Isn’t untouchability abolished? Why is the bleeding of the goddess sacred, while that of the mortals dirty?
This post is by Amrita Mukhopadhyay as part of the series Culture and Human Rights (Part II).
The language of women’s rights as guaranteed by the law and constitutional provisions in India, presupposes a notion of a woman’s identity whereby women are seen as entitled to certain inalienable rights, the right to be treated equally, being one of them. The Constitution of India guarantees a fundamental right to equality and states that no citizen shall be discriminated against on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or subject to any ‘disability, liability, restriction or condition’ with regard to access to shops, public restaurant, hotels, places of public entertainment, wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public (Article 15(2). Further Article 17 clearly states that the practice of Untouchability is ‘abolished’ and its practice in any form is ‘forbidden’ and that the enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability is an offence punishable under law. However, the fundamental right to live a life free from gender discrimination has little resonance in a context where customs and practices regular call these rights and guarantees under the law into question consistently.
During my lifetime, I was treated as if I were an untouchable on account of my body. In contemporary India, a menstruating Hindu woman can cook, go to work, and perform all other duties and responsibilities, yet she is made to feel dirty and polluted.. And in some occasions she is not only made to feel dirty, she is treated as such through a variety of restrictions on what she can and cannot do.
Once, while visiting Varanasi, a sacred city of pilgrimage for Hindus, I was told by a relative that I could not go for a boat ride over the Ganges because I was menstruating and my dirty body would pollute the sacred waters of the river. More recently, during a field trip as part of my doctoral studies, a woman in the field told me, that menstruating women are dirty and even the thought of menstruation sickened her to her stomach, even when she thought about herself She explained that menstrual taboos enforce a strict code of conduct for women within the home not only in terms of religious rites but also in terms of other aspects of life.
She was not the only woman who had these views. Another woman described to me that menstruating women should wash their hair on the third day of the menstruatiion cycle, that droplets of water from her washed hair should not fall on anyone as it is polluted water and certainly on any day should not touch anything sacred or pious,perform puja (prayer) or touch anything that is offered for puja.
While these taboos were described to me by women within a business community in India, the menstrual taboo of prohibiting women from performing religious rites or touching anything sacred cuts across class, caste and religious lines. I notice educated and affluent friends, family members and extended family members in India and Sydney refraining from praying during menstruation or visiting temples during menstruation or touching anything sacred during their menstrual cycle. When I ask them why they observe it and why they think of themselves as dirty and polluted, I am told “I have been told that it is dirty since I was a child and hence I cannot change my thinking now” or “the priest has told me that women are dirty during menstruation”. The cumulative effect of menstrual taboos is the message that women in general are dirty irrespective of whether they are in the midst of their menstruating cycle.
I recall a visit to a Hindu ashram in East India, where I sat under a sacred “bel” tree until I was asked to stand up and remove myself from the place. Sometime later, I read a note stuck on the trunk of a tree– “women are forbidden to sit under the tree”. Thus the anatomy of women’s bodies is a liability and automatically disables them from not only participating in religious rites but also from sitting under a tree!
What is perplexing is thatwhilemenstrurating mortals are shunned menstruating Hindu goddess’ are celebrated. In the temple of Kamakhya in east India, the bleeding of the goddess Kamakhya is one of the most sacred annual events. There is even a festiaval titled, “Ambubachi,” during which devotees visit the temple immediately after the goddess is presumed to have completed her menstruation. The Prasad given to the devotees in return for their visit is a piece of cloth supposedly tainted by the menstrual blood of the goddess.
Thus while the law prohibits gender discrimination in regard to access to places and declares “untouchability” as illegal, cultural norms enforce a rigid form of gender discrimination where women are treated as untouchables. In the Hindu community, menstruation deems a woman dirty, polluted and automatically forbids women from participating in religious communal events. The problem with the operation of such taboo is that girls and later women are socialised into a state of ‘learned helplessness’ (Lenore Walker used the term to describe the symptoms of battered women syndrome) whereby they think of themselves and their bodies as subordinate and dirty.
In a context where religion is inextricably linked to everyday life, religious-cultural norms enforce a message about woman’s inferiority which overtime is internalised by women so much so that the menstrual taboos are not seen as a form of gender discrimination but taken as a ‘normal’ part of being a woman.
The laws that prohibit gender discrimination mean little in a context where women are taught to think of themselves as inferior. The notion of inferiority is deeply entrenched such that high levels of education or movement from India to overseas, doesn’t necessarily alter the attitude or perception of women’s bodies as inferior.
I often questioned myself as to why the bleeding of the Goddess is considered more sacred than that of the mortals? When I pose the question to other Hindu women, some ask me to hush up and some laugh out aloud, probably thinking I am insane. It is important for the language of rights to engage with culture and the World Bank Initiative -Think Equal- is a step in that direction. The ultimate aim of legal provisions prohibiting gender discrimination can become a reality in the lives of everyday women only when women are made to think that they are equal to men and that their body is not a liability.
Amrita Mukhopadhyay is a PhD student at the University of Sydney in Australia. Her thesis title is “Money and Violence: A case study of a business community in Kolkata. She is originally from India, where Amrita completed her undergrad and master’s degrees in Political Science and Philosophy.