By Kahini Iyer Oct. 24, 2018
Whatever her intentions, union minister Smriti Irani’s remarks on taking sanitary napkins into homes and temples fall neatly into a cultural norm that considers women “impure” for menstruating, capable of “desecrating” any place by their mere presence.
nion Textile Minister Smriti Irani waded into the raging controversy over the Supreme Court’s recent judgment to allow women aged between 10 and 50 years to enter Kerala’s Sabarimala Temple, where they’ve traditionally been banned for fear of compromising the brahmacharya of deity Ayyappa. This is ironic, considering the controversy followed a tweet where she said that she did not, as a sitting minister, want to go against the verdict. Addressing the Young Thinkers’ Conference in Mumbai yesterday, Irani asked a loaded question that has led to widespread outrage: Would you take sanitary napkins seeped in menstrual blood and walk into a friend’s home? Why take them into the house of God?
To be fair to Irani, she appeared to be responding to reports that an activist had planned to offer a soiled sanitary napkin to Ayyappa in protest (a claim the activist herself denied). However, the backlash was swift, as her remarks were quickly perceived as a belief that women should not lead normal lives or be a part of society while they are menstruating.
Perhaps this is why Irani went on to deny the reports of her statement as “fake news” – but it’s not surprising that her tone-deaf question only added fuel to fire. Although the entry of women into Sabarimala has nothing to do with whether or not they are menstruating, and instead is a blanket ban on women and girls whom biology has declared to be sexually mature, periods are still widely considered anathema to God. All over the country, millions of women are unable to enter temples, kitchens, and even their marital bed while menstruating. Many continue to be confined to the home or ostracised, stigmatised as unclean and impure.
Whatever her intentions, Irani’s remarks on taking sanitary napkins into homes and temples fall neatly into this cultural norm – and it’s one that she has lived herself, without questioning. Before she asked the question that has now gone viral, Irani shared a personal story: Although her husband and children are practicing Zoroastrians, she as a Hindu is “shooed away” from entering the fire temple where they worship, and she could not even accompany her newborn son inside. She also pointed out that Zoroastrian women will not enter the fire temple while they are menstruating.
The moral of Irani’s story was her most regressive opinion yet: that we have a right to pray, but not to “desecrate”.
Slow clap for Smriti Irani. Actually our ministers in general, who use one form of prejudice and bigotry to justify another – all in the name of hallowed tradition that must not be questioned.
The moral of Irani’s story was her most regressive opinion yet: that we have a right to pray, but not to “desecrate”. Her insinuation that menstruating women desecrate a place of worship plays not only into the Sabarimala controversy, but reinforces the same tired, archaic restrictions that deny women everyday equality. Coming from a high-powered minister like Irani, whose success has clearly not been hampered by her monthly cycle, this attitude is all the more damaging.
Following the debacle around her speech, Irani later complained on Twitter that she was “not free” to have her own point of view as a woman, and accused liberals of being illiberal for refusing to accept her opinion. And yet, Irani is far from the only woman to deny the Constitutional rights and personhood she deserves. Like the women protesters gathered outside Sabarimala who are determined not to let others enter, Irani has internalised the notion that religious rules are created equal and must be respected. Men and women, on the other hand, are not created equal at all – an idea she seems to have accepted.
When she related her account of being barred from the fire temple, Irani noted that despite being a public figure, she was subject to the same religious mores as any other non-Zoroastrian. Her story also shows that despite being a public figure, she is subject to the day-to-day sexism and exclusion that all women face: Whether they are mantris, memsaabs, or “maids”.