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A Rethink On Menstrual Taboos

A Rethink On Menstrual Taboos

Mahwari toh bhagwan ki den hai jisme aurat chandaal ban jaati hai aur chut hoti hai” (Menstruation is a blessing to women in which they become powerful like a monstress and thus become untouchable). This was the view shared by an elderly man in Parsel village of Amarpur block in Madhya Pradesh. I was located there for almost a year as part of my research.

The initial days were very tough as the environment was different from my comfort zone. The culture, language, food, lifestyle, everything was different. It took me weeks to get adjusted with the village life, devoid of many necessities, such as toilets, mobile network, electricity, etc. that seemed luxury there. My living style changed remarkably in the village. Soon it came to my notice that I was not alone in changing my daily routine. During the menstrual days, the routine of the family, not just the women, changed overwhelmingly.  

It was indeed an embarrassment to notice various practices being followed by women during their menstrual days. Whenever conversations with women began about menstruation, the first thing that got mentioned was the niyam (rule) which men and women have to follow during this period. It seemed the rules were almost synonym for menstruation. Menstruation meant following rules such as they can’t enter the kitchen or the cowshed; can’t fetch/give water to others (especially men); can’t climb the kothi (granary); can’t keep their clothes with others’ clothes; can’t worship or fast; can’t wash their hair; can’t eat in brass vessels; can’t sleep with husband; can’t use soap and many more. During this period, men are also supposed to be careful as they cannot have physical contact with women. However, if they break these norms unconsciously then there are remedies for it. One of the women shared, “If we start menstruating while cooking then we go out. But we don’t throw away the food. We didn’t do it purposefully. We sprinkle turmeric and oil in the kitchen to make the place pure again.”

While I was living in the village, I was told not to enter kitchen during my menstrual days. Usually, I slept in a room attached with the kitchen, along with the family. One night, ‘ didi’ (aunty) prepared the bedding in the front room for both of us and her children. When asked she said a cat has started coming at night in the inner room so the kids are scared. That night ‘ didi, children and I slept in the front room. ‘ Bhaiya’ ( didi’s husband) as usual slept inside. Next day she asked me not to enter the kitchen as I had started menstruating. That’s when it struck me. It was my periods and not cat which caused the shifting of the bed at night. Since they didn’t want to hurt my feelings, didi along with the kids slept outside with me. She advised me that I could stay at the Amarpur Block, where I had rented a room, if it was uncomfortable for me to stay with them. Since I never faced such restrictions back home, it was unsettling at first.

It made me think over the issue again and again. I realised that entering kitchen might be permissible back home in Delhi, but was taking out pads out in the open acceptable? In the village, they followed these practices due to their faith and religious beliefs. But, in Delhi what reason did I have to keep menstruation a secret? So, following certain rules in the village was not a problem for me. However, I preferred to stay at my rented accommodation at the Block during the first three-four days of my periods.

Disposal of pads was a major hassle in the village. As no one in the village used sanitary pads, I had no idea how I could dispose of it. At first, I thought I would dig it in the ground but I was told that wild animals would smell the blood and dig it out. Also, the cows might end up eating the plastic. Women were also not comfortable with the idea of burning it. This was the first time I had to be cautious about disposing of a used pad. Earlier, I always had the option of throwing it in a dustbin. I never worried about the harm the plastics could do to animals or environment. With no other alternative, I started carrying the used pads from the village to my rented accommodation and burn them all there. Once I tried using cloth instead of pad. It was as uncomfortable as a tampon since I am not used to both.

In one of the discussions, women shared that some of the rules have changed over time. Unlike in the past, now during the days of menstruation, they do wash their hair daily, take bath and give water and food to women. But, restriction exists towards men. Also, when they migrate to other places for work, they do not follow all the rules religiously. If there is no god in the kitchen i.e. if the kitchen is not blessed, then they don’t follow the rule. The belief of following these practices, especially with regard to entering the kitchen is that the goddess sits there and it would be disrespect to her if a menstruating woman enters the kitchen.

I was very troubled after these conversations, at first. Most of the academic scholars had shunned such practices calling it ‘taboos’, restrictions and patriarchal ways of exploiting women. So, it was an innate thing for me to assume that their freedom was being curtailed due to these practices. However, I was taken aback when they shared that these rules do not trouble them like other restrictions. It is concerned with dedication to God. However, one of the women had shared that she did not follow any rules during menstruation. After attending various gender trainings conducted by various organisations in Madhya Pradesh, she realised that she had the freedom to choose to not follow these rules. Her in-laws were not happy with her decision but she remained firm. However, her daughters follow all the rules. The eldest one said, “If I want I could enter the kitchen. Mother won’t say anything. But I don’t enter. It is about dedication to the Lord. But if there is no one at home, then I enter. God understands such situations.”

Slowly, it dawned on me that menstrual practices cannot be seen as simply taboos but as belief systems. This breaking up of stereotypes helped me in seeing a clearer picture. One cannot shun these practices as taboos if someone follows it out of respect to their faith or culture. If a woman chooses to follow the menstrual practices because of shraddha or belief, then it cannot be easily and customarily termed as taboo. If an individual has the choice of what to do and what not during menstruation, then it cannot be seen as simply taboo. Yes, whether women have the freedom to make this ‘choice’ is questionable.

However, terming only the rural practices as taboo is not acceptable. Urbanised, modernised and educated people also practice ‘taboos’. When it comes to menstrual taboo, one refers to rural practices and links it with illiteracy. But what about the taboos that prevail among the urban and educated families, wherein menstruation is not spoken about in open; where sanitary pads are wrapped with extra effort at shops; where women cautiously take out the pads from their bags, trying to hide it from the glance of men; where the media uses blue ink in the advertisements. One might bleed blue in the cricket, but by nature we bleed red! Are these practices followed due to lack of education or lack of acceptance of the reality?

Today, many initiatives are being carried out to bring these concerns out in open. One such effort is the recent movie Padman which is based on a true story, emphasising on the need for affordable sanitary pads in the country. Although I do not see any harm in cloth either, if used hygienically. As in my experience, not just the availability of pads but its disposal is also a huge concern. Moreover, the need of the hour is to normalise menstruation, to see it as just another natural biological event in an individual’s life. It is time that we stop being so secretive about it and start talking about it in open. And I see all the initiatives around menstruation towards its normalising. Because more we talk about it, less whispers would be heard around it. So, let’s start ‘un-whisper-ing menstruation’!

(Published on 26th February 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 09)