Free Press Journal

Reinterpreting the right to bleed


Muslim women

Last fortnight leading seminary Darul Uloom Deoband issued an edict prohibiting Muslim women against dressing their eyebrows or cutting their hair to look beautiful. “Dressing the eyebrow to look beautiful is against the tenets of Islam,” Maulana Mufti Arshad Faruqui, head of the Darul Ifta, the fatwa department of the seminary, told reporters in Saharanpur (Uttar Pradesh).

The fatwa, according to media reports, was in response to a question from a local Muslim (male) who had asked whether Islamic convention allowed women to dress, pluck, wax, thread or draw on their eyebrows or cut their hair.

Close on the heels comes another gem, from Kerala. Chief of Tranvancore Dewasom Board Prayar Gopalakrishnan has said allowing women into Sabarimala temple will lead to “sex tourism”. He fears that “immoral activities” will turn the place into a “spot for sex tourism like Thailand”.  Sabarimala is the world’s second largest seasonal pilgrimage after the Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The TDB president was reacting to Supreme Court’s decision that a Constitution bench will look into the validity of a decades-old ban on entry of women aged between 10 and 50 into the hill shrine.

The court was hearing petitions by Indian Young Lawyers’ Association and activists of “Happy to Bleed” or Right to Bleed campaign, seeking a direction to lift the ban. The TDB said the prohibition was in accordance with tradition. The presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, is a Naishtika Brahmmachari (one who has vowed to remain celibate) and hence menstruating women are taboo in Sabarimala.  Devotees embark on a pilgrimage after observing strict abstinence vows for 48 days. Immoral activities, as feared by the TDB chief, can happen only if the men give free rein to their lust at the holy abode; so blaming only the women for the imagined sex tourism is unfair.

Some Hindu monks have added an occult dimension to the gender bias. Central to the controversy, apparently, is the belief that menstruation is impure and unpleasant to Gods although Gods do not discriminate. After all, it was He who formatted the software, including menstruation for procreation and preservation of human race. It still is a mystery as to at what point of time menstruation became impure in certain cultures?

While the Gods have been rendered helpless in the polemics between traditionalists and modernists, the courts have been sensible and gender sensitive. It is expected to decide whether interdiction of bleeding women militates against gender justice guaranteed under the Constitution.

Gender bigotry is not confined to Islam and Hinduism alone. The Catholic Church refuses to ordain women as priests and it opposes all forms of abortion procedures. Foetus killing was considered such a grave sin that only a bishop could absolve a “repentant” woman, or a priest given special permission by a bishop. Happily, Pope Francis is moving away from the “absolutist” stand of his predecessors in matters of morality and sex. Last year, the Pontiff gave all priests the power to forgive women who have had an abortion, saying the procedure was a “grave sin but one that God’s mercy could wipe away for those with a repentant heart.”  Rampant teenage pregnancy and questions whether it is ethical to deny permission to a teenaged rape victim to abort the foetus, continue to agitate the minds of progressive clerics.

Not only abortion, the Church has even demonised condoms on the ground that its use is life retarding, artificial intervention even as it frowns upon the new age craze like body piercing and tattoos that it considers as intrinsically evil. In the wake of Church of England’s guidelines a few years ago that held “uncritical use of masculine imagery” responsible for the violent behaviour towards women, the Catholic Church reaffirmed its stand that femininity cannot be ascribed to God.

As it declined to categorise God as “She”, some Church officials claimed that God’s gender debate was a transgender-inspired controversy – “Thou shalt not refer to God as He.” The LGBT community stood to gain by erasing gender divide, it was said. If God is not He or She, what will be the gender of the Devil? Vatican has not gendered the concept of a devil. It is personification of the evil that is present and operative in human life, say Church officials.

In the Indian context, the debate is limited to menstruation and gender parity in matters of religion. April last year the Shani Shingnapur temple, Maharashtra, was forced to lift the ban on women’s entry into sanctum sanctorum following Mumbai high court directive culminating a high voltage campaign by woman activists. It is a woman’s fundamental right to go into places of worship and the government is duty-bound to protect it, the court ruled.

Three months later, the same court nullified bar on Muslim women’s entry into the 585-year-old Haji Ali Dargah on a plea by Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. Though the Dargah Trust challenged the verdict in SC, the clerics lifted the ban following court’s intervention. All eyes are now on the apex court which will inter alia examine whether the curbs based upon biological factor are discriminatory and whether the temple authorities have violated Articles guaranteeing equality before law and prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste and sex. Attempts to give a communal colour to the debate even when the court is seized of the matter must be resisted.

The author is an independent journalist.