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Achieving religious harmony in a world of fear and populism

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This is a tough time for men and women of the cloth, at least those whose message is one of peace, tolerance, mutual respect, equality and inter-faith dialogue.

Underlying the rise of populism, nationalism, protectionism, fear of the other, anti-migrant and anti-foreigner sentiment, and hate speech is an erosion of the norms of debate. Articulation of hate speech has become permissible, if not fashionable. Often blunt and crude language employed by leaders, politicians and some people of the cloth help shape an environment in which civility has been lost.

Intolerant, racist and supremacist have risen in significance even in democratic societies that project themselves as open, tolerant guarantors of equal rights irrespective of nationality, ethnicity, religion, colour or sexuality. Suppressing those voices through laws and bans drives hate speech and racism underground, it doesn’t erase or eradicate it. Countering it with a message of tolerance and mutual respect won’t erase it either but can help shape an environment in which those principles become dominant again.

Let’s face it, prejudice is a fact of life. Its inbred in whatever culture each of us adheres to and whatever education at home and in schools that we have enjoyed, irrespective of how conservative or liberal our family and societal backgrounds are. We all were raised on implicit or more explicit notions that our culture is best or by implication other cultures are not as good.

In other words, prejudice is not the issue, its how we deal with it, how we manage it. The problem arises when we lose our sense of relativity, when we adopt an absolutist approach, the high way or no way. It arises when pluralism is thrown out the window and we abandon the notion that our world is populated by a multitude of equally valid faiths, worldviews and belief systems.

To quote Mahatma Gandhi, a deeply religious Hindu, who said in 1942: “I believe with my soul that the God of the Qur’an is also the God of Gita and that we are all, no matter by what name designated, children of the same God. My whole soul rebels against the idea that Hinduism and Islam represent two antagonistic cultures… To ascent to such a doctrine is for me a denial of God.”

In the battles in the late 1940s and 1950s over a proposed national ban in India on the slaughter of cows, Gandhi declared himself a worshipper of cows whom he regarded with the same veneration as he viewed his mother. Yet, Gandhi, went on to say that “the Hindu religion prohibits cow slaughter for the Hindus, not for the world. The religious prohibition comes from within. Any imposition from without means compulsion. Such compulsion is repugnant to religion.”

On a visit in 1942 to a German camp populated by Indian prisoners of war captured from the British during fighting in North Africa, Subhas Chandra Bose, a deeply religious leader of the Indian independence movement, reportedly warned inmates that “if you use religion to unite yourself today, you leave the door open for someone to divide you later using the same sentiments.”

Recent history validates Bose’s warning, not only in India and Pakistan, but across the globe expressed in Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-Shiism, just to name a few, as well as in conflicts, wars and brutal repression in places like Syria, Yemen and the north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Many of you represent faiths with multiple sects, legal schools and interpretations – proof that your belief system in the narrow context of that system is open to multiple interpretation. Some of those interpretations may be intolerant, anti-pluralistic, supremacist. They too are a fact of life, like it or not. Countering them depends on the social environment one creates, a sphere within which men and women of the cloth have an important role to play as well. It is also a function of the social and economic policies implemented by governments.

Indeed, the key is not suppression, what is suppressed doesn’t go away, at best it goes into hibernation, only to re-emerge at some point in the future. The key is containment, communities and societies that make discriminatory, racist, supremacist expressions socially taboo. That key is not enforcement by force of law but by social custom and an environment in which those expressions are continuously challenged in public debate, social settings and individual encounters. I am not talking about political correctness that stifles debate.

Leaving aside those whose beliefs are absolute and intolerant of any other view, a majority of people gravitate towards the middle. It’s what some call moral shock or what former trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb dubbed black swans coupled with economic, social and societal uncertainty and political manipulation that drives people towards more literal, absolutist, intolerant beliefs.

It is those circumstances in which normally tolerant communities and societies become more amenable to those beliefs. It’s what allows men like Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad to turn societies where inter-communal relations and inter-marriage were the norm into wastelands in which one community tries to exterminate the other.

