I had written this short article for ‘Sankalp 2013’, the Annual Magazine of Association for India’s Development, Pennsylvania State University Chapter. A close friend, Siddharth Advani, who was also the co-editor of this magazine, encouraged me to write a short article of 200 words, dealing with the topic of women’s empowerment in India. I chose to write the following:
“Women are striding past men in many fields. But, for three days in a month, a majority of them, even today, are categorized into a religiously defined, lower caste. Yes, I am talking about the taboo of menstruation, which still exists among women in India. Were you ever made to “sit out” of a religious ceremony because you were menstruating? Did you feel bad since you lost out on enjoying with your family?
Now imagine being treated as an untouchable for three days where you are assigned separate vessels, made to sleep on the floor, not permitted to meet guests, etc., which currently happens in villages and in a lot of families of city dwellers. Being a woman, have you inflicted any of the above atrocities on a fellow woman? If yes, then you have hindered the development of women in India by a big fraction. Think about it!”
I was restricted by a 200 word count. But, this topic is so close to my heart that I decided to dedicate a post for this.
As I read more about this topic, I realized that there used to be a valid reason for imposing restrictions on women during menstruation. In earlier days and even today, in some places where efficient facilities are not available, it was considered that women were unhygienic during their periods. It was and is messier if there is no easy availability of sanitary napkins. Hence, they were restricted from entering kitchen, cooking, meeting guests, etc. It was as if they were quarantined for five days in a month. Nobody is supposed to even touch them. Thus came the custom of inhibiting women from attending social functions during her periods. Same point of being unhygienic or “impure” was applicable to restricting women from entering the pooja ghar or the sanctum sanctorum. Hence, they were banned from performing any religious activities or attending any religious functions.
Is this main reason of being unhygienic applicable to us anymore? If not, why do we still impose restrictions on women under the blanket of “these are the norms of our society”, “this is what we normally do”, “God has made us this way”, “this is what God wants us to do” type of statements? It should be realized that every time you say no to a woman from attending a social religious function, she gets demoralized. She loses her confidence during “those days” because she starts considering herself an outcast, when nobody wants her. She starts dreading her life because every month, she has to undergo the same treatment of separation. It should be realized that it is a very private occasion for a woman and should not be looked down upon or celebrated out aloud. Yes, a menarche marks the start of a fertile period for a woman and she is eligible to bear kids from thereon. But, that doesn’t mean we declare it to the entire world! Now-a-days, in US, NRIs have started sending out invitations for “saree parties” to mark the onset of menstrual cycle for girls. Girls are made to wear sarees and displayed in front of family members and friends, to declare that she is a “woman” now. Thus, embarrassment is served complimentary with the discomfort of a menstrual cycle.
Whenever such issues of restricting participation of women in religious social events have come up, I have rarely blamed the men. Because it has always been women who have enforced these restrictive rules on other women. No man from my family has ever asked me the details of my menstrual cycle or prohibited me from attending any social religious ceremony because I was menstruating. Maybe because it was not their territory to discuss or they chose to stay quiet. I always observed how my father and now, my husband felt sad/disgusted/paranoid/helpless when they saw that I am being asked about these details and as a consequence, was found absconding from a social religious event later. Women, on the other hand, ask you to not disclose your menstrual details to the family hosting the social religious event in case it offends them that you are attending their function during menstruation. If it’s a ritual in your own house, women of the family will either reschedule the date of the events as per the collective menstrual cycle dates, will ask you to take date modifying pills (which is a hormonal treatment) or completely cancel the event if either of the above is not possible. A woman feels disheartened when anyone asks her about her “monthly dates” to plan an event, but the same woman will repeat that act with another woman and dishearten her. Thus continuing the vicious circle.
Do you, as a woman, ever feel like liberating yourself from this vicious circle? I know it will be difficult. But, I am taking a small step by choosing not to disclose my “monthly dates” to anyone when they are planning a social religious event. They will have the choice to invite me, in whichever “state” I am. Same is true, the other way around. I will not make any other fellow woman uncomfortable by asking her to disclose her menstrual details and as a result, exclude her from any event. I know it is easier said than done, but its worth a try.
It could be a drop in the ocean to erase this monthly misery of menstruation.