‘Tu Saaf Nahi Hai?’ How Lakhs Of Menstruating Women Are Made To Feel Dirty In India

By Radhika Jhaveri:

Last month, I paid a customary visit to my in-laws. My mother in law is a religious woman. So when she approached me to put the traditional tilak on my forehead, she stopped for a second to ask me in a hushed tone – “Tu saaf hai na?” (You are clean, right?) To any woman who is reading this column, the meaning is abundantly clear.

Menstruation is a topic in India that is met with, to put it mildly, a lot of hostility. A menstruating woman is cast aside during ‘that time of the month’ as someone impure. She is not allowed to enter the kitchen, is allotted separate plates for eating her food, a separate room to sleep in, not allowed to touch anyone and most importantly she is not to – under any circumstances – enter the temple. If a woman’s menstruation dates happen to clash with any of the religious festivals, she is encouraged to seek ‘pharmaceutical help’ that will delay her period to a more desirable date. Even in the more tolerant households where some of these practices are done away with, walking into a temple while menstruating is not approved of. What my mother in law did is nothing out of the ordinary. This is the story in 99% of the Hindu households in India. Since menstruation is a topic so tightly wrapped up in taboos, these social practices are not talked about and hence have managed to live on right into the 21st century.

Menstruation is used, with tremendous success, as a tool to make women feel inferior about themselves and their bodies. The way, our society regards menstruation and menstruating women is clear in the choice of vocabulary used to refer to menstruation. A menstruating woman is dirty, impure, unclean but once the cycle ends, she becomes pure, saaf, shudh, clean again.

Parents do not openly discuss topics about sex and sexuality with their children. Subjects like menstruation, pregnancy, sex, even reference to male and female sexual organs are alluded to in hushed tones, often accompanied with a distasteful expression. Unfortunately, our education system is failing spectacularly when it comes to sex education as well. I have often felt shocked at how even the educated women amongst us are unable to ditch this revolting concept. So many women in my social circle continue to view themselves as impure, despite their education. I have seen engineers, biotechnologists, managers, teachers and (I don’t know how it is possible) doctors conform to the extremely demeaning social practices that accompany menstruation. This failure is baffling because we assume that with education comes emancipation. This means that there is absolutely no source that can educate women about their own bodies in a manner that does not bring about feelings of shame and fear. More than half of the women in India do not understand the biological processes of menstruation and childbirth. This lack of scientific understanding results in turning to traditional sources in order to understand something that seems utterly perplexing and mysterious.

Menstruation taboos affect not only the mental image that women carry about themselves but also impact their physical health and well-being. It results in generations of young women unaware about the care and hygiene that one must undertake while menstruating. A society that does not talk openly about menstruation puts the mental and physical wellbeing of thousands of young girls in serious danger. It does them a great disservice by depriving them of knowledge that can help them lead a healthy life. Simone de Beauvoir, in her book The Second Sex writes, “In a sexually egalitarian society, woman would regard menstruation simply as her special way of reaching adult life; the human body in both men and women has other and more disagreeable needs to be taken care of, but they do not represent blemishes for anyone; the menses inspire horror in the adolescent girl because they throw her into an inferior and defective category. This sense of being declassed will weigh heavily upon her.”

What then does it say about a society that insists to the 13-year-old girl that a biological process that she has yet to grasp, over which she has absolutely no control, something that she has not chosen and is completely ignorant of, makes her impure? What does it say about a society that adamantly holds on to its twisted and perverted notions of purity even if it means that it has to sacrifice the well-being of millions of girls?

I was very lucky to have figured out early on the double standards with which our society treats men and women. I rebelled against these customs when they were enforced on me. I held on stubbornly to the argument that the blood flowing through my genitals every month was none of anybody’s business. I was only thirteen when I fought against a practice that made me feel inferior and dirty. But most women are not so lucky. They innocently accept the explanations given to them by the very elders they trust and live the entirety of their lives convinced of their impurity. What an ingenious system it is! If she is convinced of her own inferiority she will wear the chains herself. She will not rebel, she will obey. She will pass it on to her daughters and they will do the same and the circle will continue.

I urge the women of today to not allow anyone or anything make you believe that you are impure by virtue of being a woman. Menstruation is a sign of reaching womanhood. It is a sign of fertility and the ability to bring new life into this world. It ought to be welcomed with an open mind. Let us no longer teach our daughters to feel ashamed of their bodies. Let us free ourselves from a tradition that brings about nothing but pain, fear and humiliation.

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