Friday, 9 January 2015

Kerala's Bleeding Women

December in Kerala was a happy respite from the chilly (for a 'madrasi') Kolkata winter. On 19th December BJP president Amit Shah was to make a speech in Palakkad, Kerala. My cameraperson and I were planning to shoot the speech. A day before that I, along with the rest of my state read about Nazeera who was ousted from a KSRTC (Kerala State Road Transport Co-operation) bus at night because the conductor was afraid she was menstruating. I thought of my own journey and for a moment wasn't sure if I would make it all the way from Kochi to Palakkad on public transport. 

Now for the uninitiated, periods is a complete no-no in religious India. Earlier in Kerala there were separate rooms constructed solely to house bleeding women every month. So that the rest of the family wouldn't be touched by or even be in the vicinity of such 'impurity'. Hindu faith demands that menstruating women don't enter places of worship or read religious texts during her cycle. In Christianity there exists silent consensus to the decorum that women don't go to church while menstruating or even if they do abstain from receiving the holy communion. During December faith takes a more bizarre turn. That is the month when devotees of Lord Ayyappa known as 'ayyappans' take a 41 days long fast after which they make a visit to Sabarimala temple in Pathanamthitta district in Kerala. This 'vratam' (fast) asks the devotees to refrain from any worldly pleasures. This includes sex, having fish or meat and it is also required that they be 'pure' in all ways possible. Bleeding women being impure by definition, this translates to devotees staying away from them.

The absurdity of it all was up for display when Nazeera along with her two children and mother in law was asked to leave the bus packed with Ayyappa devotees. The conductor was reported to have said that it was not possible for him to determine if the woman was pure (read bleeding) or not. The Ayyappa devotees themselves were silent in front of this government employee who had donned the coat of a defender of religious faith.
Soon after this incident was reported the online world, especially women, reacted with statements in solidarity and by even changing their display pictures to a sanitary napkin stained with menstrual blood. On 21st December, a group of women gathered at KSRTC bus station in Ernakulam to protest against the injustice Nazeera faced. Their plan was to board a similar bus and occupy the seats reserved for women to state that there were no laws preventing women from travelling whether or not they were bleeding. These women were arrested and removed from the place while they were having tea even before they got on a bus. This time state was acting as the guardian angel of pristine religious sentiments.

State's intervention in organized protests against moral policing, fascism and any form of injustice is at its pinnacle in the state. Khaki's new found epithet is kavi (saffron). Kerala had already witnessed it when Kiss of Love protests met with police brutality in three districts in the state. So it was of no surprise when the police refused to register a complaint when Nazeera approached them in the middle of the night. Later the city Commissioner of Police R Nishantini IPS said that women should learn to value religious sentiments and that they should opt for means of transport which were not as provocative. That there are no buses 'reserved' for ayyappans seemed to be of no relevance to the honourable officer. That the existence or a sign of it of a womb, an organ in a human body, could be provocative almost seemed believable.

Fear of the womb, however is not strictly religious in origin. It is also often connected with hygiene, which is deemed to be of supreme importance in a Malayali's life. The truth is that hygiene can be the perfect partner in misogyny when required. Thus proved another incident which occured in Kochi where a sanitory napkin was found in a toilet in a private firm and 45 women employees were asked to strip to find out who was bleeding and therefore using a pad. This fastidious care about hygiene is quite ironic when it comes from a place where the fight against indiscriminate waste dumping (Laloor, Thrissur district) went on for more than 25 years. The principle is quite simple. Women are people so long as their cavities keep mum. A member of parliament of BJP recently threw a casual advice that all Hindu women should bear at least four children. Yes, the womb has to remain silent and invisible and be host to eccentricities of religious fundamentalism or violence at all times.

On my way to Palakkad on Indian railways' dutifully late train I found myself bleeding and in a compartment packed with ayyappans. I thought of the possibility of an impurity meter on means of transport and its business prospects while clicking in solidarity with Nazeera. I think it's time Kerala's bleeding women started getting sacrilegious with their bodily functions. Period. Oops! No period.

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