Why Indian Women Are Fighting to Pray Inside Their Own Temples

In India, women are banned from entering Hindu temples if they are on their period. But increasing numbers are protesting to demand the right to worship, pray, and menstruate inside religious institutions.
March 31, 2016, 1:55pm
Photo by Gavin Hellier via Stocksy

In early March, around a hundred women were detained in the north-western Indian state of Maharashtra for protesting against a temple that banned entry to menstruating women. Trupti Desai, the activist heading the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade that led the demonstration, slammed the action taken by police against the women who broke barricades to move towards the temple.

"Condemn this action by police; we've been detained for no reason. We were heading to Trimbakeshwar temple in a peaceful manner," she told local media. "This is not right. Where is the Chief Minister? We want him to intervene and allow us entry into Trimbakeshwar temple…This is an insult to women."

This is not the first time Desai has been in trouble with the authorities. In January, she staged a protest in against Shani temple in the same state. It led to the suspension of seven security guards after a female devotee climbed the prayer platform and touched a statue of the deity Lord Shiva, who is venerated within the temple. Desai argued that the Hindu god did not discriminate between his followers on basis of gender.

Although a 400-year tradition was broken in 2011 allowing women to enter the Shani temple, they are still not permitted to climb up to the platform of the holy sanctorum where the statue of Shani is installed. The temple subsequently performed a "purification" ceremony to cleanse the "pollution" the woman had caused.

Broadly was scheduled to speak with Desai but numerous arrangements were cancelled following her release from prison. "Trupti was detained by police following the protests on numerous occasions, and letters threatening to assassinate her in a similar fashion to Narendra Dabholkar [a prominent rationalist and anti-superstition activist assassinated in 2013] have been sent since," a spokesperson told Broadly. "We have submitted the contents to the police who are currently reviewing the incident. I hope that the people behind this mischief will soon be behind bars."

The battle for women to be granted entry in Hindu temples has been brewing since November last year, when Sabarimala temple in the southern city of Kerala banned all women aged between ten and 50 on the basis that it is impossible to know whether a woman is menstruating. Prayar Gopalakrishnan, the president of the board that manages the temple, said women will only be allowed to enter after a machine has been invented and installed to detect if they have their period. Whilst disillusioned young women launched the now-viral Happy To Bleed campaign on Facebook, the incident inspired Desai to take further action against other temples that bar women on the streets.

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A political scientist specializing in Indian activism tells Broadly that the internalised notion of menstruation as unclean is deeply rooted in the Hindu faith. "Hinduism is a very hierarchical religion and one that maintains hierarchy by policing what is 'pure' and 'polluting.' Menstruation is regarded as impure," says Nandini Deo, author of Religion and Gender in India: The Role of Activism. "Many communities not only ban women who are menstruating from participating in religious rituals, they are also prevented from attending events such as weddings and funerals. Some women are even prevented from entering the kitchen during their monthly cycle. It is possible to interpret these bans as being a way of acknowledging the pain and discomfort many women experience during menstruation and therefore lightening their workload."

"The discrimination against menstruating women exists in all parts of the country but is not uniformly practiced," Deo adds. "Hinduism does not have a central authority or a particular sacred text. Instead there are hundreds of texts, temples, priests, mystics, and scholars who all claim some legitimacy as arbiters of right and wrong. Essentially each family decides for itself which rituals to observe and which ones to reject."

The sacred platform at Shani temple only allows access to men. Photo courtesy of the Shani temple

The "unconstitutional ban" on women in the temple was challenged in India's Supreme Court in January. The court has said the act breached the national constitution, and asked the board that manages the Sabarimala temple to clarify why it prohibited women from entering the shrine. The court is yet to make a decision, but Justice Dipak Mishra disputed in its last hearing how women could be kept out of temples since "God does not discriminate between men and women."

Deo suggests that the court could defend the women given similar cases throughout history. "The work by the women protesting in the current controversies builds on earlier work by reformers to end sexist, caste-ist practices at temples and make them available to all who wish to worship," she says. "Hindu priests—usually Brahmin men—have used their position as managers of ritual to deny access to temples to non-Hindus, lower castes and women. This is because temples often have significant land, wealth, and power associated with them. But usually the legal system in India has stood in favor of women and other discriminated groups against upper caste priests."

For now, Desai's radical actions on the streets has only fueled support for the cause. Following her detention, rallies in support Desai have since taken place in other Indian cities, including the modern megacity Mumbai.

"Donations from women are happily accepted at religious places, but, their touch is impure. Menstruation is something that God has made, how can it be dirty?" said Jyoti Badekar, one of the organizers of the Mumbai rally.

"These religious rituals are backward. We stand with Trupti Desai, and no one can stop us from getting equality. God has made us equal, man cannot restrict this."