Book Review: Nitin Sridhar’s ‘Menstruation Across Cultures: A Historical Perspective’
By Soma Mondal
The Sabarimala verdict on women’s entry to the temple premises is a historical moment in the timeline of feminist movements fighting for women’s equality premised on menstrual exclusion in the public space. The movement provides justice to the fact that now greater inclusion is possible in the sphere of the religious organization. That the right to claim one’s faith and devotion is not necessarily an integral feature of bodily/religious function but a mental process of religious association becomes an important ground for feminist intervention.
Post-secular feminism brings women to that threshold stage of representation from where successive emancipatory journeys of participation and representation of women’s identity can be possibly claimed through de-institutionalisation of religion and brahminical modes of worship. Female worship is quite ironically determined by the system of subservience to gods following the submission of women to men. The community largely involved in the participation of religious rituals from ancient times has been women. Yet women have been ignorantly and historically left out of the political privilege of religious authority which has been mostly conferred on men. This gendered space of male hegemony that makes women kneel before their gods and men has been hardly contested by the fact that it appears dubious and disguised as ‘religious faith’, which actively engages them into false non-productive processes of social participation in religious rituals and spiritual reverence.
Yes, women have been active and passive receptors of culturing brahminical patriarchy. This stems from the fact that most Hindu women are more passionate about religion than most other social acts of representation. For this, religious indoctrination of various kinds ranging from multiple kinds of religious prohibition, exclusion and strict adherence to customs laid down by the Hindu scriptures and oral traditions is perpetuated easily without reason and logic. This forms the basis of my critique for the views proposed by Nitin Sridhar in his book, The Sabarimala Confusion; Menstruation across Cultures: A Historical Perspective.
The book published by Renu Kaul Verma of Vitasta Publishing House in 2019 and dedicated to the author’s mother Padma, his wife Pratyusha and his divine mothers Kali and Sundari sets the right kind of tone for receptibility, and respect for women since the subject is essentially feminine and unconventional as discussion around menstruation hardly takes place in the Indian context. By invoking and dedicating the book to women, it tries to invoke feminist favour for the subject he has undertaken. The book is anything but feminist as the author who is a Sanatana Dharma (Hindu eternal law) follower tries to provide a rationale for understanding and imbibing religious laws as the context for understanding menstruation.
In the foreword to the book, the author writes: “It is one of the most frustrating paradoxes of contemporary India that Hindus do not know their own roots of tradition. The Islamic invasion, the colonial imposition and the Eurocentrism of the past few centuries have resulted in the vast swathes of people being ignorant about themselves.” It is because of this reason that Nitin Sridhar takes up the herculean task of illuminating the Hindus about the occurrence of menstruation across certain cultures and how it is not a feminist issue but a religious issue that should be followed with the right kind of religious knowledge. The reference to such broad and generalized historical events like the Islamic invasion(?), colonial imposition and the Eurocentrism of the past conflates diverse and multiple historical processes to one homogenizing binary of the ‘West’ and the Muslims as the villainous ‘other’ who have become responsible for the degeneration of Hindu cultural practices in India. But the socio-economic divisions for classifying Hindu society into several varnas and caste system, the monopolization of brahminical canon of religion and the Vedas as documents for legalizing male brahminical authority in all spheres of life have been hardly mentioned by the author. The author has also written an article in January 2016, titled “Why Sabarimala controversy is a religious issue, not women’s rights issue” for Newsgram (Preface). The logic that follows from his arguments and writings clearly indicates an inversion of logic and misrepresentation of menstruation that one will encounter while reading the book.
The gross handling of such a sensitive topic by a male author who is unequipped to understand the nuances of feminist subjectivity has made the book poor in outlook. Sridhar strongly advocates, authorizes and mechanically explains how menstruation occurs within the ambit of religion and how religion protects the belief of menstruant women and devoted women across various religion and cultures of the world. More so, the title mentions ‘historical perspective’ which is not quite actually historical but religious. By this, Sridhar meticulously historicises religion again, resituating, reinstating and justifying menstruation to be a religio-historic phenomenon and not a natural, scientific and biological phenomenon which needs special observance of certain dictums and dictates, not socially normalized attitudes and awareness of people. By dictating the terms and condition offered by various religio-cultural texts over the ages and citing Sanskritised and other secular(-ised) terms and phrases straight out of ancient textbooks, it simply provides a gross mimetic and didactic approach in manually replicating the Brahmanic and Abrahmanic cultural texts. This makes the book linear, mono-dimensional, and shallow.
