On the first day of 2019, five million women lined up across the length of Kerala, a state in southwest India. Side by side, these women formed a wall stretching 620 kilometres. They were protesting against violent reactions to women trying to enter Sabarimala Temple.
A few months earlier the Indian supreme court overturned a centuries-old ban on women of menstruating age entering the Hindu temple. Yet, none had been able to enter since, even with the support of Kerala’s state government and police. Those that tried were stopped, shoved and stoned by mobs of men.
On the second day of 2019, Indian women made history yet again. Two women – a university professor and a government employee – slipped into Sabarimala Temple at about 4am. They were accompanied by a group of men, including four plain-clothed police officers, and covered their faces during the four kilometre trek to the temple. Up to fifty million devotees make the pilgrimage to Sabarimala Temple each year, yet none had been women under the age of fifty for centuries – perhaps ever.
The women’s bold defiance of religious tradition sparked intense riots later that day. Clashes broke out between police and violent groups of religious conservatives. Priests performed a ‘purification ritual’, and closed the temple the next day in protest. The Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi also expressed support of the ban against women in the temple. The protesting mobs weren’t just made up of men, but women too. Why would women protest against other women entering a place of worship?
I had assumed that prohibitions against bleeding women in Hindu temples had something to do with the idea that they’re ‘impure’. While this may have some truth to it, it’s not often the case. India is an incredibly diverse melting pot of cultures, so there are many reasons why menstruating women aren’t allowed to enter some Hindu temples. However, Sinu Joseph, an Indian activist in menstrual health education, believes none of the restrictions were originally meant to suppress women.
Sinu travelled across India to learn the origin of menstrual practices and their impact on women in rural India. She found that many Hindu people believe menstruating women are so pure that they’re ‘worshipped’ as a ‘living goddess’ during that time of the month, and therefore a menstruating woman cannot enter a temple as her energy will attract that of the murti, and the murti will become lifeless. Some also believe that a woman’s energy moves downwards during menstruation, whereas energy moves upwards in a Hindu place of worship. One woman even told Sinu she experienced ‘severe pain’ while menstruating during a chanting session, and believes it was because of these conflicting energies.
Sinu also found that in some Indian cultures, period blood is deeply respected and considered to have potent powers. In Manipur she came across a ritual in which a girl’s first bloodied cloth is kept by her mother, and gifted back to her once she’s married, as it’s believed to protect the girl and her family against poor health. Sinu also met women who have tasted a drop of their first period, for the same protective powers it’s believed to possess.
Yet in another Indian state, Jharkhand, period blood is feared. Many believe it can be used for ‘black magic’, and therefore women who don’t ‘destroy’ their cloths discreetly are considered ‘witches’. This superstition results in the murder of around 400 women in Jharkhand every year.
This was just one of the heartbreaking situations that Sinu Joseph discovered during her research trip. Misconceptions such as these underpin not only the taboo of menstruation, but also much of India’s poor menstrual hygiene standards, which are responsible for 70% of the country’s reproductive diseases. However, Sinu – who has dedicated her life to menstrual health and awareness – was also surprised to find that cultural practices surrounding menstruation aren’t always oppressive.
“Yet, during my interactions across rural India, I realized that most women who follow menstrual rituals are not concerned with modern science’s outlook. For most women, it is reverence to an age old belief system that they want to be keepers of.”
While the controversy surrounding Sabarimala Temple is more complex than an issue of patriarchy, the simple fact remains: women, of all ages, are now legally allowed to enter Sabarimala Temple. While many women may not want to, those that do should be free to do so without the threat of violent retaliation. In today’s world all women should have the right to follow their own beliefs, whether they lie in science or religion.
Words by Annabel Bowles