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Discrimination against women often comes in the form of superstition, attached to religious beliefs. Women's situation in India will change only when we challenge such beliefs
Dr. Narendra Achyut Dabholkar has just sacrificed his life at the altar of superstition and religious exploitation against which he had devoted his entire life. A day after his death, his life-long struggle was rewarded by Maharashtra becoming the first state to pass an anti-superstition and black magic ordinance.
Dr Dabholkar’s crusade against black magic and superstition was of great significance to women, especially since, women have been at the receiving end of these practices. It is sad, hence, that his death did not receive due attention from activists working on women’s empowerment.
Black magic, with its other-wordly connotations, is often used to instigate attacks and burn women on suspicion of practising witchcraft. Such attacks follow a certain pattern; as activist Rini Bhattacharya points out, and are especially rampant in regions where health-care is lacking or inadequate. Besides, they always target women who are either better-educated or trying to challenge vested interests.
But is black magic all that women need to fear?
There are a host of superstitious practices, seemingly innocuous and harmless, that end up discriminating against us women, and categorise us as sub-humans, or at best, second class citizens.
It is ominous that Dr Dabholkar’s murder has occurred just a little prior to India’s festival season.
During every festival, all over the country, menstruating women are not welcome. Festivals, of course, are not the only celebrations out of their reach. Menstruating women are kept away from weddings, thread ceremonies, and a sundry other rituals that mark every religion, save Christianity.
The same discrimination marks the treatment of widows.
All this is guided by certain illogical, superstitions. In the case of illiterate or semi-literate people, this can have dangerous repercussions. Take the case of Tulu, who worked as a domestic with me. Tulu was suffering from a little weakness in her eyes, and had been complaining of problems threading needles. After a bout of chicken pox, her eyes started watering profusely. Seeing her persistently wiping her eyes, I asked her what the matter was.
“A menstruating woman in my basti ( slum) had touched me when I was suffering of chicken pox. Sitala maa ( the goddess of pox) has obviously got angry. My eyes are giving me trouble, thanks to her mischief.”
I was appalled on hearing this. “Your eyes must have been weak to start with. The disease has weakened them further. Go get them checked right away,” I told her.
The next evening, she was back at work with a grin. “You were right. I will have to wear spectacles. The doctor said I should have gone to him long ago. I will get my spectacles the day after.”
Imagine what would have been her plight if she had ignored the weakness and continued to curse some imagined menstruating woman.
Tulu is an urban slum-dweller with some primary education. But there are numerous women from middle-income and upper-income groups who harbour similar notions. Chicken pox is considered to be the ire of Sitala Mata, and many do not consider it worth visiting a doctor. Of course, medical treatment coupled with the fear of Sitala Maa’s wrath may be advantageous to the patient, since people take care to keep the surroundings and home absolutely clean. This can prevent spread of this highly contagious disease.
(Incidentally, the menstrual blood of young pubescent girls is used to propitiate the dark powers by practitioners of black magic too. Several girls have fallen prey to tantriks who have murdered adolescents for magical rituals claiming to guarantee boons. The ghastly Manwat murders in Maharashtra are a case in point).
But like the fear of the menstruating woman, and menstrual blood, there are a few other superstitious beliefs that must be challenged.
Of course, our ancestors must have realized the need to observe utmost cleanliness at the time of menstruation (something that medical science emphasize until this day). Since some women complain of pain and discomfort, they may have thought of giving them some rest from household chores. But segregation and making women sleep in the out-house or on the floor came in as distortions at a later date. This twisted the original practice into a fear of menstrual blood, and how it could be used for black magic and bringing misfortune to families.
Superstitions are no part of Hinduism or any religion. In India, superstitions arose with the decline of Hinduism, when repeated invasions suppressed the scientific temper and rational thinking that had characterized ancient India. During this period of turmoil, stupid superstitions came to be identified with faith. Thus, leaving home on an amavasya (new moon), sneezing at the time of departure, calling out to a person and getting him to turn back, a woman eating before or with her family, eating brinjals when pregnant, a menstruating woman praying at a temple came to be looked upon as harbingers of evil or ill-omened.
It has resulted in practices such as making young girls spend their menstrual periods in the family out-house or, in certain communities in south India, in the outskirts of the village. This can expose pubescent girls to grave danger.
It is high time that we try analyzing the logic behind certain customs, and understand why they came about, rather than blindly following them. For instance, the practice of avoiding travel on an amavasya obviously has its origins when there were no street lamps to guide travellers on their way. With no moon about on a new moon day, there was the danger of being waylaid. Today, it means nothing. Calling out to a person may cause him /her to turn back and hence stumble; this ought to be avoided lest we cause people to hurt themselves. The bar on sneezing or eating brinjals , of course, is plain stupid. On the contrary, both are healthy practices and can never cause harm. And neither should a menstruating woman be discriminated against.
As thinking individuals and women, it is high time we questioned superstitions and separated them from the realm of religion and faith. That will be the greatest tribute we can pay to Dr. Narayan Dabholkar.
An independent journalist with over 27 years 'experience in the print and online media, and a doctorate in African Studies, Dr Rina Mukherji is the recipient of numerous national and international academic and media fellowships read more...
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