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“Hi! I am writing an article about menstruation awareness. Please share any personal memories regarding it, particularly about seclusion/confinement/restrictions, or the other names used for it. Your privacy will be protected. Thanks!”
I sent this text to about a 100 random women in my phone book, before I wrote this piece. Most of these women are urban, educated and seemingly liberal. Only 4 of them replied, surprisingly only those whose families were not silent about periods but despite awareness and understanding the issue had applied ‘minimal’ restrictions like not entering sacred spaces on them.
The silence and shame associated with talking about it to even a fellow woman is quite evident. Such taboos are passed on from one generation of women to another conveniently because women/girls are socialized into a state of ‘learned helplessness’ as suggested by Lenore Walker though in the context of domestic violence victims/survivors, where the victims/survivors begin to think of themselves, their anatomy and their sexuality as subordinate and dirty.
In fact body shaming, sexual shaming is sometimes more covert but aggressive in urban spaces. I can say this from personal experience that ironically the talk about periods began much earlier for most rural girls in my home state Himachal Pradesh than it does for most of our little girls in cities even now.
Little girls there know that every few days women in their homes and families are secluded because they are dirty and must remain separated from the rest of the family for those few days.
Periods in some local Pahari dialects are referred to as “Zudke” ,literally meaning ‘clothes’, so it is not even referred to as anything related to the female anatomy, but to the clothes or rags the women traditionally used to soak the flow and how they had to wash everything clean once the dirty period was over. Even the popular Hindi words – Maasik, Maheena, and Mahavaari refer to its monthly occurrence, indicating no connection directly to the female body.
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Little girls by default in hilly villages become the carriers of food and messages to and fro between the ‘Obra’/’Khudh’ (cow/cattle shed) and the house as their mothers, aunts, female cousins and older sisters are confined/secluded during their ‘unclean’ period. They mustn’t touch the ‘dirty woman’ they are told, if they do they would have to bathe again, so they are instructed to leave the eatables at a distance and speak from a distance if they have to. It is believed and enforced by deep cultural conditioning that contamination from menstruating women can bring the worst curses from local deities and even lead to drying up of crops or secret diseases.
The irony is that they are confined to a corner of the cattle sheds traditionally and yet is believed that if a menstruating girl/woman touches a cow, the cow will become infertile – leading these girls furthermore to regard their own bodily functions as curse and impurity and be restricted to a corner even in that confined space.
The culture not only associates a routine female body function as unclean and impure but imposes seclusion on women in connivance with ‘god men’ and local deities, as women and families are often scared with curses and diseases so that they adhere silently to the seclusion and do not speak up against this humiliation month after month.
It is also important to understand the generic architecture of homes in the hills to realize how traumatic and humiliating this seclusion can be for most women especially young girls.
Traditionally the homes were wooden structures with two floors, while the upper floor was family quarters, the ground floor roomed the cattle and the sheep, so women were confined there during their periods. With changing times cattle sheds are now constructed as a single hut slightly away from the main house and the seclusion thus becomes even more evident and in some cases unsafe too. The door is locked from outside and in case of an emergency even her loudest cries may not reach the house.
To add to this turmoil is the fact that toilets if there are any are also constructed closer to the main house and the woman is often denied access to it during this time. If she uses cloth, she must wash and dry it to reuse in complete secrecy and if she uses napkins then these must be disposed secretly.
Social and economic upward mobility and some work by social initiatives and NGOs have probably increased awareness about menstrual hygiene and girls are increasingly using modern sanitary products but the discrimination at ground level hasn’t changed much. Women in some families might not be sent to cowsheds but even in their semi-urban or urban homes are confined to one room, have to sleep on the floor, can’t go to the kitchen or prayer room, can’t touch some eatables like pickles and can’t touch other family members etc.
While women slog equally in fields and kitchens all year through, only men participate in most religious rituals in villages and cook the sacred feasts and only they are allowed to offer the yields to a deity. Lots of rural girls drop out from school still around puberty due to lack of support and awareness. Hundreds succumb to infections due to unhygienic methods of managing menstruation. The fear and shame associated with a menstrual stain is so overwhelming that they give up their opportunity of an education for it.
The religious notions of purity and pollution are rules that deny women basic human rights of caring about their health and bodies. All women, regardless of their caste are considered unclean during menstruation. Sometimes they are not allowed to even take a bath especially for first few days of their menstrual period as it is believed that they can contaminate the water source permanently.
The argument often propounded in the favor of seclusion is that the confinement frees the woman of all her household duties during those days and she can rest. Even if a logical benefit of doubt is granted to that logic, what kind of rest does a woman experience if she is psychologically stressed by separating her from her children and family and the physical comforts of her kitchen and bedroom are denied to her?
Untouchability based on caste and religion was long back ended legally by our constitution, but this untoucahability of a more personal and intimate kind is still practiced in many homes and families, and the worse is it is taken for granted too, both by the perpetrators and the victims.
There is no open discourse about it within families, TV channels still get changed whenever there is a sanitary napkin advertisement playing and women though are not tied with physical ropes to restrain their movements and daily routine, the stronger but invisible ties bind them securely to the margins, make them silently experience the “shame” and discrimination associated with menstruation.
Silence about it strengthens the shame and the shame shrouding it strengthens the silence. Generations of women suffer in shame and in silence.
Its time our girls are freed of this burden and can love their body and menstruation as a privilege and not a curse.