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One those days, girls must not enter the kitchen, or the puja. In some houses, on those days, girls must have their meals separately from the rest of the family. On those days, girls must stay apart, yet not proclaim their isolation, because talking about the thing that sets them apart is shameful.
On those days, girls must take care not to use things that are used by other family members – utensils in which food has been served, shared towels, bedspreads – on those days, their touch contaminates everything. On those days, if a girl wants water, she must wait for it to be poured into a glass set aside for her.
On those days…
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Do you believe that those days existed long ago? In some remote, rural area untouched by literacy and education?
On one of those days, a girl cried because she had to rush for school and food could not be served to her until the morning prayers were finished and others eaten. You see, on those days, girls may eat only after very religious family members have eaten, because food that has been served to girls on those days is polluted and cannot be served to those observing certain rituals. That girl was me, bewildered at how she became something dirty to be avoided on those days.
On one of those days, I think I became a feminist, wondering why my having a female body, with all that comes along with it, makes me a target for derision. The moment I went to a hostel, I stopped washing my hair on the fourth day of my periods – in a small, personal act of rebellion, I would wash my hair on any of the first three days, but not on the fourth, when one is supposed to wash one’s hair and cleanse oneself of the impurity of menstruation.
On those days, young girls in some areas continue to be banished, to live in a secluded, unsafe, unhygienic environment. But even in urban families where they are not, why do we continue to treat it as some kind of disease?
What exactly makes the monthly flow of blood so unclean and frightening to others?
I find it ironical that a culture which places such a high premium on women’s fertility and treats women’s bodies as wombs above anything else, treats evidence of that fertility as something dirty.
Our bodies are natural, and since all women in a given age group bleed on those days, that is entirely natural too. The fact that it only happens to women does not make it an aberration or an abomination.
I recommend everyone to read the Gloria Steinem piece, If Men Could Menstruate, to get some more perspective on why menstruation is this thing to be talked about in whispers, this unclean thing that needs to be hidden.
The truth is that menstruation is a fairly routine thing, like most other things about the human body. If at all there is a miracle in it, it is the everyday miracle of how so many things in our body – skin, nerves, blood, brain – come together to make everything work.
For the rest, girls rock, and rock on those days too.
While much lip service is paid to women as carriers of the future generation, the truth is that women around the world continue to die in childbirth, for lack of adequate medical care, and because of a past history of poverty and malnourishment.
Today’s changemaker that we’d like to highlight is Sneha, a non-profit in Mumbai working in the areas of maternal and neonatal health, as well as educating women about sexual and reproductive health. Given that women living in slums and other such communities often find it difficult to access information as well as suitable health care, Sneha reaches out to women in such areas by working with existing healthcare providers in those areas to improve the quality of delivery.
There is also focus on educating young men and women about their rights when receiving health care services, so they are better informed and can make better decisions.
You can support this essential work by donating or offering your services as a volunteer if you are based in Mumbai. More info is available at their Facebook page
Pic credit: dominique (Used under a Creative Commons license)
Founder, Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas and conversations
I too was a girl who experienced the ‘on those days’ things often in my house. Especially of not touching a jar of pickle!
Not washing your hair on day 4- I do it too… I refuse to wash my hair on day 4- I do it every other day. But never on day 4. I totally get what you mean!
Someone told me that the hair washing thing has got something to do with cooling down the body on day 4 so the periods flow can stop. Well, wouldn’t we then start washing our hair on day 3 or day 2 itself? 😛 Maybe there’s a logic. Who knows. But what right does anyone have to dictate rules?!
On those days we are supposed to take enough rest. Hence lots of rules were given, so that others wouldn’t force us to do a lot of things we cannot do (eg. cooking, cleaning, pooja etc.). But it got so messed up (like a lot of other things in our culture) and finally it became untouchability and impurity.
The explanation that isolation during periods was practiced out of concern for women and gave them a chance to rest may have been the initial cause for the custom. But it still does not explain why they need to be kept in isolation and forbidden to pray or go about attending to their personal needs and chores. Was it some sort of compulsory resting scheme cum punishment for entering the reproductive age?
I think in the times when in a joint family set up this was perhaps a way of keeping track of pregnancies of married women and a check on unmarried girls who could be victims of incest and rape within the family set up.
I remember revolting against it 50 years back although none in my family found it objectionable.I was in and out of hostels and managed to escape the torture a good many times except during long vacations
My mother in law was however progressive enough to do away with it when my only sister in law started menstruating. It was therefore never imposed on me after marriage.
Thanks all for your comments. In a lot of these things, we cannot be sure of the origins. What we do know is how it impacts us today, which is where I started from. It is possible they began in order to give women rest on those days, but it also begs the question, why can women simply not decide to rest? Why do they need an excuse or a punishment to rest? That also raises some questions about autonomy.
@Deepa – glad you can understand, silly as I may sound 🙂
Are most girls able to rest in their in-laws place if they want to? Is there a choice? Most of the time the girl is just considered as an “extra help” in the house. In such a case unless there is a custom for compulsory resting, they would not allow her to rest.
I strongly believe that the change made should be mental. Girls are not impure during those times. They just need rest and privacy.
wonderful piece…gave a lot of food for thought…..It is disgusting how natural body processes of women are tied with religious customs….And it makes me revolt against this practice in personal life after years of following it submissively.
This comes late for I’m a late entrant. But thank you for providing a space where at least one can vent one’s spleen!! Yes, it is absolutely disgusting the manner in which menstruating women are treated in India and interestingly the practice is shared across religion cast and creed.
In fact, not just menstruation, how about the time after childbirth, the restrictive 40 day period which most homes in India follow where a mother is not allowed, in some cases to even step outside her room! Is that not regressive. There is a ‘shuddhi’ pooja and rebellions like me were frowned upon for daring to question and not succumb! How can the birth of a son be celebrated but the woman who has borne him treated with reservation. What sense does that make? where is the logic.
Why, why, why…
I too have been a victim of this as my unmarried aged sister in law followed that custom and prided themselves about following these. it was then that I appreciated my grandmother aged 80 who stayed in a village and never insisted on these things.and allowed us to be normal. I agree that its about personal freedom and opinion. I revolted by pretending to be stay “separate and away” but carrying on my normal routine once she was out of sight.. I was also part of my sons first day birthday celebration and mother in laws shrardh during my menses and visited temples because I BELIEVED it was okay. I agree with Preeti that sometimes it gives us a liberating feeling to defy these. Now that I have moved to my own place 12 years back, I have educated my daughter about it …though she is yet to start having her periods.
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