Is it A Crime to Menstruate?
In December 2010, Indian actress, Jayamala was investigated by the Crimes Branch of the police, on order of the Kerala state government in India, and then officially charged with violating Indian law.
Her crime, it seems, is to belong to a gender that menstruates!
She was charged under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feeling of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”
What was Jayamala’s “deliberate and malicious” act?
Her crime was she visited a certain temple, about 23 years ago, when she 18 years old, because she wanted to worship there.
And why did this simple act of devotion “outrage” some people? Why was it so “insulting” to them?
Because this particular temple, like many others in India has an old rule. No female who is menstruating can enter the temple. Menstruating girls and women in most sections of Indian society are viewed as “unclean” and “polluting,” like a garbage heap, a rotting compost, or noxious traffic fumes would be. Females who are menstruating are said to “pollute” the environment they enter. And since the temple is a sacred precinct, the only way to keep it ‘clean’ is to keep the pollutants out. To ensure that no pollutants enter the temple, the temple made a law that no female between the age of 10 years and 50 years (the menstruating years) can worship at the shrine.
Hence, Jayamala, by violating this temple rule, at the age of 18, more than 23 years ago, had polluted the temple, had “insulted” and “outraged” the public’s ‘feelings’, and was answerable to the police and judiciary.
Her “crime” was discovered when the temple was conducting a routing “astrological” investigation into rituals of worship at the temple. The investigation revealed that these rituals had been hampered because of some woman having entered the sanctum. Terrified of the implications, poor Jayamala “admitted” to her ‘crime’ and then said that she had entered “accidentally” when she got pushed in by the milling crowds.
This called for further investigations by the Crimes Branch of the Police under order of the state government!
They decided that the temple steps lead up to the sanctum, and there is no way that Jayamala could have been pushed into that space. The police concluded that she had lied, and charged her with making a “fake” claim, and with Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feeling of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”
Except for a small section of Indians, who are chewing on their nails in frustration at such outrageous bigotry and violation of a person’s right to worship freely, there is not much public sympathy for Jayamala in India. As a journalist in a prominent English newspaper in India observes, “Is it possible to strictly apply modern categories like gender rights in matters of faith? Can we overturn an established tradition in the name of gender equality? In fact, many believers including women will refuse to read a gender question in the custom. There is nothing sexist in the practice as the temple allows the entry of girls below 10 and women above 50 years. A legal intervention is unlikely to change this situation, as it is an issue of tradition and faith.”
This notion of menstruating women being “unclean” and “polluting” is upheld by most across all strata of Indian society — rural and urban, educated and illiterate, rich and poor. Women are often forbidden from entering certain rooms in the house, approaching certain people and engaging in certain activities. In some homes they are isolated in a separate room. If they mistakenly do something or enter some place they are not supposed to, then there needs to be a cleansing ritual to “purify” the place! Even Gandhi used to say that menstruation was a manifestation of the distorted souls of women because of their sexuality. He believed that when women’s souls were pure, then they would automatically stop menstruating.
What lies at the root of this insanity?
Could it be fear?
A deep, morbid, collective, psychotic fear – one that is rooted way back in the history and culture of India?
Some of the ancient texts of India, such as the Vedas, that date back to more than 2000 years, indicate that “Menstrual blood was regarded as one of the most evil manifestations of a woman’s power. It was believed that during the moon god’s wedding, his bride had managed to capture him in her red and purple bridal gown and left a permanent imprint on him, which trapped him in her powers…The menstrual blood was [regarded to be] a wild and evil animal…that could burn, bite, scratch, poison and even kill a man. The blood from the rupturing of the hymen was similarly considered dangerous [to the man], and after the wedding night, the blood-stained bridal dress would be handed to the priest, who ripped it up and fed it to the ceremonial flames to rid the bride of her evil powers.” (Rita Banerji, Sex and Power Penguin Global, 2009, pg.49)
The question now is: Is this fear – this deep rooted fear of female sexuality— that which underlies not just events like the criminalization of Jayamala’s plain act of worship, but the larger issue of systematic violence towards girls and women in India?
Is it this collective/ historic fear of female sexuality that is driving this totally irrational, systematic, mass annihilation of women in India?
50 million women ruthlessly exterminated in three generations!! It’s unprecedented!
When you look at genocides around the world – one of the most obvious driving forces is an unmitigated, irrational hatred and fear of the victimized group.
Isn’t it time for India to look this fear in the eye? To recognize it? And learn to deal with it like a progressive nation?