temples & periods & feminism

Someone I recently met in India asked me ‘Do you believe in religion?’

When I replied with a “No, not really…..”

He proceeded to expand on my answer and said something along the lines of how religion, for the most part, was and is used as a tool to control the people of a particular belief. This conversation, along with numerous others I have had recently during classes and online, propelled me to think more deeply about the ways in which religion has played a role in my life; I wanted to reflect on how much of it I’ve subconsciously consumed and followed, despite my own feminist and individualistic values.

During this period of reflection, I found that the ‘period & temple’ rule is something that I’ve just abided by without ever questioning it or taking a minute to understand the purpose behind even having such a rule exist.

To start, here’s an excerpt from Saloni Saraf’s blog post titled ‘Mandir Misogny‘:

“We teach our daughters to be proud of their bodies, we challenge inequality, and we stigmatise discrimination. Yet we ignore what can only be described as misogynistic beliefs that stem deep into our tradition, and train our women to believe that menstruation is impure, and unclean. Don’t enter the temple as it will not be right. Don’t touch the kitchen utensils as you will stain. Growing up surrounded by a traditional Hindu family, whilst immersed in a liberal, feminist society can confuse anyone who’s genuinely interested in following a religion that runs through her family.”

As some of you read through this post, you may attempt to refute and claim that ‘there’s a science behind why women on their periods are not allowed to enter the temple.’ I preface this post with this statement because I was once forwarded an article by a man who said “see….there’s actual evidence as to why women on their periods shouldn’t enter temples. It’s unsafe for them due to the electromagnetic energy present inside temples.” I laugh thinking about that incident now, but am also irked by the fact that I didn’t do anything about it in that moment because I didn’t even know what was right & what was wrong and what was okay to believe & what wasn’t okay to believe at that time.

Here we are now as I’ve finally decided to do a tad bit more research into all things periods, religion, and feminism as it relates to Hinduism and the Indian culture, specifically.

what is the ‘period & temple’ rule?

Essentially, this unwritten rule states that if you’re a menstruating woman, you are not allowed to enter a temple.

Why? Well, supposedly undergoing a very normal biological process is viewed as ‘dirty’ and ‘impure.’

What is puzzling to me is how Indian culture and religion has selectively chosen when to celebrate periods versus when to shun them.

Many girls I know, including myself, have had a half-saree (i.e. ‘langa voni’) ceremony. The ultimate point of this ceremony is to highlight the girl’s ‘coming of age’ or, to put it bluntly, her period. My ceremony, in particular, was filled with lots of bling-bling jewelry, mouth-watering food, ear-pounding dances, plethora of flashing cameras, and lots and lots of love in the room. I sat in a fancy throne-like chair as all my relatives came to me one-by-one and blessed me. Blessed me for………………………………….getting my period? It’s literally a public declaration of ‘I got my period. Let’s party it up.’

In the olden days, the ceremony signified that a girl has now upgraded to the status of a woman and is finally ready to be married off. In the modern times, I see it as a way for people to, aside from showing off their daughters and wealth, protect some parts of their culture and give families a reason to bring loved ones together in an intimate way. The latter half of the purpose of this ceremony makes sense to me, but the rest of it does not.

If our culture promotes the sumptuous celebration of periods so publicly, why do we suddenly decide to hush them when it comes to temples?

a ‘scientific’ answer.

Referenced Article: Unearthing menstrual wisdom: Why we don’t go to the temple, and other practices

Sinu Joseph writes that the scientific explanation behind periods and temples is found in Ayurveda. Ayurveda is based on three of life’s guiding forces known as the doshas: (a) vata (air), (b) pitta (water), (c) kapha (fire).

Ayurvedic beliefs claim that menstruation helps women remove excess doshas on a monthly basis – essentially a monthly detox. They believe that the vata dosha is at work during these monthly processes and helps menstruation follow a downward flow or passage out of the body. Therefore, anything that disrupts this downward flow of energy during this time of the month should be avoided. Guess what supposedly interferes with this downward flow? The pujas, offerings, chants, and overall vibes of temples.