Think of Bosnia Herzegovina in the 1990s that seemingly transformed overnight from a beacon of harmony into a hell or the tensions in multiple countries ranging from Bahrain to Nigeria or the tenth parallel that journalist Elizabeth Rush aptly described as the fault line cutting across Africa and Asia between more strident forms of Islam and Christianity.

The last two decades have witnessed a renewed hardening of fault lines, not just ones between strands of Islam and Christianity, but across the board. This latest round started in 2001 with the moral shock of the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington and subsequent attacks across Europe as well as in Asia and Africa that continue until today. 9/11 was the death knell of multi-culturalism and the cradle of the latest wave of Islamophobia and rising anti-Semitism.

The economic financial crisis of 2008/2009 with its decimating effect on the lower and middle classes, the flourishing of jihadism, the impact of heinous attacks close to home and the fear, a human being’s most irrational emotion, that generated the breeding ground for populism, nationalism, protectionism and the return to primordial, absolutist beliefs propagated by multiple sources, including men and women of the cloth.

To be sure, the groundwork for this pre-date 9/11, fuelled by some strands of Christianity, massive Saudi funding across the globe of ultra-conservative strains of Islam, and the use of religious intolerance by leaders and governments because it served a political purpose.

Pakistan illustrates what this can produce. The tolerant and live-let-live types live in a bubble, primarily in Pakistan’s three foremost cities, Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. The gravity of society has shifted towards intolerance, anti-pluralism and supremacism. Ultra-conservatism has been woven into the texture of segments of society and the culture of some institutions of the state. It is a world in which absolute truth rules supreme, discrimination based on an absolute truth is anchored into law, competence is determined not exclusively on the basis of merit but on what faith one adheres to, democratic freedoms are curtailed. Mob lynching becomes acceptable, violence against minorities the norm, and anti-blasphemy the tool.

It’s a trend that is not unique to Pakistan and not unique to the Muslim world. It is a trend that is nurtured by the rise of populism, nationalism, authoritarianism and autocracy visible across Western societies, the Muslim world and Israel, in other words irrespective of cultural-religious roots.

In most, if not all of these countries, significant segments of the population have no real stake in society. Intolerance, anti-pluralism, racism and supremacism fuel the perception of disenfranchisement and marginalization that often produces a sense of not having anything to lose. It is some combination of religious ultra-conservatism, exclusivist ethnic and nationalist sentiment, and lack of a stake that creates breeding grounds for militancy and extremism.

Men and women of the cloth working in Singapore are in many ways privileged. While Singapore regulates hate speech or expressions it believes would undermine harmony, it has been successful in ensuring that all segments of the population have a stake in society – perhaps the most important factor in combatting discrimination, racism and supremacism as well as militancy and extremism.

Singapore demonstrates messages of tolerance and inter-ethnic and inter-faith harmony can and will be heard in a political and social environment that fosters mutual respect and dialogue.

There is however one caveat. Peace and harmony in society requires peace and harmony at home. The divisions and animosity between different religions and ethnicities at large are reflected in divisions and animosity within faith groups.

Tolerance, mutual respect and dialogue starts in one’s own community and its message is as credible as one practices it without exception. That probably requires a redefinition of the concept of absolute truth. That’s a tough order, but no one claims that ensuring that a peaceful and harmonious existence and future would be easy. It also is a litmus test of one’s sincerity.

Edited version of remarks made at the Inter-Religious Organization Singapore, 1 October 2018

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Daughters Gone Forever: Forced Religious Conversions

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Pakistan, an Islamic Republic, has blatantly discriminated religious rights of minorities. Over the years, the laws and policies associated with religious minorities have shifted from being neutral to becoming biased and prejudiced. The constitution stands for equality of all, irrespective of religion, colour, caste and creed. It also puts emphasis on tolerance and respect of all religions.

