In his celebrated travelogue on Eastern Orthodox congregations, William Dalrymple’s first stop was at the Monastery of Iviron at Mount Athos, located in Northern Greece. He opens his book remarking upon the uniqueness of the monastery which does not allow anything female- ‘no woman, no mare, no bitch’- inside its premises, the rule being relaxed only for cats. The tradition of no female presence has been in existence since the time of the Byzantine empire, and the reasoning behind it was that the monks should not be tempted to engage in any kind of sexual act.
In the past few months, the issue of women entering religious complexes has been a disturbing factor to women activists across the country. On March 30, the Bombay High Court ruled against the tradition of not allowing women inside the complexes of the Shani Shignapur temple.
Despite the HC order, women were aggressively denied entry to the core shrine area. A similar issue surrounds the Sabrimala temple in Kerala which does not allow the entry of women while in menstrual age since according to tradition, as the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa who is a Bhrahmachari (celibate), could be ‘polluted’. A number of other places of religious worship including the Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik, the Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai, the Kartikeya temple in Pushkar and the Patbausi Satra in Assam, also deny entry to women.
A common thread of reasoning that surrounds both the Monastery of Iviron in Greece and the religious complexes in India is that of the ‘purity’ of the site, which is feared to get ‘polluted’ by the presence of women. Menstruation and pregnancy are most commonly cited as the factors causing ‘pollution’. The other popular myth associated with the denial of entry is that women who are ‘sexually needy and mischievous’ are a threat to the religious structure and the men associated with it.
Were women considered a polluting factor since time immemorial?
It would be a fallacy to presume that women were always seen as an element that disrupt the purity of any environment. Cave paintings in Bhimbetka (Madhya Pradesh) often depict women carrying baskets and nets as pregnant. In some such paintings of hunting and gathering, women are seen wearing an elaborate head dress. On examining such evidence, historians have concluded that during the hunting and gathering stage, women did not just engage in the same activities as men, but were in fact valued for their contribution towards the same.
Paintings from sites like Kathotia (Madhya Pradesh) and Kharwai (Madhya Pradesh) along with those in Bhimbedka would lead to the conclusion that the sexuality of women was highly valued in primeval societies since the whole survival of the community depended on their reproductive capacity.
When and how did the need to control the movement of women first emerge?
As society moved from the nomadic lifestyle of hunting-gathering stage to the stage of agricultural settlement, labour associated with food production came to be divided along stricter lines of gender. While men were expected to work in the fields, women’s labour was restricted within the household. From now on, the reproductive capability of women was valued, but no more their ability to contribute economically. Here on we see an insistence on controlling the movement of women since their share of labour in food production was restricted to the four walls of their home.
How does controlling movement of women get associated with controlling sexuality of women?
By the sixth century in India, towns started emerging. The emergence of towns was accompanied by the rise in groups engaged in specialised economic activities. Caste stratification of society took roots during this period along with the establishment of private ownership of land.
Historian Uma Chakravarti has concluded that stratification of society along lines of caste made it necessary for the sexuality of women to be controlled. Marriage and reproduction were the foremost factors that ensured the rigidity of stratification along caste lines. Therefore women were required to be kept under the control of men.
From this period on, we see the evidence of a large body of religious texts that mention the need to control women’s sexuality. For example, the Apastmba Dharma Sutra which is a Sanskrit text from 6th century BC states that “a husband should ensure that no other man goes near his wife lest his seed get into her”.
A common way of controlling the sexuality of women was by referring to the innate “wicked nature of women” which if left uncontrolled could lead to chaos in society. A large number of texts of the period starting from the middle of the first millennium BC carry explicit references to the evil character of women.
For instance, the Satapatha Brahmana, a Vedic text from the 6th century BC states that a woman, a Sudra, a dog and a crow are the embodiments of untruth, sin and darkness. The Manusmriti, on the other hand, clearly states that it is the duty of the man to guard his wife in order to ensure the purity of his offspring.
Knowing their disposition, which the lord of creatures laid on them at creation (i.e., their reproductive power, their sexuality, their essential nature) every man should most strenuously exert himself to guard them” (Manusmriti)
Social perceptions and status of women are essentially rooted in the economic and cultural structures of the time. The ideas of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ which form the backbone to the rule of denying entry to women in religious spaces can be placed within the economic necessity to keep women inside their homes and the social requirement of keeping caste compartments rigid. These were essential for society’s sustenance at a bygone era, not anymore.