoman; on the fourth, she is purified”. The Manusmriti, the Quran and the Bible equivocally denounce a menstruating woman as if she has committed a crime.

How the patriarchs conned the women into believing that this natural biological process makes a woman ‘impure’, remains a mystery. Surprisingly many women, even the educated ones, follow many of the rules, for example, not touching the pickle, not entering the kitchen, not offering prayers to the home deity.

In many parts of India, menstruating women are banished out of their homes. They eat, drink, and live outside. There is a practice prevalent mostly  among the Madia Gond tribe in Maharashtra, wherein the menstruating women are sent out to a hut, ‘gaokor’, on the edge of a forest. They live in the thatched tenement, sometimes alone, fearing for life, lest a wild animal ventures, sleep on the floor  and depend on family members to bring in food as they are not allowed to cook. When this was brought to the notice of the NHRC it wrote a letter to the Maharashtra State government, saying that the practice was a violation of human rights and that the government should treat such an activity as a cognisable and punishable offence.

One in five girls in India drop out of school after puberty, many due to the menstrual taboos and also due to inadequate sanitary and toilet facilities in schools. Many miss their school and college tests if they fall on days that they are menstruating. The mental and psychological effects of such discrimination aren’t even taken into account.

Passing the buck, and denying the reality that exists around us won’t help. Women are very much a part of our society and have constitutional protection of their rights. Religious boards and committees cannot push their weights around under the veil of by-laws. The caste system was and is a socio-religious reality. Affirmative actions taken and laws put in place have helped tackle the issue to an extent. Similarly, entry of women to religious places as well the social discrimination with regards to menstruation needs to be taken seriously. Trupti Desai and the Bhumata brigade have been going from pillar to post, from Shani Shinganapur, Trimbakeshshvar, Mahalaxmi of Kolhapur and Hajji Ali to Sabarimala, at times successfully. They continue to march where their goals haven’t been met. Calling their attempts frivolous is demeaning them and their efforts towards social justice and equality. They are trying to show the society its own mirror. If the picture still appears hazy and the long enduring untouchables,the women, look unrecognisable, there is a need to wipe clean that mirror.

Manasi Gandhi is a freelance writer.