However, a rising pattern of forced conversions after 7 decades, in the country is making a mockery of the constitution of Pakistan. They are a violation of fundamental rights specified in the country’s constitution. Forced conversion can be defined, in simplest terms as “forced adoption of a different religion under threats, duress and pressure with the use of physical, emotional or psychological violence.” The victim is subjugated to mental, emotional and physical abuse involving threats against their loved ones. More than half of these cases involve girls aged below 18. 

Pakistani religious minorities face several obstacles and great difficulties in the pursuit of justice. However, in this matter of forced conversions, the victims and its family face a great number of hurdles. When the girls are abducted, kidnapped, forcibly converted and married Muslims, the police and other authoritative bodies turn a blind eye. Even if the case reaches the courts, the lower and higher courts have shown a biased attitude and lack of adherence.

Conversion to Islamic religion is a one-way process, once someone becomes Muslim forcibly or voluntarily, then they can’t revert. This is because reversion in Islam is an act of apostasy which is punishable by a death sentence. Role of religious institutions in these cases is another reason for the rapid rise in such incidents. Many religious institutions fail to investigate the nature of the conversion and the reasons behind it. A mere affidavit is provided as a proof for age. Their significance also increases when the conversion certificate issued by the seminary or other religious institutions are used for further investigation by the court and the police.

The role of media is often silent in these cases. The main reason for unreported cases on media is the involvement of powerful religious leaders who pressurise the media to not report the stories. Another factor that limits investigation is the concept of honour among rural families. The victims sometimes themselves with the fear of social stigmatisation, avoid to speak out. This is the reason that majority of such incidents go unreported. The Peoples Commission for Minorities’ Rights and the Centre for Social Justice gave a report of 156 incidents of reported forced conversions between 2013 and 2019 (Jahangir 2020). The actual number can be much higher as many cases are not reported by the police.

Many claim that the converts turn to Islam by choice, not by force.  A very disturbing fact about this inhumane activity is, the girls that are converting are largely underage. Many girls are as young as 12 years. Even in some cases where force is not used, it still cannot be regarded as consent as in case of minors this is rather a compulsion than consent.

The social issue is faced by all the religious minorities, but in particular, it is the most serious problem for Christian and Hindu women and girls.

Forced conversions are an emotional issue for the people of Sindh. An estimated 4.5 million Hindus live in Pakistan, the majority of them are residing in the South Eastern province. These cases are the most vulnerable and persecuted there. At the time of partition, the well-established Hindus of Sindh migrated to India and the remaining became a minority in the newly independent state. The increasing number of forced conversions violate Section 3 and 4 of Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013, which sets 18 years as the minimum marriage age.  (University of Birmingham, 2018)

One such case, was the case of Rinkle Kumari belonging to Ghotki. In February 2012, the young Hindu girl was found missing by her father. Rinkle’s family was informed through a phone call about her conversion. Despite the fact that, numerous times in Sakkar Police Station and almost all court proceedings, she cried and begged to go home with her parents, the husband was allowed to take her home. In April 2012 when she appeared in Supreme Court and her birth certificate which proved that she was below 16 years old, indicated that her marriage was illegal, was not taken into account. In Sindh, marriages below the age of 18 had been outlawed. The only statement about her going with the husband was accepted based on her faith. This case was one of the rare ones that attracted public attention to the issue of security and basic human rights of Pakistan’s Hindu communities. This also bought attention to the absence of legally-binding Hindu Marriage Act. 

In 2017, finally, the Hindu Marriage Act was passed in 2017 which regulated the Hindu marriages and also catered to the problem of forced conversions in Sindh. The Sindh government has twice attempted to outlaw forced conversions and marriages, including 2016 bill introduced by Sindh Provincial Assembly that has not been passed yet. Protection of Minorities Bill, that sets 18 years for conversions was unanimously passed by the Sindh Assembly, but religious parties the bill against forced conversions rejected it and threatened to besiege the assembly. The had objection with age limit for conversions. The same bill was revised in 2019, but again protests by religious parties hurdled the process.

The members of Christian community can be characterised as the socio-economically marginalised group of the society. Most labourer’s belong to religious minorities that are majority Hindus in Sindh and Christians in Punjab. These labourers are subjected to physical abuse, human trafficking and economic exploitation. Just like Hindus, forced conversions are an emotive issue for Christians of Punjab too.

