Why should rules of worship be carved in stone?
It is all a question of priorities. So for the Union minister for textiles, Smriti Irani, it would be natural to think first of textile products or commodities related to these. It proves her dedication as minister. The possibility of women of reproductive age entering the hitherto banned portals of the Sabarimala temple immediately brought before her mind’s eye a sanitary napkin steeped in menstrual blood. Together with the vision of someone toddling off to a friend’s house with a dripping napkin in hand. (As though that were possible in everyday social life; only politeness forbade people from doing it.) Given her dedication — to her job and to her party — it would be unfair to accuse Ms Irani of a simple confusion of categories in her thinking, or of perverting the issue in order to provoke opposition to the Supreme Court’s ruling regarding entry to the temple while delicately skirting contempt. Yet the imagined spectacle of women marching into a temple with soaked sanitary napkins as offerings may not quite be without repercussions, just as the apparent confusion may not be quite naive.
The giveaway is Ms Irani’s reference to desecration in her comment about the soaked sanitary pad. The so-called impurity of the menstruating female has been wielded as a tool to confine and restrain women for long enough; it is only recently that such repressive myths are being assailed. When, instead of helping to clear unscientific and superstitious beliefs surrounding a natural function of the body, a minister of the realm reinforces them by talking of desecration and supporting her argument by prohibitions for women in other religions, the attitude and agenda of the government regarding women come into question. No wonder Ms Irani draws attention to her own womanhood and implies that she is not being allowed to speak her mind precisely because she is a woman. Such sleights-of-hand in logic in order to turn values on their head are made possible by the initial image suggesting that all women of reproductive age are dying to carry about their wet napkins in their hands all the time.
It is ironic that Ms Irani’s party is always the loudest in praises of what its leaders and allies propagate as tradition. Tradition moves and evolves; quite a number of deities have appeared where there were none before, with their devotees thinking up new rituals and forms of worship for them. Some other deities have been upgraded, moving from local forms to universal ones, or from epics and old tales into godhood. In such a dynamic context, why should rules of worship be treated as though they were carved in stone? Obviously they never were. If such movement is blocked solely in the case of women as in Sabarimala and, in other contexts, of backward castes, then it can only be in order to hold in place pre-modern hierarchies. There is nothing innocent about it.
Ms Irani’s devotion to duty as minister may be admirable, but that is exactly what makes her remark not funny but sinister.