As the gale winds of Cyclone Gaja ravaged Thanjavur district in November 2018, 12-year-old Vijaya* lay dead in a small hut made of coconut leaves behind her house. Just three days before the cyclone hit, Vijaya had gotten her period for the first time and she was forced to stay in the hut until her bleeding stopped.
The child had been kept in isolation because of an age-old taboo that’s practiced in Tamil Nadu, police told TNM in the wake of the tragic accident. So as Cyclone Gaja ripped through six Tamil Nadu districts over 24 hours, the storm did not spare the fragile hut or young Vijaya who was left helpless and alone.
For as long as anyone can remember, the regressive customs and rules surrounding menstruating girls and women have been a part of life in Tamil Nadu. Religious imposition, lack of scientific understanding, and the older generation’s reluctance towards change has helped preserve these practices. Despite attempts by women and activists to dispel the so-called taboos, they are repeatedly ignored, and the perception around “impurity” and menstruation has persisted.
How silence and blind faith lead to suffering
Vishnupriya, a 25-year-old woman from Chennai, says that she hated the days when she was isolated in her own home. “Of course I had asked my mother questions. All that I got in response was that, ‘we are from an orthodox family and this isolation was a part of our tradition,’” she says.
Women are given a slew of reasons to justify these practices, including that a menstruating woman needs to rest. “My mother said that since a woman has mood swings during her period, in order to avoid fights at home, she is isolated. She also used to say that since the body generates a lot of heat during a woman’s period, she is not allowed inside a kitchen to protect the body from further heat.”
In many villages and small towns in Tamil Nadu, the custom of isolating menstruating women from their families and home is common. For example, Inam Agaram, a village in Perambalur district in Tamil Nadu, follows the practice of making a menstruating woman stay in a concrete hut outside the village. The local community follows this practice fearing the wrath of the village God, if the norm is broken.
A study conducted by Vinayaka Missions Kirupananda Variyar Medical College in Salem and published in the Indian Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology Research in 2016, provides a small sample of the silence around menstruation in the society. In her paper, Dr S Senthil Priya had surveyed 500 girls between ages 14 and 19 in Salem district, Tamil Nadu. In the survey, it was found that 292 students did not use sanitary pads during their periods. And out of those 292, 159 students resorted to washing their clothes and reusing it for the duration of their bleeding.
Experts note that a lack of openness in discussing women’s health and bodies can perpetuate these taboos. What’s more, Geeta Ilangovan, the director of the 40-minute documentary ‘Maadhavidai’ (Menstruation, in Tamil), says that these taboos can put women at risk of reproductive issues, including infection of the birth canal.
“Young girls who are starting out on their periods will obey their elders. They tell the girls not to put these pieces of clothing out to dry under the sun because of their superstition that men should not see it. This is a questionable practice since it is a known fact that damp clothes can cause bacterial and fungal infection, and have a higher probability of spreading infection,” she says.
Dr Nusrat AH, a gynaecologist at Motherhood hospitals, recommends against using cloth during your period, and would instead opt for a bevy of other cost-effective alternatives. However, if you do use cloth, “we would urge you to use fresh pieces of cloth for your period and dry it in proper sunlight to keep any infections at bay,” she adds.
Since menstrual cycles tend to be irregular during the initial years of puberty, isolating young girls during their period can have negative effects on their mental and emotional wellbeing. “When the girls do not go and sit in that hut or isolation spot at regular intervals, the villagers start raising questions about it. So fearing this ostracisation, girls just go and sit in those huts, irrespective of whether they’re on their period or not,” Geeta says.
“Irregular periods also act as symptoms of reproductive disorders among women. Since the women go and sit silently irrespective of whether they are bleeding or not, their health issues are left undetected,” she points out.
Religion and menstruation
Religion is inherently linked to the restrictions that women have to suffer while menstruating. Some communities strongly believe that God will punish them for casting aside these customs. Many adhere to taboos out of fear, irrespective of how unreasonable and cruel they may be.
N Manimekalai, a professor of Women's Studies in Bharathidasan University, says that though people are open to new ideas and rational ways of thinking, they routinely fall back on old ways.
