We the western-educated are trapped in our perceptions. When one stands back and watches one realizes that notions could be very very different. And many activist positions become quite meaningless.
For instance …
The village women are very careful to keep away from the village temple when they have their periods. The educated position that this notion of women keeping away from temples during their periods is downright retrograde. I wonder. Every society has certian norms - and some are unjust and some are not. Is this ‘unjust’ ?
Firstly, the village women are quite liberated ... as compared to city women. They work shoulder to shoulder with the men. They analyse and criticize the village concerns and their family concerns clearly and incisively. They are not enslaved by cosmetics, nor by the need to culture a body that fits certian impossible dimensions. They do not worry about needing to date, finding a partner. Sometimes they decide whom to marry, sometimes they elope. The village goddesses are also extremely powerful, and (feminists would be happy to note) are far from dolled beauties.
Secondly, To the village women the montly cycle it is a natural cycle, when temple going is proscribed. Coming of age is celebrated through a function called shobanam. There is actually no negativity attached to the cycle as such. The village women choose to keep away from the temple on these days. And that is the norm for the society also. They do not feel it oppressive and repressive. And I also do not feel it is, living there as a neighbor.
And lastly, i do not know the esoteric implications of menstruation ... just like after years in a village i have decided to suspend judgement about their mantrams and antrams. Who knows ? In all their mantram treatments - 'antu, muttu, kavusu, teepu' are proscribed. These include menstruation. There could be something here - beyond routine explanations of patriarchy and feminism here. During pox, for instance, the goddess is propitiated. And pan-India, the restrictions during pox, apart from similar diet, and use of neem leaves to sleep on, include a ban on menstruating women coming in ... I would not be interested in simply, and unscientifically, jettisoning all this as 'superstitious baggage'.
I am not going to view everything through the glasses of a feminist. I am not a feminist, to prove to the village women that they are oppressed and depressed. All we need to work for is a sane and healthy society where there is mutual space and respect and concern for all is built in.
We need to ‘first do no harm.’. I actually remember some feminist logic long back that girls should be empowered by wearing jeans. That is how ridiculous we can get. Maybe fighting for entry to temple during periods is equally ridiculous.
One also has to understand the perspective of the community. If we tell them that dalits being denied entry to the temple or denied use of common tea glasses is grossly unfair, they will be will be with us, and we can fight a common fight. If I tell the women that we will fight for their entry into the temple on those five days, they will look at me as if I am mad.
Norms held by a community are respected by those respecting their own community. My daughter, growing up in a village society, which gave her much mentoring, and which she respected and loved in turn, has never felt the need to 'rebel' against these. Maybe our own world where in sweltering indian summers the young liberated girls ‘desire’ to wear tight jeans is more oppressive … Maybe we need to look at our own ‘indoctrinated’ repressed structures, before going out to ‘reform the poor’.