By Sneha Goud – Managing Editor
Amongst many South Indians, the first menstrual cycle in a girl often calls for much joy and celebration as it indicates that the girl is now a ‘grown up woman’, with her womb ready to ‘receive’. At the same time and in a seemingly contradictory manner, it is customary for the women to be barred from entering the kitchen to cook during menstruation. Although some view this as the period when a woman is allowed to rest and be relieved of her domestic duties, she is not allowed to touch anyone or enter the temple or perform any religious rituals.
-Sarita Manu, “Pure or (im)pure?”, HRISouthAsian Blog
I got my first period when I was twelve. Small and underdeveloped, I could pass for nine. Though I was emotionally mature, and had already defined myself a feminist, I was confused by the conflicting messages I received from my family.
My mom insisted on calling India to inform relatives immediately, much to my embarrassment. My dad, traveling on business, was also immediately notified and called me the next day, asking me if I was eating well and vaguely telling me it was “important now.” I received gifts and jewelry from extended family and noticed my mom’s aunty friends giving me knowing smiles.
I knew the event was important in some way and though I thought I understood the mechanics (having read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret in elementary school), I still wasn’t quite sure why exactly I was being treated so differently. The next year would bring more puzzling changes as a result of my new status as a woman – albeit one who still looked like a young girl, who still wasn’t able to swallow ibuprofen to treat cramps.
I remember my mom chastising me for pointing out a scar on her bare arms while we happened to sharing an elevator with a man in the local community center. The resulting explanation of why one shouldn’t call attention to exposed skin in front of a strange man left me confused and hurt. As did my ban on attending temple with the rest of the family, just because it was a certain day of the month.
As I got older, I understood the bans on makeup and the fear my mom displayed when I talked about boys from school after I “officially” became a woman. But as the confusion disappeared, anger arrived in its place. I repeatedly questioned my mom and other female relatives – why did they refuse to make prasadam while on their period? Why did they – god-fearing, devout – women refuse to participate in poojas during “that time of the month”? Who was stopping them, and why? Why would God, who supposedly granted women the power and honor of bearing children let the process that allowed them to create shame?
I still haven’t received a satisfactory answer. Possible explanations offered don’t soothe me: that historically, the only break from housework a woman would receive was during her period, that offering women a rest is out of respect to her sensitive state. Maybe in ancient times, but now?
This article, posted on HRI Institute for South Asian Research and Exchange’s blog, showcases a presentation entitled ‘Feminine Representations and Themes of Resistance in Nepali Art.’ Installations included a woman sitting in a makeshift hut, alone, as many women are still required to (1). Another depicts a mannequin with red strings (red is notably the color of celebration in most South Asian countries) that turn into cloth lotuses – paradoxically, as lotuses are often used in Hindu ceremonies (2).
My mom knows my feelings on the topic and knows I don’t agree with her sticking with tradition. But it still happens – a few months ago, attending temple for a Carnatic music concert, I got my period. My mom refused to let me ask any of the other women for supplies, even though we were on our way out, and hushed me when I mentioned the problem.
I know there are many more sides to this issue. I know women are celebrated and respected in India and Hinduism for their fertility and not all women feel ashamed of their menstrual cycle or even adhere to the ancient traditions described above. But as Sarita Manu mentions in the conclusion of her blog, it will take more than education or awareness to stop thinking of menstruation as an impure process.
I hope this starts a discussion.