Religion, Blood, and Internalized Misogyny

A few days ago, the Bombay High Court came out with a rather progressive judgment, [1] overturning a rule at the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai that banned women from entering the inner sanctum. While the attitude towards the judgment has been largely celebratory in the mainstream media, there have been reports of Muslim women – devotees – who still believe that they are too impure to enter a dargah because of “ladies’ problems“. This, in spite of the fact that the ruling prohibiting women from visiting the sanctum was brought about only in 2011, and that other dargahs – the one at Ajmer, for instance – allow men and women into their sanctums.

The discussion on menstrual taboos and religion is far from new. From everyday practices such as being barred from participating in pujas while you bleed, to more notorious instances such as the controversy over the Sabarimala temple, [2] menstrual taboos have evoked ire from feminists to the point that even corporations have begun to co-opt into calling them out. But it is the internalized misogyny that drives these taboos that continues to confound and surprise me.

I vividly remember a trip to Amritsar and Chandigarh as a thirteen year old when I unexpectedly got my period on the train. We were supposed to visit the Golden Temple the next day, and my mother practically flipped when she noticed the bloodstains on my pants. What continues to strike me most about the incident was that she blamed me for my period being irregular, as if I had any control over when I bled and when I did not. Though we did end up visiting the Golden Temple, all I remember about it was the immense guilt I felt at defiling a place that is holy. I also remember how, a few years later, my grandmother (the paternal one, naturally) attempted to shame my mother, who has severe menstrual problems, into delaying her period so that she could attend the rituals on Diwali. And even though I was merely a proto-feminist at both times, I was shaken by how it was the (cis)women – the very people you would count on to understand your experiences – who upheld practices I found sexist and distasteful.

Having other women endorse a patriarchal idea – here, disgust for our own bodily functions – is possibly one of the most effective ways the patriarchy perpetuates itself. It helps these ideas take root that much more firmly in you, lingering long after you had thought yourself clear of them – although I had long decided that the practice derives from superstition, a part of me still hesitates to wash my hair before the third day of my period, or eat anything I am not supposed to during that time.

And if it is women who will be the most effective leaders of any resistance. It could be someone as inspiring as Akka Mahadevi, who boldly demanded the right to enter a temple and worship while she was menstruating, as far back as the twelfth century. It could be a group of women standing in solidarity, such as the Bhumata Brigade fighting for entry in a Shani temple, or the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, agitating to open up the inner sanctum of Haji Ali. Or it could be a smaller act of resistance, such as a professor recounting how, at menarche, she took her first communion in spite of her church being strongly opposed to it.

But it is women such as these that I am grateful for, because they serve as reminders that our faith – something that should be liberating and comforting – should be the last thing that is allowed to oppress us.

***

Notes

[1] You can access it here, if you are so inclined. I shall point out that this one is actually an easy read at 56 pages, and is the first constitutional judgment I have managed to finish. You should also check out Gautam Bhatia’s analysis here, which I am obliged to cite because he is the one person everyone in law school quotes when a constitutional law matter comes up.

[2] Some people have, however, claimed that the ban on women in the Sabarimala temple has nothing to do with menstruation, but have offered an alternative explanation that you can read here.

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