A cursory glance at the book indicates that menstruation and institutionalization of religion are inextricably linked and enmeshed within the ambit of social life. Constitutional rights are at once sub judice and ius publicum since political rights overrule discriminatory public and private rights of organizations and individuals. By this, it is meant that if the basic fundamental rights are violated, constitutional rights are violated and therefore an individual stands discriminated on grounds of specific principles or ideologies perpetuated by certain institutions and systems of power. Sridhar’s book puts ideologies of faith at a superior level over the principles of humanity. The book may be a rich theological repository of religious interpretation about the menstrual cycle but its critique lies in the absence of any feminist interpretation and for the fact that its orthodoxy justifies patriarchial norms, the patronising brahminical gaze of the temple priests and masculine control of women’s periods during all periods of history.
Sexual exoticism and menstrual de-toxification as patriarchal constructs
“Often religion is considered to be derived from the Latin term ‘Religare’ which means to bind” (97) is the opening sentence of the chapter “Menstruation notions in Abrahmanic religions”. But quite contrary to the author’s subjective stance, religion, in reality, tries to ‘blind’ people into orthodoxy. In Judaism, the practice of consensual exclusion prevails among menstruant women and they perform ‘mikveh’ (holy bath) for purification after twelve days, i.e. five days of impurity plus the seven clean days after menstruation to achieve final liberation from impurity. According to Levitical purity laws, Jewish women are pureer than their Christian counterparts since Christian women indulge in sexual communion even during menstruation. The concept of Niddah (impure state of menstrual blood release) takes its life from Mishna (101), the Sabbatical treatise of the Jews and tries to maintain sexual abstinence among couples specifically. One of the primary basis for seclusion for Jewish women is to limit sexual activity. This problematises the menstrual reception since sexual exotification occurs almost synonymously with religious restrictions. One respondent in a BBC video on the practice of ‘mikveh’ exoticises the twelve days of exclusion as she can return to her husband with a renewed, lustful and fragrant ‘body’ (the ‘mikveh’ water is said to have special rejuvenating properties as it is collected through rainwater”) to be sexually consummated after a span of twelve days. According to her, this re-invigorates the couple’s love life and therefore, ‘mikveh’ helps in sustaining relationships. Luce Irigaray in addressing female jouissance or ‘female pleasure’ gives due recognition to multiplicities of representing female pleasure outside the phallic discourse of sexuality. The exoticitification of the exclusionary practice of ‘mikveh’ as a homogenizing principle for achieving jouissance and ensuring regular ‘performativity’ of gender (Butler) is a misnomer. The principle of female pleasure and menstrual relief as interconnected physiological experiences is totally discarded and suppressed. During the intermediate phases of menstrual cycle, women admit that because menstruation is an extremely painful process, they need greater degrees of love, care and attention. Jouissance gives recognition to this fact as a potential outlet for identifying the demands of female sexuality and feminist celebration of one’s own body, which remains one of the central tenets of feminist deconstruction of patriarchal objectification and imposed sexuality upon women. ‘Mikveh’ reduces the female body to male objectification and does not articulate ‘female joy’ and female desire. Also, a result of the process of exotification or without it, it is erroneous to reduce all menstruant women’s position to the idea of the pleasure principle before, during or after menstruation as there are other factors that govern and control women’s physiological performance in general. Therefore, the politics of exclusion inherent in the practice of ‘mikveh’ cannot be underplayed as exclusion occurs with or without sexual connotations.
The book upholds the aesthetics of Hindu philosophy among other schools of thought that have venerated women in Hinduism and have provided rituals of sanctification for menstruant women. For this, it draws on various symbolic, graphic and visual presentations of goddesses and art/paintings to put emphasis on menstruation as a divine power drawing its source from religion. It also provides a rich Indological study of temple practices and religious rituals as well as Abrahmanic and indigenous methods of understanding menstruation. But the proliferation, expansion and emergence of feminist movements and feminist frameworks today, for understanding ‘epistemic violence’ that has been done to women under the garb of religion and patriarchy, would have little faith in the institutions of religion, et al.
Menstruation which represents the endless possibilities, potential discursivities and ambivalence of the ‘feminine world’ and which lacks female articulation in a male-centric society can possibly, therefore, make more feminists come up with more criticism of Sridhar’s book which projects menstruation as a site for religious control. It reminds me of Helene Cixous’ famous words, “Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard” (Laugh of the Medusa). The greatest irony behind menstrual shaming is that women hate their own bodies and feel repugnant about their own body odours. The act of internalizing has been thoroughly intrinsic over the ages and has been poisonously injected into women to maintain them as a subaltern class through social and personal institutions of marriage, religion and kinship. The seeds of inferiority and indeterminacy regarding their own identity and body have been ingrained and institutionalized, paradoxically chaining them to shackles of patriarchy. Today, the discourse of menstruation is contingent upon personal choices which need to be altered and addressed by women regarding their own bodies.
Soma Mandal is an Independent Scholar and former faculty member at Durgapur Women’s College, India.
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