"From what I have seen, after we have gone into villages with advocacy materials to help them understand the issue, if something bad happens they immediately connect that incident to their openness to ideas and drop the acceptance there. They see it as a sign from God and not as a coincidence. This is one kind of mental block that prevails among the people,” she explains.
These ideas are not exclusive to a single faith as women across religions face restrictions from their families and their society.
Aisha*, a 28-year-old Muslim woman from Neyveli, Tamil Nadu avoids doing the namaz and fasting during the month of Ramzan when she is on her period. “I don’t think the Quran has anything specific on whether a woman is allowed to pray or observe Ramzan fasting when she is on her periods. But sexual intercourse in strictly prohibited when the woman is menstruating. Personally, I was taught to avoid praying during periods and I still follow it out of sheer habit,” she says. When asked if she will stop doing it, she says it is difficult to do so.
Poorvisha, a practising Hindu woman from Chennai, says that some rules were thrust upon her while she was on her period. “In my marital home, menstruating women are told to keep away, and not touch clothes, food or other things deemed contaminable. Anything ‘contaminated’ is to be washed by the menstruating woman on her fourth day, which kind of beats the reason given - rest during periods,” she says.
Reinforcing patriarchy using menstruation
Notions of patriarchy prevalent in the society have played a major role in preventing change. The perception of a man’s exclusive right over a woman’s body and sexuality has greatly contributed to preserving archaic taboos.
Geeta says that most taboos were put in place to reinforce patriarchal ideas in the society. “In those days, the men in the village used to go far away to seek of jobs. They used to be absent for extended periods of time, leaving women alone in their homes. Now this kind of isolation was a way by which the villagers kept track of the women’s ‘character.’ These houses were used as a monitoring tool for the virtuosity of the women,” she explains.
Professor Manimekalai, who chairs the Menstrual Hygiene Management Consortium (MHMC), also links the prevalence of menstrual taboos to toxic patriarchal norms. “There is a thread of thought that the isolation was done to give rest to a woman’s body, but nowadays the practice of isolation has evolved to suit one’s own convenience. In a family of two, the woman is not isolated since there is nobody to take care of the house. But then if it is a joint family, then the woman is asked to stay away since there are other women to do the chores. The idea of keeping women separately is a manmade one and not a natural one at all,” she explains.
She notes that from a feminist perspective, it all boils down to the possibility of intercourse with the woman. “Women were isolated from families since, in those days, it was widely believed that men cannot have sexual intercourse with them. Hence in order to avoid sex, women were kept away from the family while she was bleeding. In order to get women to toe the line, a paint of religion and God was given to it,” she adds.
Change is slow
For women and activists, challenging the status quo and initiating change on the ground is routinely followed by strong resistance.
Professor Manimekalai attributes this resistance to fear of being shunned by society. “Human beings are social animals. So there is this inherent hesitance to adapt to something totally new. As a human being, acceptance is more important than being radical. This can be extended to families that break away from age-old customs as well,” she says.
She also adds that though there is change, but it has been slow.
“We have come from an era of asking for a sanitary napkin in hushed tones to advertising them casually, but we still have a long way to go,” says Professor Manimekalai. “The change should happen on a personal level. For example, even today, napkin packets are wrapped in a newspaper, put in a black cover and sold. How many people send men to buy napkins from a shop? So I would say that the initiative must come from each one of us,” she says.
While the government, policy makers and educational institutions can create campaigns for young girls to generate awareness on safe practices to follow during menstruation, proper communication around menstruation is imperative to normalise the process in the larger society, says Dr Nusrat.
She explains, “Education begins at home and hence the parental unit and schools must have more conversations in the open about menstruation and banish the taboo around it.”
In today’s society, there is an acceptance of women in managerial or dominant roles in the workplace. However, the expectations placed on the woman, irrespective of her professional mettle, remain the same. Explaining this phenomenon, Professor Manimekalai says, “When Indira Nooyi spoke about how she bought a milk packet despite being the chief of a billion dollar MNC, people raved about it. But looking beyond the first layer, it shows that despite opportunities for women across the professional spectrum, the expectations of what an ideal woman must do have not changed.”
Adding that society, religion and patriarchy can be equally blamed for this state of affairs, she says, “Until these values change, taboos and restrictions will exist.”
*Name changed to protect identity