Sacred Spaces, Secular Norms and Women's Rights

(Excerpt from the article by Kavita Krishnan in the August 2006 issue of Liberation)

ARE democratic and egalitarian norms to be left outside the door of sacred spaces, along with one's footwear? Can sacred custom be immune from the Constitutional obligation not to discriminate on grounds of gender or caste? One would have thought that such issues had been settled in our country a century ago – with the assertive and powerful Temple Entry movements that ensured that Hindu shrines had to do away with the customary ban on entry of Dalits. But recent events in Kerala, a State known for some of the best indices of literacy and women's education, show us that the issue is far from being settled – and a shrine is free to brand women as ‘polluting', and to seek to punish a Karnataka actress who breached its walls nearly 20 years ago.

The Sabarimala shrine bars women between the age of 10-50 (i.e. women of fertile age, capable of menstruation) from climbing the hill and entering the shrine, since their presence is said to be offensive to the bachelor deity Ayyappa. The recent controversy began when astrologers claimed to have ‘found' that the deity was disturbed because of the touch of a ‘beautiful woman'. The taboo itself, and the astrologers' ‘findings', actually reveal the deep anxieties of the patriarchal custodians of the shrine about female sexuality – transferred conveniently onto the deity.

Female sexuality has had a chequered relationship with religious and social custom. Early human societies revered women's ability to give birth – and therefore tended to hold the signs of female fertility (including menstruation) in high regard. Women's role in reproduction (motherhood) was neither divorced from their central role in production (gathering and even hunting), nor from their sexuality. In some such societies, men even ritually mimicked menstruation. Vestiges of such practices prevail in India today – at the Kamakhya temple in Assam , for instance (and perhaps in other shrines too), the stone image of the female goddess is believed to bleed. However, the emergence of class society resulted in patriarchal control over women's sexuality and reproduction – out of a need to ensure the transference of private property along ‘legitimate' male lineage. Social customs and practices now mirrored this ‘world-historic defeat of the female sex': representations of women as vessels of dangerous sexuality became a common theme in the mythology of most religions; motherhood was hailed and venerated, but women's sexuality was feared, punished and disciplined. Eve's apple, Pandora's box, Medusa's hair and her petrifying gaze, Dirghajeevi's long tongue (representing insatiable sexuality), Kali biting her tongue to chastise herself as she is about to step on her husband – all suggest how very different cultures have often shared fears and anxieties about female sexuality.

The Sabarimala issue has revealed the contradictions in our secular polity – with gender marking the deepest fault-line.

Why do such customs persist in modern society, where women's struggles have successfully challenged so many discriminatory practices? Possibly because they feed in to specifically modern anxieties, and in turn serve to supply a patriarchal common sense that provides a defence against fears flowing from increased assertion and public presence of women in modern society. Every time there is an instance of rape or sexual harassment, the dominant response is often to blame the episode on modern women's provocative dress or behaviour. Sexual violence is conflated with sexual desire – and male desire and violence are both blamed on female titillation. The Sabarimala custom endorses and subtly reinforces such an attitude. Surely an accomplished brahmachari , especially a ‘divine' one, need not feel threatened by the presence of women? But no – women are by definition ‘guilty' of their sexuality, and it is women who bear responsibility for controlling or effacing their own sexuality; men are not called upon to admit or take responsibility - either for their own sexual desire, or for sexual violence.

Recently, we saw the Army try to discourage women from entering its hallowed premises, and demean those who did. Outraged critics were chastised for daring to speak against the custodians of ‘national security'; such ‘security' concerns, we were told, cannot be expected to comply with the diktats of political correctness. Now, the Sabarimala Temple is claiming religious autonomy to justify its ban on women's entry. The norms of modern democracy and citizenship demand that discrimination on the grounds of gender or caste cannot be tolerated: and neither ‘sacredness' nor ‘security' can be used to cloak such discriminatory practices with legitimacy.

The agenda of today's women's movement and democratic movements need not be one of ‘temple entry' for women. The central issue must, however, be that of the State's attitude towards discriminatory ‘customs'. In a modern nation, the onus is on the State to enforce that democratic rights are not infringed upon, and to promote egalitarian values. Unfortunately, the secularism of the Indian State has always been riddled with contradictions. In Rajasthan, the BJP Government has not only endorsed the illegal practice of temples that glorify sati , it has peddled such temples as tourist attractions. In Kerala, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has agitated for ‘punishment' for the actress who is said to have entered the Sabarimala shrine.

The Sabarimala issue has revealed the contradictions in our secular polity – with gender marking the deepest fault-line. It is up to the progressive political forces and civil society groups to demand that the State stop colluding with gender discrimination in the name of ‘custom’.