I was born to a Kshatriya family in a small town of Gangtok, Sikkim. My town has a dazzling patriarchal and rigid system of customs; sacrosanct in the name of traditions, which nobody professes to question. Menstruation is not just a biological process but one of the many taboos which women and girls in my town have to deal with. That, along with the insane rituals that have no rationale behind them surrounding the process.
On my 10th birthday, when guests filled my house to celebrate my ‘gunew cholo’, creamy layers of happiness muddled in cake, gifts wrapped in hefty bags, and shiny smiles had dazed my day. ‘Gunew cholo’ is a ‘kanyadan‘ like ceremony in Nepali households. On this occasion, the father gifts a traditional sari to his daughter – prior to them getting their first period to render her a status of being ‘pure’.
Patriarchy in the North-East sustains in subtle ways and reviving patriarchal notions are often branded in love. They claim of raising girls in an environment invested with love, but notoriously chaining them in patriarchal ways. The ceremony didn’t entice me with curiosity because patriarchy had gifted me luxuries to suffice my day with. In retrospect though, when I questioned the significance of the ceremony, my mother asked me to refer to the Shastras – an answer which celebrates her bliss of ignorance, at the same time framing an irrational hierarchy of learning for me.
A year later when I first menstruated at the age of 11, my mother was away from home, and hence I stacked three pads – one on top of another – and wore them feeling uncomfortable. I was deeply apprehensive that my stains would be visible, and my friends at school wouldn’t approve of that situation. My fears were legitimate, for I had occasionally spotted boys amuse their crowd if they saw StayFree packets anywhere near, and I had never heard people at school openly talk about periods.
In addition to all of this at school, I wasn’t allowed to be home during my periods. I was taken to my aunt’s place on my first day and had to stay there for the entire month of my first period – a custom which is religiously followed by all Brahmin and Kshatriya families in my town. This was because, according to our morbid Nepali ‘customs’, period days are rendered as ‘impure’; and hence women are kept away from the sight of their fathers and brothers or any other men in the family.
During those days, I missed my brother and father terribly. But the strict rhetoric of customs and my vulnerability to facing strange consequences baffled me throughout to avert the longing of home. When I asked my aunt, as to what the consequences of me returning home would be, she said that it would deteriorate the health of the men in my family (my father, my grandfather, my brother). This was a strong enough reason to baffle an 11-year-old child. Yet, I gathered the courage to ask her about the correlation between my periods and their health, my aunt had no particular sources to cite and her answer was extremely vague and rhetorical.
During periods, when women need proper health care and diet, they are often reduced to a minuscule status against patriarchal custom standards. It’s not only discomforting for young girls to stay away from their homes – it’s also unsafe. For instance, when my friend was sent away to her aunt’s place during her first period, she was repeatedly molested by the maid of the house, and while her discomfort in the house heightened, escapism was too much to ask for and customs couldn’t be compromised.
In my second month when I returned home, similar practices were observed during the days of my period, however, in a much subtle way. Strict rules were maintained in the house – my utensils in the kitchen were separate, my clothes were separated during a wash and I was not allowed to enter the kitchen and the ‘mandir ghar‘ (place of worship within the house).
I was not allowed to serve water to the males of the house, or participate in religious proceedings; nor would my grandfather be allowed to touch my head to bless me. Additionally, I wasn’t allowed to sit on my father’s or brother’s side of the bed as doing that would inevitably invite an unhealthy scuffle from my mother.
The maid in my house was also religiously made part of the custom. If an owl sat near our house, or if crows fettered in the dark corners the members of my family would link this to be some sort of a sign that our maid was not following the rules appropriately while on her periods. The rules included – that she should not to touch the milk or pickle, avoid physical contact with my mother or father (for they were the ones involved in puja processes), and sleeping on the floor.
In the north-east, patriarchy and subsequent actions have always come fostered and branded in love. I was never aware of how to burst the taboo of menstruation until I attended an all-girls convent school. Back home, my brother still laughs at the TV advertisements of sanitary napkins; while my parents keep encouraging the customs. It took me almost my entire teenage years to groom my understanding on menstruation, and how important it is to talk about it; to challenge the rigid norms and practices, or to feel comfortable carrying sanitary napkins, and even to discuss menstrual health with my father.
It is interesting to note that I’ve grown up in an educated liberal environment; and if menstruation taboos flutter from the place where I come, I can only imagine how heightened the scenario would be in not-so-well-off households, not only in terms of access to menstrual health but also in terms of the validation they provide to these regressive customs.