There was also a section in the article where Joseph conversed with a Guruji from Andhra Pradesh. This Guruji stated:

“What is pure, we don’t touch. And what we don’t touch, we call it a taboo. She (a menstruating woman) was so pure, that she was worshipped as a Goddess. The reason for not having a woman go into a temple is precisely this. She is a living Goddess at that time. The energy of the God or Goddess which is there in the murti will move over to her, and that murti becomes lifeless, while this (the menstruating woman) is life. So that’s why they were prevented from entering the temple. So it is exactly the opposite of what we think”.

This flips the narrative from ‘periods are dirty and impure’ to ‘periods make a menstruating person divine and Goddess-like.’ ……still confused and skeptical.

Here’s what I have to say to all of that ^

Firstly, both of the reasonings mentioned (i.e. interrupting the downward flow and becoming a ‘living Goddess’) do not belittle or demean women for their bodily functions. When we look at how these reasons have evolved over time, we see that it has turned into another way to separate and shame women. Modern society has somehow turned something that was more of a choice and respectful into a rule for menstruating people.

Secondly, I think it’s important to choose what you want to believe because I don’t see any rock-hard, scientifically-backed evidence behind those two reasons. From what I’ve gathered, Ayurveda is pseudoscience and a lot of what the Guruji spoke about is rooted in spirituality and energy that (as of right now) does not have much scientific backing either.

Thirdly, so how do those reasons pertain to the folks who menstruate who are not women?

After all that, my brain can’t help but to ask so who developed these theories? was it other women/menstruating people or was it men who have never experienced menstruation? If it’s the latter, then I think we should continue to furrow our brows, scratch our heads, and look more closely into the loopholes that are presented as ‘science.’

not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are women

When thinking about menstruation, we’ve been conditioned to only think of women. However, we’re leaving out so many others who also menstruate. Allow me to create space to bring to the limelight some people, who don’t necessarily identify as women, who also menstruate (this is by no means an exhaustive list):

  • men
  • transgender people
  • non-binary people
  • gender-nonconforming people

define feminism. [no, we don’t hate men]

feminism (noun): advocating for equality for all genders and sexualities across all races, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, sociocultural backgrounds, etc.

Too often feminism is attributed to a movement that is targeting men and thus, people believe that all feminists hate men. This is false.

Feminism at its core is about reclaiming voices and demanding equality for all. This may make some men squirm and feel uncomfortable because suddenly, they don’t have all the power in their possession, making them rather naively think that feminists hate men. We don’t hate men; in fact, I love men!

Also, any human being can be a feminist. Feminism is not for women. It’s for all of us, so all of us can be feminists.

the broader question: is feminism still needed today?

A few days ago, my mom and I got into an argument about body image. I was arguing (potentially even yelling, oops) that women are conditioned to identify their entire beings and worth based on their physical appearance due to the patriarchal nature of our society. My mother reddened with anger and scolded “why are you always saying women and men? not everything is about that.”

I scoffed. That’s the thing, though. If we look at everything occurring in our lives, including our own beliefs, a lot of things are based on that gender divide. I mean look at my own internal dissonance over not entering a temple when I’m on my period vs knowing that this is yet another way to control and ‘other’ women from everyone else. My mother does not understand the many ways in which sexism and misogyny can manifest.

Like my mother, many men and women have told me that in today’s world females are receiving better treatment and are being treated as an equal to a man. I disagree. I believe that there are definitely more conversations occurring in the more privileged spaces surrounding gender discrimination. However, not all of these conversations are being used as a basis for action and not all of these conversations are reaching the most vulnerable and underprivileged sectors of the world, which I believe are the key areas that we should focus on when cultivating such discussions.

Yes: we may have made large strides from the 20th to 21st century, but we are still continuing to live in a male-dominant society.

No: it is not wrong, tiring, or cumbersome to continue to speak up about such injustices.

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