In India, More Women Need Sanitary Napkins, Not Entry Into Sabarimala

02/12/2015 9:03 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Barcroft Media via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - MARCH 18: A student holds a sanitary pad with Feminist messages during the viral campaign #PadsAgainstSexism by students of Jamia Millia Islamia university on March 18, 2015 in New Delhi, India. STUDENTS from the Jamie Millia Islamia University and Delhi University in India have attached sanitary towels to poles, trees and walls. Messages such as My pussy my choice and Rape is not cool have been stuck onto the towel. The viral campaign #PadsAgainstSexism, which started in Germany but spread to India is meant to shock and create debate as menstruation is a taboo subject. The campaign comes just weeks after a BBC documentary about the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi in 2012 was banned from broadcast in India. PHOTOGRAPH BY Sujatro Ghosh / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Sujatro Ghosh / Barcroft India via Getty Images)

Menstrual activism, radical menstruation, menstrual anarchy or any opposition to the suggestion of impurity during menstruation deserves public support. However, directing it against Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, which allows the entry only of men and women outside reproductive age, reeks of bogus activism because religion and faith by nature are irrational.

It's not just Sabarimala that has discriminatory gender policies; another celebrated temple in the same state -- Attukal in Thiruvananthapuram - does not allow men to participate in its grand event that paralyses and pollutes the state capital every year. Yet another Kerala temple, Kottankulangara in Kollam district, accords special privileges to cross-dressed men. At the Koovagam festival in Tamil Nadu, it's trans people who run the show.

Is there a common logic here other than some local myths and blind faith?

Will any woman devotee of Sabarimala ask for a change in its gender policy when it's part of her faith too? Unlikely.

"What Indian women need is better health rather than entry into a horribly crowded forest temple where people die in stampedes."

Menstruation activists, instead, should focus their energies on advocating for menstrual hygiene, which incidentally is awful in India. Only 12% of Indian women use sanitary napkins and there are no uniform methods for their disposal (even at the present level of coverage, the numbers of soiled pads to be disposed of are huge in the country). India needs massive improvements in both areas. What Indian women need is better health rather than entry into a horribly crowded forest temple where people die in stampedes. Demanding entry into a temple, which rationalists accuse of a grand hoax every year and serious environmental degradation, contradicts any sense of modernity.

There is no denying the fact that major religions have a problem with menstrual blood and the fight against purity-driven restrictions should continue. However, the bigger and immediate challenge is menstrual hygiene because it's a real drain on women's lives. Celebration of menstrual blood shouldn't be at the cost of the lives of poor women. Give them pads first and find a sustainable way to dispose them before asking them to celebrate their monthly ordeal.

Bogus activists obscure real issues and use it to further their careers, be it in literature, arts or politics.

Low-brow personal writing and works of art gain respectability when packaged in carefully chosen causes, however silly and misguided they are. The people behind them are global conference activists and festival artists, mostly funded by imperial scholarships and awards, feasting on the miseries of the natives. Ask them for constructive solutions and they offer nothing because they are busy tripping on causes.

Menstrual hygiene is a serious issue -- it directly impacts all the erstwhile Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) concerning women -- education, gender equality, maternal (and child) health -- and environmental sustainability. Instead of asking for entry into Sabarimala, the activists should urge people to reject the discriminatory temple, and instead ask for universal coverage for menstrual health. It's both a health and environmental challenge and there have only been isolated non-governmental efforts in states such as Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. We are far from finding a feasible solution. Misleading disempowered women with bogus causes is sheer opportunism.

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