By Soma Mandal
With thousands of migrant women stranded across different parts of the country during the ongoing Covid-19 lockdown, and with rural inaccessibility to menstrual health infrastructure, it signals a worsening and depreciable state of women’s health condition in the present time. While the Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28 marks the global celebration of augmenting safe hygiene practices for menstruant women, the period movement has hardly reached critical milestones in India.
All eyes were set on Arunachalam Muruganantham, whose initiative to revolutionalise low-cost period processing pads within the local capacity for rural and semi-rural places took on the dream to sanitize the stench around menstruation.
The recent shocking incident of sixty girls forced to strip down their modesty in Shree Sathyayanand Girls College hostel run by the Swaminarayan Marathwada Trust in Bhuj, Gujarat is a violation of women’s right to privacy. From resorting to the periodical examination of their bodies in the college premise, and inside the hostel, there had been in place unreasonable imposition of rules for restricting free entry to temple and hostel-kitchen. Disciplinary mechanisms to ensure surveillance over students’ bodily behaviour during the menstrual cycle and even the existence of a period room (yes, menstrual room for temporary deportation of students in the basement of the hostel building) are new additions to menstrual repression that have surfaced in the present time. These sixty girls who were punished and made to pull down their clothes to reveal the menstruating undergarments prove that menstrual distaste, sick psycho-sexual, and perverse practices are far from over. Secretly nourished by women and men, these practices represent misogynist cultures of behaviour, interaction and exclusion for women.
Krushnaswarup Das, the spiritual leader of the Swaminarayan Bhuj Mandir Sect, whose followers run the Bhuj hostel says, “If you eat food prepared by a menstruating woman even once then your next avatar will definitely be that of an ox … a menstruating woman who cooks food for her husband will certainly be born as a kutri (bitch).” Surprisingly, all these theological presuppositions are based on perverse speculations. The deep-seated violence towards women’s biology manifest in these provocative statements invite no legal action from the State. Here, one is forced to ask: if spirituality is a transcendental philosophy without the physical involvement of the body, what is the rationale for gendering and situating spirituality within the epistemic boundaries of the menstruant body?
Recently, Rehana Fathima, one of the six non-Hindu social activists, who tried to bring down the period barricade surrounding the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala has been sacked by the telecom giant BSNL for her immodest and indecent public behaviour. Branding her behaviour of trying to enter the sanctum sanctorum as unwomanly and disgusting, she has been threatened with legal repercussion, “Your insult of Hindus won’t be tolerated.” Her forceful attempt to enter the temple premise to remove the religious dirt that has been imposed on women through ages made her pay a heavy price. Her intractable mistake was a demand for the right to protection of life and personal liberty for women under Article 21.
Representing one of the voices of Sabarimala movement, her call to defy taboos of tradition, not just took on the plight of women suffering menstrual backwardness but refused to heed the borders of religion. In doing so, she has reiterated that feminism has no religion. Otherwise the purpose of uniting and resisting against patriarchy despite differences would not have materialized by what we know as universal feminism today. This task of overcoming socio-cultural barriers to uplift women and represent the plight of fellow citizens have been the initiative of a few daring women who want to transform and transcend the generational hindrances created by systems of patriarchy.
Why then must we commemorate a Menstrual Hygiene Day without addressing the indiscriminate behaviour of the State and men towards women who come out on the streets asking for women’s constitutional rights? Why should our loathing misogynist religious practices terminate and resist welfarist and progressive developments for fellow human beings? If our support cannot be extended for women protesting at the frontline of the feminist movement, as had been the case with Rehana Fathima, we need to ask pardon for all the hypocrisy we commemorate as feminism. The spirit of speaking up against religious patriarchy and systemic discrimination is crushed with impounding force. Her compulsory retirement from service declared by the BSNL and her ex-communication by the Kerala Muslim Jamaat provides ample evidence of how and why Menstrual Hygiene Day is a farce. Menstruation is one dilemma of semi-feminists and women, who have blatantly supported misogyny and patriarchy, admonished women and abdicated themselves of the responsibility that menstrual freedom requires. Instead of opening out towards a substantive, menstrual-empowered life, menstruation had been one common binding force for women and men to institutionalize oppression, discrimination and domination.
The structural intersection of religion and tradition (pratha) continues to emerge in the discreet practising of menstrual exclusion. Propositions and recourse to reorient it towards a process of democratic inclusion remain the biggest dilemma for women in seeking menstrual liberation. Even after the progressive verdict on the Sabrimala Temple case by the Supreme Court to lift the ban on menstruation in 2018, the ongoing review petitions indicate little has changed for the feminists on the ground.
Celebration of Menstrual Hygiene Day with pseudo-inclusive measures that act as a blanket cover for operating covert forms of religious patriarchy does more harm than good. Indeed, as we celebrate the day poorly without remembering and supporting women who fight for our rights, we must call out against injustices meted out to these women who are continuing their fight for our menstrual rights.
Soma Mandal is an independent research scholar. You may reach her at email@example.com
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