Religion and God are often used as pawns for negotiating behaviour, for justifying actions, thoughts and beliefs.
Should women be allowed to enter the Sabarimala shrine? A persistent question that leads to thorough investigations on customs, traditions and the responsibility on women to ensure that Lord Ayyappa can successfully maintain his Brahmacharya, his celibacy.
Hinduism believes that Lord Ayyappa chose to be a Naistika Brahmacharya, which implies that he wishes to be celibate and withdrawn from civilisation.
While that may stand true, people are quick to place the responsibility of the maintenance of this celibacy on women.
One opinion on social media says that a celibate ‘must completely abstain himself from all luxuries and means of satisfying the five senses. He must not even hear stories of women and rich people, leave alone the matter of coming in contact with them. Menstruating women are considered sexually attractive and hence must be abstained from,or to make things easier for them, they can consider menstruating women as Goddess Uma (embodiment of Mata Shakti). Lord Ayyappa being a strict brahmachari is not even supposed to think of women and any other luxuries.
The writer dehumanises women by branding them a luxury one must abstain from. This is yet another trope that aligns with the discriminatory treatment women are subjected to, every month, for menstruating.
However, with the added comparison to a goddess, there’s an element of honour and glory, and justification provided to package oppression as tradition.
As a nation, we consider temples to be holy places of worship but are swift in categorising women as seductive apsaras whose existence itself is exempt from boundaries that will hinder a god’s capacity to maintain his vowed celibacy.
In the name of tradition and customs, people are quick to objectify and idolise women in the same sentence. Like most styles of classic gaslighting, it’s a nuanced form of manipulation that leads to a confusing yet justifiable dissonance for women that goes unquestioned.
As a society that is so heavily influenced by religion, we seldom take responsibility for it. Religion and God are often used as pawns for negotiating behaviour, for justifying actions, thoughts and beliefs.
It’s easier to conform than unlearn. For instance, ‘Durga’ is seen as the epitome of strength, so she receives gratitude for times when one displays courage in action. ‘Saraswati’ is worshipped before an exam because it is believed that she resides in the text as knowledge.
No argument holds when our ancestors and their beliefs are brought to moderate our discussions.
The Sabarimala Devasom chief Prayar Gopalakrishnan himself implied that education and progressive values aside, women will have to follow the norms laid down by tradition.
No questions asked.
Gopalakrishnan also asked: When the streets remain unsafe for women, why must they embark on a difficult pilgrimage to the temple?
More opinions on social media discuss women being prevented from visiting Sabarimala is to ensure their safety since there are higher chances of them getting raped or killed.
While no accountability or responsibility is assigned to temple authorities or the state government, the onus of safety is placed again on women by isolating them and barring their presence in select spaces.
It is packaged as concern and protection. Language is a skilful tool for gaslighting, and therefore this subtle and dangerous form of abuse goes unnoticed till it has done immense damage.
Gaslighting as self-preservation
Gaslighting adds fodder to the legitimate fear of spaces that women are vulnerable to. It teaches them to only internalise fear, but also to accept that spaces will always be dangerous and the only means to self-preservation is to avoid these spaces, to remain silent, to accept that women alone are accountable for their own safety.
The irony, however, is that the temple authorities and right-wing activists enjoy being the flagbearers of equality while discussing how prepubescent girls and post-menopausal women are welcome to enter the shrine.
So the journey and regions are safe for young girls and older women, but not for menstruating women?
That is profiling and blatant discrimination.
I visited Sabarimala in 1999. I was seven years old and that was my first and only visit. My father has been visiting the temple for the last 20 years. I fasted with him, I prayed with him and I climbed the hill in the dead of the night during peak season.
Since then, I have paid numerous visits to Ayyappa temples in different parts of the country and as far as I know, the Lord’s celibacy remains unaffected.
Tradition, customs and beliefs are intricately designed blankets for hiding the bigotry and biases that influence Brahmanical patriarchy.
The normalisation of gaslighting and manipulation weaponises religion to instil feelings of guilt, fear and shame in vulnerable masses. It merely reinforces creative forms of oppression.
It wasn’t okay then, it isn’t okay now.
The author is a columnist and a mental health clinician in Chicago.
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