A response to Madhu Kishwar

Madhu Kishwar’s article in the Hindu dated 17January, 2013 (Don’t like this Temple? Choose Another) presents a unique challenge to the reader. The author argues for “missionaries of liberalism” to drop their colonial hangover and accept what she sees as the multiplicity of traditions within Indian culture. It is crucial to do so, she claims, because what is at stake is the question of respecting difference. Modern liberals, she claims, are unable to digest diversity. She goes on to suggest that if one finds a temple that does not suit one’s belief what one must do is to simply avoid it and move on to the next. But here is the peculiar situation in which one finds oneself on reading this article: Kishwar herself makes use of liberal argument to bolster her case. Free choice, the mainstay of liberalism, is invoked by Kishwar against the very “liberals” she denounces.

The argument arises in the backdrop of a debate on whether women should be allowed into the temple of Sabarimala. However since Kishwar’s argument is built on the edifice of the very political principle she seeks to target, it is necessary to bring in what she and most other liberals tend to ignore: history and context. To begin with, Sabarimala does not uniformly ban the entry of all women. Women here are defined as those with a biological ability to menstruate and therefore can be viewed as sexual beings. While a debate about how and why women’s sexuality must be defined within the constraints of menstruation is much longer one, in this context it means that young girls and older women are not only allowed but actively encouraged to participate in the pilgrimage.

The arguments for not allowing women into the shrine are several. I will engage with three main ones. The first is one cited by Kishwar herself, that of a celibate god who cannot be in the company of women. The second, a popular opinion that argues that hygiene will suffer if female devotes of all ages are allowed and the third being that of physical endurance (argued by author Anita Nair in the HinduMaintain status quo at Sabarimala, 21 August 2006 ). All three arguments are fundamentally flawed.

If what is being suggested by some of the opponents of women’s entry is that menstruating women are not hygienic, then surely that can become grounds for banning women’s entry into any public space. This is an absurd argument based on the assumption that menstruating women are polluting. If however the suggestion is that the presence of many women and men can make the space of the temple unhygienic then surely that is a task that the Devasom Board who run the temple must be pressured with and not the women in question. According to an article that appeared in the New Indian Express (Sabarimala revenue up, but too little spend on pilgrims, November 10, 2012) the State exchequer earned close to ten thousand crores in revenues through a variety of sources during the season when the shrine is open to the public. Clearly the State can direct some of this revenue towards the construction of new toilet blocks as well as for the provision of other services to maintain cleanliness in the premises.

With regard to the argument of physical endurance to undertake the pilgrimage involved in visiting the shrine, it is somewhat surprising that those who argue saying women of a particular age group (between ten and fifty years of age) cannot endure such physical hardship think it possible of a young child or older woman. Moreover, the so called trek to the shrine no longer involves a long path through the forest but is instead a four kilometer stretch of a concrete path, hardly an arduous task for women of the country who are used to a variety of physical labour ranging from agricultural labour to the rigours of domestic work.

Invoking history

This leaves us with the critical reason for not permitting women which is on religious and traditional grounds that the god was celibate and hence cannot be in the presence of women who fall within a specific age. It is here that Kishwar argues for us to allow for diversity in views, opinions and practices and to leave the temple be. Let us invoke history here; if diversity in views and practices is to be encouraged and respected as Kishwar would advise, it would also mean that earlier and continuing movements towards temple entry (the beginning point of several anti-caste movements in Maharashtra and in South India) for dalits must not only not be encouraged, but actually stopped. It would mean that we must continue with separate temples and churches for dalits and also with abhorrent practices such as those of dedicating young women termed as devadasis to the services of temples. It would also mean that we must stop acting like our erstwhile colonial rulers and not intervene in matters that encompass the personal and religious lives of individuals. That would include not passing legislation that allows for inter-caste or inter-religious marriage, legislation allowing for women to inherit property, legislation banning dowry, or court orders that de-criminalise homosexuality.

If we were to use Kishwar’s liberal arguments the state and civil society would have no right to intervene on any of these matters, each of which are circumscribed by religion and tradition. The individual, the cornerstone of liberal thought, could act as she/he chooses. If they chose to give or take dowry, they could do so. If they choose not to pass on property to their daughter, they must be able to do so. The problem with such liberal conceptions of society is that they tend to ignore deep-rooted social structures that govern or play a significant role in our lives. An inter-caste couple who choose to marry may do so but social structures of caste and patriarchy will intervene to prevent it, or at least, enact social sanctions upon them. A spate of cases of what are so crudely termed ‘honour killings’ testify to exactly this.

This is not to suggest that individual choice must be crushed, which is what Kishwar argues is the outcome of pushing for a radical agenda for equality. The alternative lies in making sure that individual choice can operate free of the weight of oppressive structures, while ensuring that exercising such choice does not obstruct equality in any way. It is here that the question of context becomes crucial. When historically marginalised groups in society lay claim to spaces that have kept them out, it cannot be treated in the same way as the claims of a privileged group. Thus, Rahul Easwar’s argument that no move is made to allow men into temples for women sounds like a forum of upper caste men arguing that feminism and anti-caste movements are discriminating against them. This is a fact he testifies to in a talk-show where he says that to counter modernity and feminism we must have a ‘menism’( video available on youtube.com dated July 18, 2011, Sabarimala discussion on the show We The People, produced by NDTV).

But perhaps one of the most critical questions to arise in this debate is why is it that an institution run by the State Government and public institutions such as the Devasom Board is not responsible to the Constitution of the country in preventing discrimination. When women and dalits demand access to spaces that have been made out of bounds for them by oppressive structures in society, it becomes imperative to participate and support if one is to make any claims on equality. It is not enough to say that we must move along and choose another temple/sect or organisation that echoes our views. What Kishwar so naively terms “harmless little sects” have been known to perpetuate some of the worst violations of human rights. For centuries, Dalits have been denied access to public spaces such as village common lands, water sources, including wells. Women and dalits have been denied access to land ownership, education and jobs. Muslims continue to be discriminated against in our spatially segregated cities.

As feminists it is critical that we intervene in all such questions. It is precisely a culture of silence, neglect and apathy that has culminated in the perpetuation of not just outrageous incidents of violence such as the Delhi gangrape of December 16 but also the everyday violence that numerous marginalised groups face. It is ironic that even as women, and men, have taken to the streets of the country making forceful claims about access to public spaces, here is a senior academic and self proclaimed feminist who seems to claim otherwise. Perhaps this shows us the self-naturalising nature of patriarchy, which teaches women to not only accept these oppressive structures, but even make spurious rationalising claims on its behalf.

Gayathri Nair is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU

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