Cultural, religious and social traditions have strongly impacted the lives of women across the world. While the status of women has seen an enormous change over the past centuries, the ‘dark ages’ are not yet over for women in many countries. Several societies continue to uphold traditions that subject them to physical, mental and sexual exploitation. Many of such sexist and inhuman practices have been abolished; however, there remain a plethora of traditions that perpetuate misogyny and abuse. For many women, remaining true to a particular custom often means excruciating pain, mutilation, and even death.
Young girls are force-fed unhealthy, high-calorie diets to make them appealing to their prospective suitors in North Africa’s Mauritania. The practice, called leblouh or gavage, has been in vogue for the past several centuries in the drought-prone country where obesity among women is celebrated and overweight girls score over their slim counterparts. Girls as young as six are sent to special “fattening” camps during their school holidays where they are force-fed 20 litres of milk, at least two kilograms of millet and two cups of butter every day.
Girls who don’t comply are punished and sometimes forced to ingest their vomit if they throw up. The daily intake is up to 16,000 calories. Although a change in attitude is evident in urban populations following an awareness campaign by the government, the cult of obesity continues to play havoc with the lives of young women in rural Mauritania. The practice, in many regions, has taken a horrid turn as girls are now taking drugs, steroids, and even animal growth hormones to fatten up.
The centuries-old Hindu tradition of dedicating young girls to the deity in temples continues in several parts of southern India despite being outlawed. A devadasi (servant of a god or goddess) is barred from marrying a mortal and should bestow her entire life to the service of deity and the temple. The devadasis were originally celibate temple dancers who enjoyed high status and reverence. The practice, however, became corrupt over time turning into a system of ritualized prostitution. The girls generally hail from impoverished lower caste families. On reaching puberty, their virginity is auctioned and they are forced into full-fledged prostitution.
Menstruating women in parts of Nepal are isolated and removed to cattle sheds where they sleep among cows and buffaloes. The practice of Chhaupadi, though ruled illegal by country’s top court, is still widely observed. It forbids women from entering their houses and touching anything or anyone during the duration of their menstrual period. They are confined to the filthy sheds littered with insects and dung and the excruciating stench of animal excreta hanging in the air. Women are considered ‘impure’ during their periods, and those who touch them undergo rituals to purify themselves. The menstruating women relieve themselves in the open because they are not allowed to use family lavatories. Activists say that the tradition is practised to varying degrees by women across the country. If the family owns only a single room, the menstruating member is banished to a corner as she must live separately for the entire duration of her menstrual period.
Having breasts is shameful and attracts unwanted male attention. With this idea in mind, mothers in Cameroon and several other African countries pound the breasts of their young daughters with hot iron tools or even stones to stop them from growing. The extremely painful practice of ‘breast ironing’ is carried out on girls as young as ten to delay their first sexual encounters and avoid early pregnancy. The victims suffer various physical and psychological consequences and the scars remain for life. Some possible after-effects include formation of cysts, malformed breasts and inverted nipples. Some of the victims may find it impossible to breastfeed their children. The practice has also reportedly spread to African communities in the UK. Conservative MP Jake Berry recently demanded that this ‘ritualised form of child abuse’ be outlawed in Britain.
Members of Dani tribe in Papua, Indonesia are known to cut off the top part of one of their fingers to mourn death in the family. Though death affects everyone equally, only women are subjected to this agonizing ritual. Half an hour before the top part of finger is cut off, it is allowed to go numb by tightly tying a string around it. After the amputation, the finger tips are cauterized. The mutilation is based on the belief that death, being a permanent loss, should be grieved in a way that the emotional pain manifests into visible physical distress. The practice has now been banned, and younger women refrain from this extreme version of grieving. One can only find older women with chopped off finger tips nowadays.
Women belonging to the Mursi and Surma tribes in Ethiopia wear large circular wooden or clay discs on their lips as a mark of beauty and status. It is a form of body modification in which increasingly large discs are inserted into the lower or upper lips of young girls. The first disc is generally inserted at puberty. A hole is cut into the lip along with the removal of two to four lower teeth. A small disc is inserted into the hole leading to the stretching of the lip. After a while, generally when the cut heals, a larger disc replaces the initial disc. As the lip is stretched more and more, increasingly larger plates are inserted. The final plate that is installed could be 12 centimeter in diameter or even bigger. It is said that bigger the disc, larger is the dowry the girl receives on her wedding. It is also said that the ritual originated not as a beauty enhancement technique but as a deliberate disfigurement meant to keep slave traders at bay.
Widows in parts of Tanzania and Kenya undergo the ritual of ‘sexual cleansing’ after which they are ‘inherited’ by their in-laws. The custom dictates that the widow has sex with one of her brothers-in-law to exorcise the spirit of her dead spouse. Women who oppose this tradition are chased out of their matrimonial homes and not given any share in their husband’s property or livestock. Worse, the women are also ostracized by the community. The practice also exposes these women to the risk of contracting sexually-transmitted diseases. Very often male relatives refuse to have sex with the widow owing to HIV epidemic. In such cases, professional cleansers are hired to do the job. Using condom is a taboo as it is only the cleanser’s sperm that has the power to ‘cleanse and purify’ the widow.
A long and slender neck has long been considered the hallmark of beauty and grace in women. Ethnic Kayan women in Myanmar and Thailand undergo a lifetime of excruciating pain to elongate their necks as they follow a centuries-old beauty custom. The collarbone and upper ribs are deformed slowly and steadily as a girl of five starts wearing a shiny brass coil around her neck. The length of the coil is increased as the girl grows up, and an adult wears a coil with 20-25 turns around her neck. The coils could weigh anywhere between two to ten kilograms. The elongated neck, however, is only an optical illusion. As the weight of the coil pushes the collarbone and ribs down, an illusion of an elongated neck is created. The women are allowed to remove the rings only once in their lifetime – on their wedding night. The removal of these spirals is painful and tedious and takes hours.
Genital mutilation is the price young girls pay for their impending womanhood in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Female genital mutilation is the ritualistic removal – partial or complete – of the external genitalia, constituting an extreme form of discrimination against women. The custom, recognised as a gross violation of human rights, is known to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore keep her off sexual debauchery. The practice continues unabated despite being banned in many countries. The genitalia are cut by a traditional circumciser, often in unhygienic conditions, using razors, knives or even stones without anaesthesia. However, some countries have ‘medicalized’ the custom meaning that trained health workers carry out the procedure. In some communities, the procedure involves partial closure of the vaginal opening, only leaving a small hole for urine and menstrual fluid passage. The woman undergoes a painful reversal of this procedure on her wedding to allow intercourse. The health consequences suffered due to the procedure could include infection, gangrene, excessive bleeding and even death.