Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"I am Untouchable Now": Menstruation Taboos in South Asia

The last blog post written by Josie Zimmerman excited me with the discussion about female headed companies that are trying to provide the menstruating public with more products. However it also reminded me how women in other countries not only don't have options or access to menstruating products, but are shamed and put to the side lines of society while they are on their periods.

One of these countries is Nepal, a country which I love and receive my heritage from, but one in which rituals surrounding menstruation that shame and ostracize women continue to be practiced. This is most evident in the practice of Chhaupadi. Recently covered in a Guardian article this year, Chhaupadi instructs a woman be banished to a shed or structure outside of the main house and dictates that she not enter her home, cook, touch her parents, go to school or school. If a woman does not follow the dictates of Chhaupadi she is told she will bring destruction and misfortune to her family. "If she touches a crop, it wilts; If she fetches water, the well dries up; If she picks fruit, it doesn't ripen" (The Gaurdian).

Chhaupadi, which translates to "untouchable being," has been practiced in parts of Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. Its origins can be found in ancient Hindu scripture which says women are highly infectious while they are menstruating. While often thought of as solely practiced in rural isolated villages, an NPR article "A Girl Gets Her Period and is Banished to a Shed: #15 Girls" showed that the ideas surrounding Chhaupadi effects even girls who live in cities and have progressive parents. The article interviewed Prakriti, a teenager living in Kathmandu and studying for the SAT's to get into an American university, who told reporters she was blamed for her father's hospitalization for touching him while she was on her period. Even I, as a half Nepali growing up in the United States, was told by my father's aunt that I was not allowed to visit the temple while I was on my period.

While shame around menstruation is still ongoing and prevalent in South Asia, there are efforts to fight the stigma. Women in Nepal are beginning to flip the script on the long held ritual of Chhaupadi. For example, Prakriti who was told her father ended up in the hospital because she broke a dictate of Chhaupadi, has written her own book Imposter, which envisions a society where menstruation gives women superpowers. Also in India, entrepreneurs like Arunachalam Muruganantham are creating affordable and safe menstruation products for women who had previously been relegated to using dirty rags in private.

Chhaupadi is a practice that not only effects a woman physically - where she sleeps and eats, but also effects her mentally. It instructs her that having her period is something negative, something that only brings her distress and loneliness. The practice not only tells girls they are less then boys, but puts them in a position of inequality in society. While the practice won't disappear overnight, every small action that fights the stigma of menstruation will help take down Chhaupadi.

5 comments:

Louise Trainor said...

Joan, thank you for this eye-opening post. I had never heard of the Chhaupadi tradition before and was utterly shocked to learn of its practices. It is deeply upsetting to think that women in these Hindu countries are made feel ashamed and deemed 'unclean' for something that is not only a natural process but is also fundamental to procreation.
It is most upsetting to learn of the 'male-domination' mentality that permeates this tradition. Who are these men to degrade women in this manner when they neither experience nor witness a woman's struggles with menstruation first-hand?
The idea that a biological indication of fertility and future life could be shunned in this manner is preposterous. Thank you for alerting me to this practice, I will be keeping an eye out for any further efforts to make this horrible tradition a mere archaic concept.

Julie Maguire said...

Joan,

Thank you for such an informative post. Such a concept had never before been known to me and, therefore, reading your publication has been quite shocking.

I am deeply saddened by the shame that is imposed on these girls that have no choice in their biology nor the way in which their body functions. It is harrowing to learn that they are considered outcasts for something that is natural and a sign of health.

This revelation leads me to appreciate the positive attitude that is had toward menstruation in the Western World. This advertisement < http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/ad-day-tampon-subscription-service-hello-flo-santa-your-vagina-151474 > for the Hello Flo tampon service is a great example of the way in which girls should feel upon receiving their period for the first time, proud and happy.

Flamingo said...

Thank you for this important post, Joan.
I had heard of this tradition and other similar ones around the world. Such shaming is -alas!- not the monopoly of a single culture. In fact, even the Bible says women are impure when they are menstruating. It made me think about the Rupi Kaur Instagram picture that you handed in class. It created an internet buzz even though she (and her audience) are not living in a traditional village in Nepal. Of course, the stigma and impact on girls in Nepal inter alia is stronger and definitely worth pointing out.

However, it strikes me that even though we think of ourselves as living in developed, open-minded countries, having our period is still stigmatized. It is still taboo to have intimate relations while menstruating, to buy protection in stores, to go to the swimming pool on your period (as we saw with the Olympic athlete recently : http://www.cosmopolitan.co.uk/body/health/news/a45448/how-olympic-athletes-deal-with-periods/), etc.

Even alternatives to the classic pad or tampon are not well-know yet, because there still is such a taboo about periods. Women who suffer from endometriosis are often diagnosed really late in their lives because they do not dare talking about it or their doctors do not take them seriously. They usually suffer in silence because that is what they are told menstruating should feel like.

Josie Zimmermann said...

Joan, I'm so glad you went further on this subject. I didn't include the full backstory for Thinx because I feel like it opens up a white savior can of worms, but the founder is also concerned with the treatment of menstruation in the developing world. This piece touches on it a bit http://nymag.com/thecut/2016/01/thinx-miki-agrawal-c-v-r.html.

I also want to touch on Flamingo's point about the Biblical rules about menstruation. I was required to take an Old Testament class at APU, and my professor spent a long time having us try to think out some of the rationale behind the rules. He is an expert on Hebrew and the Ancient Near East. His explanation for why menstruating women were banned from the temple was that menstruation was a manifestation of death. The people couldn't have death in the temple. I'm not persuaded that this is a justification for excluding women from a building that was central to their daily life, but I do think it's interesting to keep in mind when hearing about similar cultural practices.

Joan Maya said...

Flamingo and Josie,

Wow I had no idea this theme existed in the Bible as well! I think the explanation of it being a manifestation of death as the explanation why menstruating women were banned from the temple. Why does menstruation signify death? Because if a women get's her period she is not pregnant and is not carrying life?

I think another good parallel is how menstruation is treated in native american culture (explained here: http://traditionalnativehealing.com/the-power-of-menstruation-native-american-moon-time-ritual). In native american culture it seems that menstruation is considered a time of inner purification. It is interesting that the article talks about how women on their period are not supposed to engage in ceremonies, but because menstruation represents birth while ceremonies often signify spiritual re-birth which are not supposed to mix.