The sight of young boys giggling and laughing and the girls feeling embarrassed when the topic of menstruation comes up in a biology class is not an uncommon one. A daughter shying away from her father and a sister hiding her menstrual cramps pain from brother is not uncommon either. Mother and grandma asking young girls to stay away from kitchen and imposing a number of restrictions is perhaps the most disheartening because the women who have suffered the same treatment during their menstrual period are the one to impose it on the young girls in home. This is the current scenario of India`s society take on periods. This is accompanied with the massive number of superstitions and false beliefs that make a menstruating woman feel uncomfortable and inferior. These misconceptions are often linked with religion and thus no one wishes to go against them or reason them. In Hindu mythology it is believed women got menstruation when Lord Indra severed the head of the second teacher of the gods. Since Lord Indra killed a Brahmin he got a ‘Dosha’. He got rid of it by distributing it amongst the land, water, tree and women folk. The women from that day on started menstruating every 28-30 days and got the ability to give birth. Hence it’s believed that menstruation is a dosha and it makes the women impure. Due to this reasoning, some women aren’t allowed to enter the kitchen (and temples) during menstruation, and touch pickle because it is believed that a pickle touched by a menstruating woman rots away.
Hinduism is not the only religion that has such restrictions on women. All religions of the world have placed restrictions on menstruating women. Be it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism. Out of all the religions, Judaism has probably the most strict rules regarding menstruation where the women is considered ritually unclean, and will pass on this uncleanliness to anyone who touches her. She will become clean again only after the women immerse her in the ritual bath, called the ‘Niddah’ period after seven days of her menses. Religions like Christianity and Islam both have a similar take on menstruating women, they are regarded ‘unclean’. Few interpreters have expanded upon this concept to state that they shall not touch their holy books i.e. the Holy Bible and the Arabic Quran (they can use translations of the Quran). Though these are not universal practices but it hasn`t gone away entirely.
Of course, no one can blame a religion for having such a take on menstruation. Earlier, biological sciences weren’t that advanced and the importance and cause of menstruation wasn’t known. But now, when science has advanced so much that even school going students are taught about it, why can’t society accept it as a ‘natural phenomenon’? Why do women have to feel uncomfortable while sharing their problems and why do men still feel embarrassed of this topic? Why can’t menstruating women enter a religious place? Recently, a PIL was filed before the Gujarat High Court in 2020, demanding the court to declare the need to form constitutional regulations that will deal with the indiscriminate behavior by the society (especially in educational institutions and hostels) against women during their menstruation periods. The division bench which took upon the matter stated that menstruation has been stigmatized in our society and the taboo and myths around menstruation need to be addressed now. Excluding a woman on basis of her menstruation status is not only a form of untouchability but it also denies a fundamental right given by the constitution- right to equality. The court issued nine points guidelines for the state government with aim of prohibiting social exclusion of women from all private, public, religious and educational institutes on basis of their menstrual status. The court also addressed the importance of State government’s role in spreading awareness and eradicating the stigmas related to the same.
Out of all these religions, Sikhism is the only one to have stated that menstruation is not linked to impurity. Rather, menstruation is regarded as an essential and natural process. Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism condemned the practice of treating women as impure while menstruating. Sikhs have no restrictions on women while they are menstruating, they are allowed to enter Gurudwaras. They consider fetus blood to be the purest form of life. Guru Nanak openly condemns those who attribute impurity to women because of menstruation and emphasizes that impurity lies in the heart and mind of the person and not in the cosmic process of birth. This take on menstruation is mainly because Sikhism is relatively a newer religion than others and thus is based more on facts than mythological concepts.
But hoping for a solution from the legislature looks like a long journey ahead because of the past cases which were similar in nature. A religious belief versus equal rights is rather a sensitive topic. The court also has to decide whether the given practice is an essential religious practice which should cannot be interfered or does it needs attention of the legislature to uphold the interests of victims. The Union of India versus Shayara Bano case popularly known as the Triple Talaq case is one such example. The Islamic Law validates a variety of divorces however it was Talak-ul-Biddat which was the issue of controversy. This is known as Triple Talaq which was challenged before the SC in this case. The talaq is banned in Shias but was still followed by other sections of Islam. While the victim Shayara Bano was supported by many NGO`s and women rights group calling some Islamic Law practices as unconstitutional and violation of Right to Equality, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) has argued that Muslim personal law is not subject to constitutional judicial review and that these are essential practices of the Islamic religion and protected under Article 25 of the Constitution which states that the state cannot take away the essential religious practice of a person.. The Supreme Court after long hearings passed its verdict of holding this practice unconstitutional with majority of 3:2 by concluding that it is not an essential religious practice and thus can be intervened by the legislature. After 2 more years The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019 was passed on 26 July 2019 which made triple talaq illegal in India on 1 August 2019.
Another similar case was seen in 2008, when the India Young Lawyers Association filed a PIL with the Supreme Court questioning the ban on entry of women in Sabrimala temple, Kerala, belonging to the age-bracket of 10-50 years. The major question for the bench was whether a court can review if a practice is essential to a religion or should the question be left to the respective religious head. Can Women`s right against discrimination be upheld while ensuring the Right to freely profess, practice and propagate one`s religious beliefs? On September 28, 2018, a 5-judge bench with the majority of 3:2 allowed the entry of women into the Sabrimala temple, Kerala. It is true that even if the legislature does acknowledge this discrimination and makes law to safeguard the interests of women, many women will still not visit temples and will continue following the prevalent practices. But what is important here is to give all women a right- Right to Choose. Women should have the choice to either visit a religious place during their menstruation or not visit it on the basis of her beliefs. It is fine if some women do consider themselves as ‘not fit’ for puja or any other prayers but others should be empowered enough to have the option to take part in prayers.
While it is important for legislature to stop such ancient practices that discriminate among people and take away their rights, it is even more important for the general public to open their minds and evolve their practices with time. In a survey conducted in Rajasthan, the seventh largest state of India in terms of population, only 2.8% girls were aware about menstruation before reaching menarche. This is the case all across the country. The girls either don`t know about menstruation or have inadequate knowledge along with misconceptions. It is important to educate children (both male and female) fully about menstruation. It is important to empower girls to fight such taboos. So it doesn’t matter if you are a girl or a boy, brother or sister, mother or father, there is something you can do to start shifting the narrative from an awkward one to a constructive one.
-Priyanshi Mishra (Freelancer)
Picture: Worshippers at Sabarimala Temple (Credits – AP)
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