Last week two women made history in India as the first women to enter a Hindu temple in Kerala after the Supreme Court in India lifted a ban on women entering the Sabarimala Temple.
This wasn’t just a ban on menstruating women, which is common throughout India. This was a ban on all females from 10 to 50 because they were ‘menstruating age’. This had been an informal ban for years but in 1972 it became law, and officially criminalised a woman for her biology.
It is hard to believe that the simple act of stepping inside a temple could be so courageous. So powerful and so radical. Two 42-year-old women, Kanaka Durga and Bindu, wore black tunics as they entered a temple and made history. They must have been terrified. They would have known the reaction that their simple act would spark. In fact it created such a reaction from hardliners in Kerala that the police were required to fire tear gas, stun grenades, and water cannons. They were violently protesting because women were claiming equal space. Space to be devotees to their Hindu religion, just like the men.
That’s how quietly radical our bodies are. Our mere presence can defile sacred spaces, and render centuries-old deities to dust. Well, that’s what the fundamentalist thinking, the patriarchal thinking India has perpetuated.
I can’t even imagine what a girl thinks about herself and her value knowing that a very natural process of her body – the natural cleaning process of her incredible vagina – is so culturally maligned. It’s like being born into a knowing that your biology will at times mean you can’t touch food, you need separate eating utensils, and you definitely can’t enter a temple to pray.
To be exiled because of your vagina is culturally endorsed shaming. The shaming is so normalised in India that it’s become law. So often hideous oppressive practices around the world are defended because they are ‘cultural’. Like that legitimises the practice.
When women around the world rise up against these archaic belief systems it gives women all around the world hope that we can unite and that the oppression of women around the globe will come to an end.
After conversations with a friend, Dr Sneha Rooh, who is a feminist living in Manipur in the northeastern region of the country, tells me that many Indian women have been subverting this paradigm for some time now. But in secret. They entered temples while menstruating and realised that their families didn’t die and their villages weren’t destroyed.
Dr Rooh doesn’t go to temples. She’s not religious – but she does run menstruation groups, ‘Orikalankini’ (means ‘the stain’ in Hindi), to connect women with the power and patterns of their bodies.
Menstruating here is something we’ve seen as an inconvenience, but in India it has become a radical unifier. What was most moving about what happened in Kerala was the women who came out to create a 620-kilometre human wall pushing for gender equality.
Beautiful Indian women of all ages stood quietly on the roadside, a stream of progressive humanity asking for equity. The fundamentalists (mainly men) came shouting with sticks and violence to defend their right to exclude women from their sacred space, while the women stood peacefully in powerful harmony. Mothers, grandmothers, children. Women who aren’t radicals. Women who probably would never identify themselves as feminists stood shoulder to shoulder, or sari to sari, in what I would have to say is one of the most powerful displays of woman power I have ever seen. There was no violence, no shouting, just quiet solidarity of people who menstruate. That was five million women.
It makes me cry just thinking about it. Five million women who have lived their lives in a patriarchal oppression, who had been conditioned that their biology made them unclean. Five million women who on that day decided to support Kanaka and Bindu by standing on the roadside in solidarity for their right to enter a temple. Something denied to them because they have a vagina.
But what is a vagina if not a temple? A sacred space that has the ability to create life. That’s our temple and we have always been there.