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.

‘b****’: let’s unpack it.

Those of you who have been here a while know that I am a podcast fanatic. I have recently been hooked to Meghan Markle’s Archetypes, which dissects and explores the tropes and labels that have been or are still used to hold women back.

In her recent episode, Meghan sat down with Andy Cohen, Executive Producer of the Real Housewives franchise. Andy mentioned in the episode that one woman in the Real Housewives franchise wanted to use the b-word in her tagline. The word was not approved, however, Andy mentioned that the woman did make her case for why she does not feel offended by the use of that word. On the other hand, Meghan analyzed the b-word and how it was used to belittle women in the past during one of her previous episodes. She was shocked to hear that people from the current generation don’t mind the b-word because it’s used so often. Some also claimed that the b-word is easier to bear compared to all the other words/labels being thrown around today.

I was first introduced to the b-word in elementary school. In fact, I was considered to be one of the “late users” of the word. I didn’t begin using it until around eighth grade because at that point I had heard all of my fellow classmates use it so regularly, so obviously my 14-year-old self adapted to her social environment.

Here’s a confession: Today, I tend to use this word more often and with many of my friends. The b-word is a common vocabulary term that we use to sometimes greet each other, express anger, describe something, etc. However, I don’t think many of us realize that there is such a deep-rooted sexist history to the word. Thus, hearing Meghan Markle describe the b-word as a demeaning label for women was a shock to me, prompting me to research all about it.

what does it mean.

A “bitch” supposedly means a female dog. I’m not sure if this was common knowledge or not, but I simply had no idea or I was just oblivious to the fact that there is an actual definition of this word in the dictionary.

a quick history lesson.

The use of the b-word originates back to the 1400s (Hodgson, 2008). Apparently, calling a woman a b**** was used to accuse her of “being worse than a prostitute because at least a prostitute stood to gain financially from the broad distribution of her sexual favors” (Hodgson, 2008). Let’s pause really quick. Coffee date #5 is a strong advocate for substituting the word ‘prostitute’ with ‘sex workers’ or ‘sex professionals’ because it accepts/validates their labor. Therefore, it is crucial to note that the b-word is seen as something worse than, yet another, sexist, belittling label.

There’s also a link to the b-word and the Greek Gods. Supposedly, the Greek goddess Artemis-Diana, who was the goddess of the hunt, was often depicted as being in the presence of dogs. To spread Christianity and suppress the idea of a female being idolized, Christian Europe used the phrase ‘son of a bitch’ to criticize those who believed in Artemis-Diana (Kleinman et al., 2009). Therefore, this showed that the term ‘bitch’ was used to eradicate images of powerful and capable women by “equating them with sexually depraved beasts” (Kleinman et al., 2009).

why it is used.

Kleinman et al. states that “feminists analyzed that preference [the need to use ‘bitch’ over any male-associated terms, such as ‘jerk’ or ‘dickhead’] as internalized oppression, whereby members of an oppressed group learn to enjoy using the dominant group’s term for them” (2009). *jaw dropped. eyes bulged. gasped for a hot second.*

how it is used.

As mentioned previously, my friends and I tend to use this word nonchalantly. Some of us even use it to describe objects or events. For instance, let’s say we take an incredibly hard exam. Many might say that that “exam was a real bitch.” Others who still struggled through the exam, but felt that they did well might say “I bent that test over and made it my bitch” (these example quotes were taken from the Kleinman et al. paper).

In the former example, the b-word is being associated with “difficult” – yet another label often used to belittle women. In the latter example, the b-word is being associated with something that can be controlled, dominated, or conquered (Kleinman et al., 2009). And for how long have women been controlled and dominated in our largely patriarchal world?

Therefore, the paper noted that using the b-word over any other terms associated with men or masculinity (for example, people rarely say ‘that exam was a real jerk‘) to describe objects is further indicates just how abusive the b-word is towards women and how its use is fueling sexism.

The b-word is also often used in the political space, especially during heated debates and in media articles. During the 2008 primaries in the United States, Sarah Palin was supposedly “viewed as emasculating John McCain, who was then labeled a “bitch” in a comedic YouTube clip titled, “Is McCain Palin’s Bitch?”” (LisaNova, 2008). The fact the b-word was being used to describe a man, a white man nonetheless, immediately displays that its purpose was to ’emasculate’ him. It was also intended to insult the man for allowing himself to be dominated by a woman *insert dramatic eye roll* (Kleinman et al., 2009).

the conclusion.

Honestly, Kleinman et al.’s paper Reclaiming Critical Analysis: The Social Harms of “Bitch” has been incredibly insightful and eye-opening (2009). It shed light on exactly why the b-word is so offensive and why Meghan Markle was so confused as to why this term is such a normal part of millennial vocabulary.

Words hold so much power. They can be healing, grounding, and therapeutic. Yet they can also be sexist, demeaning, and continue to fuel all the labels and stereotypes attributed to different genders, races, classes, and people in general. Thus, we must choose our words carefully and accept it when we are oblivious to terms that are harmful and degrading. From acceptance, we must move towards change and that change can stem from something as simple as conscientiously removing such terms from our vocabulary.

Here are some other related articles and resources I found for any of you interested folks:

  1. Use of the word “bitch” surged after women’s suffrage (Zhou, 2020)
  2. What’s so bad about being called a ‘bitch’? (Taylor-Coleman, 2016)
  3. The Harmless-Sounding Phrase That Is Terrible for All Women (Rinaldi, 2017)