WHEN IT WAS announced recently that the first batch of non-Brahmin students were being ordained for priesthood in Tamil Nadu, there was great reason to cheer and celebrate that priesthood has been “officially” thrown open to all the castes and that Brahmin exclusivity was set to break (at least theoretically). But what is disappointing is that all women are denied this right and there is no talk in Tamil Nadu of any legislation, anywhere in the near future, to grant them the right to officiate as priests.
I could branch off into a tangent, right now, right here, and talk about how women are being systematically treated as a caste, and how that in turn leads them to being denied equal rights, being treated as untouchables, being discriminated against. And this despite the obvious fact that women don’t form a homogenous category except on the basis of their sex, and that not all women are equally disadvantaged. But I will refrain from my urge to track the caste-patriarchy nexus, not because it doesn’t exist, but because the phenomenon of depriving women the right to become priests is a disease that has infested most of the world’s religions.
Religions, whether Abrahamic (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) or Eastern (such as Hinduism) consider a woman to be in a “fallen state” during her periods. Whereas religions which grew as a response against caste—which encoded the concepts of purity and pollution—such as Buddhism and Sikhism condemn the practice of considering women “impure” while they are menstruating.
This ancient issue of impurity during menstruation has ensured that women in the reproductive age group are barred from the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala in Kerala. The contentious reasons merit a monstrous tag: the presence of fertile women causes trouble to Ayyappa’s volatile bachelorhood and sometimes the menstrual odour may attract wild animals in the forests through which the pilgrims have to traverse. New age religious sects haven’t updated their views on menstruation either: Mata Amritanandamayi’s sect runs temples where two women are appointed as priests to a single temple “so that each can keep away for four days in a month, during their menstruation.” (I am unaware of what will happen when the two women’s cycles begin to sync.)
Article 17 of the Constitution of India abolished caste-based untouchability, but perhaps we need another section/amendment to abolish menstrual taboos. Or haven’t our religions heard of “seminal” fluids yet? What is their pollution quotient? Then, if pollution is the problem, will our holier-than-thou holy ones switch over to battery-powered priests? By the way, do these menstrual taboos apply to our goddesses? Are there days in every month when they too begin to pollute the temple?
While these logic-defying practices fall within the ambit of organized, mass religions, local practices fare no better either. The Times of India (June 8, 2008, Chennai edition) carried a report on how a Tamil Nadu state minister had on May 27 inaugurated an ‘isolation room’ for menstruating women in the remote village of Thuvaar in Thirupattur. According to the ToI report, a soothsayer had predicted that rains failed because the village gods were angry that the ‘Muttukuruchi’ system had been discontinued for the past few years. To revive the system of isolating women and young girls on their reaching puberty, the villagers had constructed the cramped eighty square foot isolation room were bleeding women could be banished.
Thousands of years ago, the Mayans believed that menstrual blood changed into snakes used in black magic. It appears that we still hold on to such regressive beliefs and haven’t really come of age yet.