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The Monthly Taboo - Period myths in India

The Monthly Taboo - Period myths in India

Once a month, women bleed from their vaginas for a week in a natural biological dance that signifies - “hey, no baby for you this time!”

Simple? Well. yes. But over the decades, people have been incredibly innovative in interpreting what it could mean instead. At some time or the other we have all experienced discrimination, segregation and bizarre rituals based on period bias. Oh my! Can't a woman bleed in peace?

Here are some beliefs, rituals, superstitions, whims of fancy even, about menstruating women that will make you scratch your head and go "wat?"

Let’s start with the better ones.

In some parts of the country, mainly in South India and Assam, the first period of a girl is celebrated in a ceremony organised by the girl’s family. She sits dressed in a traditional saree while her relatives shower her with gifts and flowers, rejoicing her entry into womanhood.

Back in the day, this was done to announce to the world that the girl was now officially a woman, and she was eligible to be married. A debutante of sorts. The ceremony would showcase the family’s wealth, and the potential dowry that their daughter would bring into her new home. Nowadays, of course, the purpose of this practice is no more the same, although the perfunctory ceremony continues. Awkward to get gifts from distant uncles for this? Maybe. But at least it makes the girl feel OKAY with all that’s happening to her body.

Alas, the celebrations are limited to that. In several parts of the country, menstruating women are prohibited from entering the kitchen by virtue of being on their period and thus, “impure”. Women are often made to eat alone, and it is ensured that they use separate utensils on ‘those days’.

It gets worse. In many parts of the country, people are extremely particular about prohibiting women from participating in normal life while menstruating. They’re made to avoid sex and sleep separately from other family members. They’re discouraged from washing their hair for the first few days of their period. The reasons given for this by strict elders are vague and varied and range from “you just shouldn’t”, to “it can make your bones brittle”. While in actuality, the belief stems from the problems faced in the ancient times when people had to bathe in streams or communal bathing areas. We can see why it could have been inconvenient for a menstruating woman to bathe properly and discreetly at the time, but why this stuck around for so long is a true mystery.

Women on their period are banned from entering temples or places of worship. Most sources say that it is because these women are considered “ashuddh” or unclean and so, need to stay away from temples - the most holy of places. Sabrimala Temple in Kerala went one step further in 2015 and banned all women between 10-50 from the temple, because hey, who can tell if a woman is bleeding! They went so far as to say that the day a machine is invented that can detect if a woman is on her period, women will be allowed back into the temple. Whoop de doo!

This adamance on the impure and holy is even taken to new extremes with women not being allowed to touch the tulsi plant, since it’s considered holy. They say that the shadow of a menstruating woman can in fact, kill a Tulsi plant. You’re just that impure. Yay.

Women on their period cannot… touch pickles.

Pickles.

Cannot be touched.

Intriguing.

Some say that the impure bleeding woman will ruin the pickle with her body heat. Some say that women were discouraged from eating pickles when on their period because it was acidic with lots of salt and vinegar which would give you acidity and cause water retention. One way or the other… this very specific period taboo is particularly silly and irrelevant in the present times.

A lot of the hue and cry about us being impure when we bleed stems from the story of Indra’s sin associated with killing a Brahmana. The Vedas say he offloaded part of his sin onto women, who have been considered impure for that time of the month when they’re bleeding. And this has been taken to new heights with all the associated mumbo-jumbo around a perfectly normal bodily function. Today, even the most modern households follow at least a few of these practices. Whether they actually believe in them, or they’re so used to the inertia of the ingrained patriarchy that manifests as beliefs (that sound quite bizarre if you actually stop to question them), who can tell?

A woman on her period is normal. Let her eat what she likes, let her sleep where she wants, let her have (consensual happy) period sex because frankly, that is rather phenomenal. Let her buy feminine hygiene products that don’t need to be first wrapped in newspaper and then encased in black plastic bags as to hide the shame of the monthly hormone monster. Let’s kill the period taboo. Bleed in peace, women.

Divya Ramesh (Writer)

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