On social media, I would often get annoyed at Malayali men who claimed Kerala was some sort of a heaven for women compared to North India. As a woman who has spent most of the last three decades here, I knew that this was far from the truth. Misogyny and sexism are rife here, just as everywhere else, but nothing prepared me for the ‘Save Sabarimala’ deluge. Suddenly, the conversation became vitiated by thinly veiled threats even in previously secular spaces, and women who wanted to go to Sabarimala were being threatened with physical violence.
But I am writing this out of concern for the children. We are letting down an entire generation. Instead of striving towards a more inclusive society, we are saying that those who bleed should not be allowed into the temple, perpetuating the idea of untouchability. The damage will take years to mend. We are going to be stuck with a generation caught in a time warp between the modernity and a longing for regressive traditions, however barbaric they might have been.
Palakkad, my sleepy town is suddenly bracing itself. People are trying to save Lord Ayyappa and Sabarimala from women. As if videos of how the floods were a result of women wanting to go to Sabarimala were not enough of an assault on our senses, we now have a Malayali cardiologist from New York Dr Nisha Pillai who has come up with fraudulent pseudoscientific claims as to why women should not be allowed to go. Without any evidence, she claimed that women will suffer from endometriosis if they go. It’s been disheartening to see these videos shared so widely, even by doctors. The ‘Save Sabarimala’ followers tell us that the celibate god needs to be protected from menstruating women. If you ask how a god would be powerless against puny humans, you are offending beliefs. Never mind that our atheist sensibilities are being insulted all the time. Taking offence is a privilege only afforded to the believer.
As a child, I remember being on my vacation in Kerala and seeing my cousin trying to avoid contact with other people. I remember the story of a little girl in a posh Delhi Colony who had lost her mother and her conservative grandparents who kept her away during her periods. These were stories that just added to period shame. I considered myself lucky my parents were progressive, but can we rely on just luck when our future is at stake? I think we need to wake up and stop being complacent.
Studies suggest that 66% of girls know nothing about menstruation until confronted with their first period, making it a negative and often traumatic experience, exacerbated by cultural taboos, discomfort in discussing the topic and lack of information provided to them. There are also the myths and taboos around menstruation, many of which are routed in religion. Women are considered ‘dirty’ in most cultures during menstruation and are socially segregated: they are not allowed to enter the kitchen or to handle food. They’re not supposed to bathe, which can itself lead to health problems.
Puberty is the time when adolescents increase their intellectual capacities and experience moral development. But many problems related to self-image can arise during puberty. In light of the discussions that are happening in Kerala, the already-delicate situation around period shaming can be aggravated. Add to that the sexualization of a girl’s bodies because even gods can’t control themselves around them. Can you even imagine the shame that these kids will forever associate with their bodies?
What sort of a self-image is a child going to have as a result of this? When modern science is breaking frontiers in every field, why should women be forced to confine themselves within an 18th century bubble?
The way forward
Bodies like IMA should actively conduct puberty education that will help in combating taboos around menstruation and spread of misinformation. There is a need to educate children at an early age, from 5-8 years old, and to continue to do so until 15-18 years of age.
As of now, there is limited inclusion of sexual and reproductive health and life skills in the school curriculum.
Boys and men must also be included in the conversation, and educating parents on how to talk to their children about puberty is a must. Breaking Silence is a project aimed at empowering women and adolescent girls by addressing Menstrual Health Management (MHM). There is a need for more consolidated work in this area.
It is appalling that as our country is seemingly headed towards greater inclusivity in gender and sexuality, Kerala is moving in the opposite direction. Maybe those who love traditions so much should stay on in the 18th century so the rest of us can move on.
Views expressed are the author's own.