Most women don’t particularly want the freedom to bleed in public. All they are asking for is a little respect.
Prayar Gopalakrishnan, board president of the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple, unwittingly sparked the war while musing on the probability of easing the temple’s strict gender rules. “A time will come when people will ask if all women should be disallowed from entering the temple throughout the year,” he told reporters, “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’ for a woman to enter the temple. When that machine is invented, we will talk about letting women inside.”
The response was swift and bold. Within hours, a social media campaign hash-tagged #HappyToBleed, led by college student Nikita Azad, went viral on Facebook, accompanied by photos of women flaunting placards, tampons and sanitary napkins. Azad told the BBC “there is no ‘right time’ to go into a temple and that women should have to right to go ‘wherever they want to and whenever they want to’.”
Brave words, but perhaps not entirely persuasive, even to progressive sympathisers, many of whom were left wondering if Azad had picked the wrong battle to fight a just cause. It is difficult to argue that feminism, however worthy, should run roughshod over religious sentiments of not just male but also female devotees. As fellow journalist Pramod Kumar pointed out in his Facebook response, “Will any woman devotee of Sabarimala ask for a change in its gender policy when it is part of her faith itself? Unlikely.”
Moreover, it seems unfair to pick on Gopalakrishnan who was in his muddled way opening the door to liberalising Sabarimala’s ‘no women’ rule, and that at the very time when the trust in charge of the Haji Ali Dargah were fighting in court to ban women from its inner shrine entirely. The new rule passed by Dargah trustees read, “The trustees are unanimous on the point that entry of women in close proximity to the grave of a male Muslim saint is a grievous sin as per Islam and as such the trust is governed by the Constitution Law and particularly Article 26 of the Constitution of India, which confers upon the trust a fundamental right to manage its own affairs in matters of religion and as such interference is uncalled for by any third agency.” And, as with Sabarimala, the rule has been embraced by most of the dargah’s women devotees. “Men and women are equal, but for a woman to touch the mazaar [grave] in a dargah; that would be sin,” said retired nurse Tehzeeb Jamal to journalists.
Azad herself admits that hers “is not a temple-entry campaign,” in which case she may have been better off picking a more appropriate context to make her point. Take the example of poet Rupi Kaur, who made waves earlier this year when she posted intimate photos that captured the quintessentially feminine experience: used sanitary napkins, stained clothes and sheets, bloody toilet bowls and showers. Instagram deleted her images twice for violating community guidelines, and reinstated them only after she created a public stir.
More recently, Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon “with blood dripping down my legs for sisters who don’t have access to tampons and sisters who, despite cramping and pain, hide it away and pretend like it doesn’t exist.” Both women broke the societal taboos that make menstrual blood not just unclean but also invisible, and they did it in a powerfully personal way.
The irony, of course, is that it is modernity that has made menstruation so wholly invisible. When women were once confined during ‘that time of the month’ — as my own mother was in our traditional Tamil Brahmin household — the fact of menstruation was advertised widely. The humiliation that accompanied such rules is precisely why my urban middle class generation broke with them entirely, preferring instead to make our periods invisible to the outside world. The new freedom did not, however, bring any respite from the shame. We now live in mortal fear of that errant spot of blood or a used sanitary napkin, which may reveal our feminine disgrace. Gandhi, Kaur, and even Azad, however misdirected, are rebelling against that instinctive revulsion, now so fully internalised by our socialised selves.
To be clear, most of us do not particularly want the freedom to bleed freely and in public. Many, in fact, would be greatly benefited by better, cheaper access to sanitary pads and tampons which are essential for hygiene — and which greatly reduce the risk of cervical cancer, the leading cancer among Indian women. But surely the first step toward embracing the basic needs of women’s bodies is to stop demeaning them. Furious at Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly for grilling him during the Republican primary debate, Donald Trump infamously took a shot at her menstrual cycle, claiming there was “blood coming out of her… wherever.” It’s the easiest and cheapest shot to take against a woman.
Menstruation has been used to define women as not just unclean but also inferior, unfit for power, and incapable of reason. No natural biological function of a man’s body has been so ostracised or used against him. “So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?” asks Gloria Steinem in her famously witty essay.
“Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much… Generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (‘men-struation’) as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat… occupy high political office… be priests, ministers, God himself…” We less demanding women, however, are willing to settle for a lot less — just a little respect for our bodies and ourselves.