The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The standoff at Sabarimala stains India’s progress on women’s rights

Women take part in a "women's wall" protest in Kochi, India, on New Year's Day. (AFP/Getty Images) (-/AFP/Getty Images)

In India, they tell us that women can be anything we wish. We can be fighter-jet pilots, corporate CEOs, paratroopers, athletes — and, of course, prime minister. (We never get tired of reminding Americans of this, since the United States is still waiting for its first female head of state.)

But God forbid we dare to argue that, in 2019, menstruation should not bar us from praying at a temple. What sort of global power can the world’s largest democracy aspire to be when our monthly period is still used to make women feel like polluted pariahs who must be kept at a distance? Is this not repugnant modern-day untouchability?

This week, a 620-kilometer “women’s wall” made up of an estimated 5 million protesters drew global attention to the shame unfolding at the Sabarimala shrine in the southern Indian state of Kerala. For more than two months, there have been violent protests and riots over the entry of women at Sabarimala. According to mythology, Lord Ayyappa, the deity at the 800-year-old temple, was a bachelor god who took a vow of celibacy and set clear rules for the pilgrimage to seek his blessings. And thus, by custom, women in their reproductive years must keep away.

The women’s wall is a fight for what agitators are calling “renaissance values.” Mobilized by the left-wing government in Kerala, the women, with their arms outstretched in determined defiance, occupied all the national highways across the state to protest the brazen discrimination at the temple. It may well have been the largest single gathering of women in the world.

The ban on women between the ages of 10 and 50 (their reproductive years) has been legally in place only since the 1970s. Despite a Supreme Court order to end it, there has been brazen defiance of the judiciary. India’s ruling party, the BJP, declared the Supreme Court order an assault on Hindu tradition. The Modi government’s insistence that Hindu tradition must be privileged over constitutional rights to equality for women is both dangerous and irresponsibe.

In election season, the opposition Congress party is not willing to take a more progressive position either. Even Shashi Tharoor, the erudite and eloquent parliamentarian from Kerala and a self-confessed liberal, went from supporting the entry of all women to the temple to opposing it, because, as he told me, “there has never been a mass movement by women in Kerala for this cause.” I had hoped he might change his mind after looking at the stirring images of the women’s wall of protest. Or that, like so many Indians I know, he would be moved by the two women who finally made history this week, when they managed to enter the temple in the dead of the night to worship at the old shrine.

Instead, Tharoor called it an “unnecessary provocative act."

The indefensible surrender at Sabarimala by both major national parties is the defeat of fundamental liberal values and the victory of majoritarian populism.

Traditionalists argue that the taboo is not about menstruation but preserving an ancient custom unique to the temple. But there is not a single civilized defense possible for the temple priest’s shutting down Sabarimala to ‘purify’ the shrine after the two women offered prayers there. In other words, the mere presence of women who are young enough to menstruate is defiling. This is not just biological determinism; it is the institutional weaponization of bigotry against women. It elevates prejudice to the level of piety.

Since the entry of the two women at the shrine — 96 days after the Supreme Court verdict — violence has erupted across Kerala again. Right-wing groups have led street protests that have seen arson, stone-pelting and crude bombs thrown at left-wing party offices. Schools and colleges have closed in the mayhem. Does a woman’s monthly period trigger this level of fear and rage?

The Sabarimala debate has exposed the doublespeak of the Modi government on women’s rights and issues affecting Hindus and Muslims. The government’s campaign to end “triple talaq” or “instant divorce” — a barbaric personal law long used to exploit Muslim women — began as a very welcome initiative. As a feminist, I championed it. But then it went overboard with a legislative proviso that could imprison men (for up to three months) who practiced the abhorrent custom. Sending men to jail for abandoning their marriages doesn’t sit at ease with a country that just decriminalized adultery and whose Parliament refuses to recognize marital rape as a crime. But the BJP also has no good answer for why one anachronistic custom — such as triple talaq — should be struck down to safeguard the rights of women while the barrier to women at Sabarimala should be defended in the name of tradition. The prime minister personally drew this entirely unconvincing distinction in a recent interview. The patent contradiction only leaves you thinking the difference is that one change involves Muslims and the other involves Hindus. Other faiths have also treated menstruation as a taboo. Some Muslim women have told me they are forbidden from offering Namaz during their period. In general, many faiths' personal laws — and religious dogma — are tilted against women.

Sabarimala has exposed not just the demise of liberal political values but also the paradox of being female in India. There is no point celebrating the strength of Indira Gandhi as prime minister or our female defense minister if we still think female blood is a social blot.

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