Tania, a 22-year-old Christian girl. She was kidnapped on 20 May, 2012 from Nankana City on her way to home from her job. The request of FIR was repeatedly refused by the police. The intervention of prominent lawyers and an influential figure, who was the ex-mayor of the local Union Council helped Tania’s family in registering FIR. (Movement for Solidarity and Peace 2014)

It was unfortunately then revealed then that before being forcibly converted and married, she was sold and trafficked twice by the abductors. After extensive negotiations between the former mayor, on family’s behalf and the traffickers, who demanded Rs.90,000, the girl was then recovered. When recovered, she showed signs of severe physical, emotional and psychological abuse. This case demonstrated another example where the police lacked authority and control. If the family did not have influential bodies on their side, they would have lost their daughter forever.

Another example is a very recent case of another young Christian girl, Arzoo Masih, 13-year-old was kidnapped and married to a 44-year-old Muslim man. Even though, ‌the Church documents and verified form-B clearly showed that she was 13 and a 6th-grade student, police said the girl was 18-year-old and had willingly converted.

Cases of forced conversions and forced marriages that are reported also highlight the underlying common factors that make religious minorities more vulnerable. The case of Tania shows evidence that forced conversions provide a masquerade for more pervasive crimes such as sexual exploitation, child abuse, prostitution, human trafficking and hurdles of justice. All of this, as a whole, has left a detrimental effect on the social and economic wellbeing of minorities.

To tackle this social issue serious steps, need to be taken by the government. The first and foremost measure taken towards such cases is for the Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill to become law. The Bill addresses many issues related to forced conversions.  It should not only be instituted in Sindh, but attempts should be made to introduce it in National Assembly, Punjab and across Pakistan to help religious minorities. It is also crucial to put attention on failures of the institutional protection of human rights.

The lethargic nature of our governmental system and official institutional bodies is the leading source of numerous problems in the country. It is vital for the government to ensure a faster response system by the police and the criminal justice system. Federal and State governments should guarantee proper legal protection and proceedings are available to the minor religious communities, especially in rural areas.

The socio-economic and cultural position of the religious minorities especially Hindus and Christians should be enhanced. They are mostly found at the bottom of the socio-economic tier which leaves them in a vulnerable position. To deal with this problem, equal access to jobs, education, government positions should be made. Cultural and religious beliefs are strongly engraved in society than in laws. So, in order to mitigate this problem, cultural, societal and religious means should be used. Religious influential leaders should emphasize that conversions should occur without force and compulsion.

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Custodians of Islam, changing their Avatar

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If we peek into the historical traces, it could be seen that the world has fought more wars on religion or for their state’s dignity and integrity than any other reason. It is mainly because accepting others ideologies either its religious or national, it’s hard to accept and this is at present the prevailing issue if someone looks deeper into the complex picture of geo-politics.

United Arab Emirates has passed new laws that have shocked the entire Muslim world. The Arab World has also been perceived as the “custodians of Islam” and other Muslim countries have look towards for the perfect implementation of misinterpreted “Islamic values”, ignoring the fact that mainly the values followed in the Arab world are Arabic not Islamic. There is huge difference among two interpretations.

UAE has recently relaxed its social constraints. These constraints that served as a shield from adopting the un-Islamic practices and pro-western values. UAE has allowed couples to cohabit; it has allowed drinking without fear of punishment. Lastly it has also it put off the honor crime from its menu means; they have criminalized the act of honor killing. The decision of UAE to revamp its policies depicts that UAE has chosen a “new” avatar, a more pro-western avatar, leaving the Islamic values behind.  The broadening of personal freedoms reflects that UAE is on its new journey to change its society at home.

After the announcement of new laws it seems as if United Arab Emirates is more focus on shifting their oil dependent economy or other industries. This includes inviting the high-flow of Israel and Western investments into their country at the cost of anything. They are aiming to boost UAE is the skyscraper tourist destination for Western tourists and fortune seekers, businesses regardless of its “legal hard-line Islamic System.”

