The first pilgrimage season at the Sabarimala temple ended on October 22 following the revocation of the ban on women of menstruating age entering the place of worship. Despite the top court’s decision, not a single such woman could enter the temple. Not only did political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress frown upon what they described as the disruption of hundred years of tradition, people at large – both men and women – rallied against the court order, physically preventing women from entering the temple.
At an event organised by the Observer Research Foundation on Tuesday, Union minister Smriti Irani, responding to a question, said: “I am nobody to speak of the Supreme Court verdict, because I am a current serving cabinet minister. But just plain common sense. Would you take sanitary napkins seeped in menstrual blood and walk into a friend’s home? You would not. Would you think it is respectful to do the same thing and walk into house of God? So that is the difference. I have the right to pray, I do not have the right to desecrate.”
As the war around menstruating women entering Sabarimala temple rages, feminist activist Gloria Steinem’s searing essay ‘If Men Could Menstruate‘ comes to mind. Written in Ms magazine more than two decades ago – October 1978 to be precise – the succinct, sardonic piece of writing turns the subject of menstruation on its head. Steinem asks her readers to imagine a situation when men “suddenly and magically” start menstruating while women cannot:
“The answer is clear—menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much. Boys would mark the onset of menses, that longed-for proof of manhood, with religious ritual and stag parties.”
From a thing of shame and embarrassment, menstruation would become a badge of honour that men would wear with pride. “Street guys would brag (‘I’m a three-pad man’) or answer praise from a buddy (‘Man, you lookin’ good!’) by giving fives and saying, ‘Yeah, man, I’m on the rag!’ TV shows would treat the subject at length,” Steinem wrote. In such a surreal world, the government would invest more and more resources to lessen the discomforts of bleeding men. “Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea to help stamp out monthly discomforts. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.”
Steinem’s razor-sharp, witty essay draws a direct connection between structured power and skewed gender relations. In fact, in the essay, menstruation per se is not the issue at hand. The issue is who is menstruating. According to Steinem, dominant cultural associations with menstruation, if transposed on the bodies of men, would ironically add rather than reduce the power of masculinity.
For instance, Steinem writes, “Military men, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (‘men-struation’) as proof that only men could serve in the Army (‘you have to give blood to take blood,’) occupy political office (‘can women be aggressive without that steadfast cycle governed by the planet Mars?,’) be priests and ministers (‘how could a woman give her blood for our sins?’) or rabbis (‘without the monthly loss of impurities, women remain unclean.’)
Arguably, Steinem desexualises menstruation, which exclusively is a woman’s domain and directly connected to their reproductive agency. Stretch her argument and you may well come up with other such imaginary yet provocative constructs. For instance, what would happen if the bodies of men rather than of women were biologically equipped to bear children? Would abortion then become a public subject of discussion – a legitimate and proud choice for every man exercising it? Would lactating men then be provided with restrooms and creches in office to take care of infants?
Though reading Steinem’s essay may be important in present times when gender discourse appears to have become so polarising, it is worth remembering that her version of feminism largely ignored intersections between feminism, race and class.
Can feminism be grounded solely in sexual politics? Does it need to build bridges with other oppressed or subordinate groups? These questions are as important for American feminisms as Indian ones.
Though not evident in the ongoing conflict in Sabarimala, the 19th century Maru Marakkal Samaram (protest for the right to cover the upper-body) or Channar Lahala (Channar revolt) movement in the state of Travancore, foregrounded intersectionality between women’s bodies and caste. In a recent article in the Indian Express, Amrith Lal drew attention to the movements that were then led by women from the Channar caste – currently known as Nadar, an OBC community – seeking to cover their breasts. It was then a right that could be exercised only by Hindu upper-caste women.
The struggle at Sabarimala is located within these histories of women’s resistance. Smriti Irani’s comments show a blatant disregard or ignorance of such histories. By connecting menstruation to desecration using the ludicrous comparison of “taking” sanitary pads into a friend’s house and a temple, Irani is perpetuating very old prejudices rooted in the politics of gender and caste.