Moreover, the major revamps came particularly right after the historic U.S brokered deal to normalize relations between UAE and Israel. The future will reveal but it can be foreseen that the days of monarchy are coming to end. It won’t happen in few years; it will take time but is surely going to happen. The decades old filthy rich monarchy will be replaced by “Democracy” for sure.

Other than the UAE, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is also on the same journey. The new monarch King Muhammad Bin Salman is also tilted towards “Western culture” and more “Liberalist thoughts and values”. He is also more inclined to bring on more liberal structures in their country, for examples recently Saudi Arabia has given more freedom to women for driving and is allowed to work with men at offices or any other workplaces. These drastic changes were considered as an impossible task to do but things are changing rapidly.

The question to ask is, now where would Pakistan tilt? Whose society would Pakistan look upon as the guardian and custodians of Islam and its Islamic values? The Arab countries have also had massive influence upon the Pakistani society particularly in religious terms. Pakistan has to bear the cost of “Wahabbism” clashing with “Shiaism” and other Islamic sects that were mainly brought by the Arabs into the country.

Many Pakistanis have considered the Arabs as their ideal and the Arabian society as an ideal society to live in. I have also heard people giving examples of “Islamic system of Saudi Arabia” and how loyal they are to the “Islamic values”. They are also perceived as the “Guardians” and “Custodians” of Islamic values. But now as they are inclined or totally moving towards Western system, would Pakistan also opt for liberalism in their country?

As there has always been an environment of confusion in the Pakistani society. This confusion is, wither to opt for democracy or go for an Islamic system. This has created a sharp separation in the Pakistani society, the one struggling to go totally Western (far-left), and the others trying to preserve the Islamic system (far-right).

After United Arab Emirates new laws, this question is becoming more complex. The transformation of United Arab Emirates adoption of Westernized values shows that it is only the Muslim world leaving its values behind and moving towards a borrowed baggage of cultures and values. The future will disclose that who will sit on the throne of “Custodian of Islam”. Till now the changing geo-political situation shows that it is Turkey that is striving to go for this throne.

On the current politics of Arab powers I would say, “A tree’s beauty lies in its branches, but its strength lies in its roots,” rightly said by Matshona Dhliwayo.

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Death of a Living Goddess and an Unfair verdict

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Image source: mandalas.life

The Living Goddess of Nepal (Kumari), a prepubescent girl child, possessing divinity is a well established and widely held belief. She is worshipped so long as her virginity remains intact and dismissed when she starts to menstruate.  By all accounts, the reason she is highly revered has much to do with her virginity as the loss of holy status is inevitable after the first menstrual blood. Strong voices regarding child and human rights raised so far have brought remarkable reforms in Kumari practice; yet the elephant in the room, her dethronement after puberty, undeniably a serious problem, is often downplayed. The supposed divinity of the Goddess and it’s connection with pubescence, as outrageous as it sounds, triggers a couple of very important questions. Does the Living Goddess really possess divinity? More importantly, must not we ponder and assess the eventual end of her divinity?

The 19th century famous German philosopher  Friedrich Nietzche declared– God is dead — a metaphor used to describe the gradual decline of faith in God. The philosopher attributes the advent of Scientific revolution and Age of reason in bringing an end to the existence of God, thanks to rational arguments and modern inventions or discoveries. Unlike the death of Western God,  the Living Goddess of Nepal, or her holiness to be precise, meets a surprising death(end), figuratively speaking, at the hands of first menstruation. Sadly, just a few drops of innocent and natural blood, with rosy prospects of procreation and motherhood, is believed to have committed a grave crime that a verdict was passed against it long ago — puberty ends divinity.

Moreover, proclaiming divinity’s end, as soon as Kumari reaches adolescence, she is replaced by another “virgin” child. Even though blood oozing from any part of the body due to cuts or wounds leads to Goddess’ dismissal,  the menstrual blood in every occasion has turned out to be most fatal. To confirm this we can check the numbers of all former Kumaris, and should not get startled if considerable cases are associated with their first period. Matina Shakya(2008-2017) was replaced in 2017 by  Trishna Shakya (2017-present), after puberty ended her nine-year reign. When the same phenomenon hit Preeti Shakya (2001-2008) in 2008, she was shown the door to an anonymous life in the suburbs. Likewise, in 2010 the divine life for Chanira Bajracharya finished abruptly  at 15, on the day she first menstruated and Samita Bajracharya(2010-2014) was appointed the new Kumari of Patan City in her place. It is a pity that once highly hailed all-powerful Goddess, sooner or later becomes a “nobody”, useless and mere mortal. Devotees accustomed to bow down before the deity in the hope of blessings are certainly baffled when simple biological blood brings her supreme divinity to its knees.

What would be the general frame of her mind and psychological state when the child realizes that fending off the imminent demotion is far from possible? Gripped by trepidation, she would definitely not want the undesirable menstruation, the antagonist, to come and take away her most cherished goddess status. Samita was in total shock and emotional at her dismissal following the start of her first period. Similarly, Preeti couldn’t help shedding tears when her term ended at 12 ,and  banished out of the paradise, because of approaching menstruation, which is considered as flawed. This is highly likely to leave a false impression in the mind of a demoted child and the collective consciousness of people. To them puberty or “supposed” impure blood must appear a nemesis of Kumari, a nasty thing that ends her holiness.

God/Goddess’ existence is an unsolved riddle, yet lives of many great sages and mystics throughout the history of Indian subcontinent — Gautam Buddha, Mahavira, Shivapuri Baba, Meera Bai, Lalleshwari, Anandamayi Ma and so on —  convince godliness being a possible phenomenon. With no single exception these humans share two things in common; years of spiritual endeavours and eventual mystical/godliness experience. On the contrary, a girl child is expected to fulfill 32 physical qualities, before worshipped as a Living Goddess. Whether the girl child reaches the same transcendental state as the other divine beings shall always remain a debatable issue. Giving a benefit of doubt, for argument’s sake, we can assume that Kumari’s divinity is no lesser than those of highly revered personages. But would it be judicious to believe that a temporary biological phenomenon is capable of  ending divinity permanently?

In fact, literature on religion, spirituality and mysticism show that divinity is imperishable once obtained, which can be attested by the lives of human-turned holy beings. Thus what fizzles out at puberty’s touch, as in the case of Kumari, must be undeniably spurious and impotent . Above all, it is one thing to enjoy the prerogative of a goddess on chastity grounds but quite another to embark upon a spiritual journey and thereby attain godliness. Maybe the holiness does not exist inside the Living Goddess as believed and claimed, not at all, hence skepticism justified. Or perhaps it was there in profusion, but insofar as Nepalese society is accustomed to find coexistence of divinity and impure blood unbearable, it must have convinced us of the latter’s seemingly antagonistic role.

Challenging the popular yet pernicious existing belief that first menstruation ends divine power, I emphatically advocate that it is high time puberty is acquitted from a crime it “never” committed. Needless to say, since the inception of Kumari custom and up until the 21st century, Nepalese society’s fervent endorsement of such belief coupled with their reluctance to point fingers against the traditional practice certainly consolidated the superstition for many centuries. It “might” be our rights to continue long held old traditions and worship girl children in the form of goddesses, regardless of some compromises with their child and human rights. But we are not in the least entitled to mercilessly dethrone them under a completely false or trifle pretext. More importantly, we are not at liberty to dub a harmless biological phenomenon with an undeserved ugly reputation, on account of our illogical blood(menstrual) phobia. How many years or decades more it will take before we realize that menstruation is by no means impure, inauspicious and unholy?  Although the divinity of the Living Goddess appears disputable, one thing seems as clear as crystal, that the verdict passed against innocent pubescence to date was downright unfair. Unfortunately, the apotheosis of a girl child(woman) to a Living Goddess status is undermined by the fact that the Kumari practice explicitly condemns menses, an integral aspect of womanhood.

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