In Telugu brahmin families, a girl’s menarche (first menses) is announced to all near and dear ones by means of a pedda manishi (literally, adult person) function. This involves her sitting on a stage, decked in gold and wearing a saree. Everyone takes turns to admire her and bless her. She is the centre of attention. She is showered with gifts and money. Back in the day, the function’s intended purpose was to announce to everyone that the girl is now of marriageable age.
While some girls may enjoy this function and all the perks that accompany it, I am glad that I was fortunate enough to have not grown up in my hometown. Growing up in a big city meant that while my parents phoned my extended family and told them about my period, I didn’t have to go through the gruelling ordeal of being paraded in front of people (most of them would be strangers to me even though we may technically be each other’s kin). I was furious that my parents called everyone. I considered it to be an intrusion of my privacy and still do.
While a girl’s first period is welcomed, she is in for a rude shock thereafter. The second time she bleeds, she is ostracized. Customs dictate that she must not be touched by others and that she shouldn’t touch others (muttu) for the first three days of her period. She is not allowed to enter the pooja (prayer) room because tainting God’s purity, while one is supposedly impure, is not only disrespectful but will also lead to one incurring divine wrath.
Back in the day, when everyone would have a bath in the river, women were not allowed to bathe when they were menstruating, because their blood would get mixed with the water stream. One can’t enter God’s house without bathing (a Hindu way of honouring the divine) and so women weren’t allowed to enter temples. This justification can’t be used anymore because a lot of us have access to clean water and bathe regularly, even when we’re on our period. She isn’t allowed to touch utensils, food, etc., in the kitchen, for fear of her polluting the food (i.e., the food will rot). Hygiene is often quoted as a reason for this practice.
In this day and age, when menstrual hygiene products such as sanitary napkins, tampons and menstrual cups are flooding the market (which socially and economically privileged people such as myself can afford to purchase), instead of having to rely on rags, the excuse of hygiene stands null and void. Sanitary napkins are preferred to tampons or menstrual cups because they don’t involve having to insert anything in the vaginal opening (hence keeping one’s ‘virtue’ intact). Girls also have to go to great lengths to dispose used sanitary napkins. In most households, there will be a separate system in place to do so, either a different dustbin in the house or dumping used sanitary napkins in municipal dustbins outside the house. This is done so that the house does not get ‘contaminated’, and its purity remains unsullied.
The secrecy also stems from the fact that the male members of the house may feel uncomfortable at the sight of a used napkin or blood. Rather than educating the male members of a family about periods being a natural, normal process, the female members of that family are expected to pretend like periods are a strictly confidential matter. I have a persistent fear of staining my clothes or couches, beds, seats in public transport during my periods because of childhood experiences of staining being met with disapproval and digust.
For a really long time, I referred to periods in Telugu as intiloki rakodadu (loosely translated as ‘shouldn’t enter the house’). So, I had to eat and sleep separately. My mobility was restricted. When I needed affection and comfort the most, I was deprived of it because of my parents’ belief in outdated, patriarchal, insensitive values. Another common way to refer to one’s period is ontlo baledu (meaning ‘I am physically ill’). This is absolutely untrue because periods are a part of a natural biological process. It is the body’s way of telling a person that they can bear a child one day, should they choose to. It is interesting to note that the primary responsibility of enforcing these diktats falls on the women in the family, who take pride in training future generations to obey the same values they have been taught to consider sacrosanct. So, women are notionally integrated into this system of power and then craftily exploited to perform the labour that goes into maintaining the real power that men enjoy as a beneficial consequence of this system.
After the first three days are over, there is a ‘purification ritual’. One is supposed to bathe and sprinkle turmeric-infused water on all the things one has touched and used during the first three days. One is also supposed to chant a certain shloka (a form of Sanskrit poetry, used to invoke the divine) as one sprinkles ‘holy’ water, signifying the end of one’s impurity. My mother’s upbringing coloured her perception of periods as something which is dirty and shameful. Her strict, brahmin parents ensured that she went through the same process of alienation and purification when she was younger.
Periods are used as an opportunity to teach the girl about her place in the family. The well-oiled brahminical machine runs smoothly because she is bent into submission by making her feel like she is inferior to men, just by virtue of bleeding every month. Further, she is instructed on how to dress modestly, limit her interactions with those from other castes, and behave with male members of her family and men in general, now that she has attained puberty. She is educated to keep her head down and stay as far away from men as possible.
These lessons are supposed to help her navigate her (eventual) role as a ‘devout, brahmin wife’. But she isn’t educated about what periods entail, why they happen, the secondary sex characters which start developing, and so on. So, a lot of unscientific, unnecessary information was passed on to me. This information didn’t equip me to deal with my periods. In fact, it left me confused and full of guilt. I remember asking my sister why the bleeding didn’t stop after three days and if that meant there was something wrong with me.
Any perceived or real misdemeanour on the girl’s part will invite stern censure from her so-called guardians because her virginity is linked to the honour of the entire family. She will be slut-shamed and labeled as someone with a ‘bad character’. She will be called names such as ‘loose’ or ‘immoral’. So, improper behaviour (i.e., having a romantic relationship with a boy, because a romantic relationship with anyone else is beyond their wildest imaginations) on her part will be treated as her disgracing her own family.
I think this is unfair because it impeded me coming into my own. I would always look at my actions in the light of what was acceptable to the larger brahmin community. The rules are both arbitrary and baffling. For instance, I never understood how it was that I was dirty for the first three days of my period, but clean for the rest of it, all the while bleeding the same blood. These rules have an even more damaging impact on transgender and non-binary individuals because there is very little room for dialogue, dissent, and exploration. This means that they are more vulnerable to physical and verbal violence (often a reaction to any kind of non-conformity).
When I watched the movie Padman with my mother, it was a deeply cathartic experience for both of us. It felt like the culmination of unlearning decades of inter-generational misinformation. It took years and years of dialogue between me, my sister, and our parents for us to make them understand how humiliating and ridiculous the rules they made us obey were. My mother thought that a calamity would befall us, should we stop obeying these rules, such was the deep-rooted fear instilled in her since she was a young girl.
Brahminical patriarchy functions on the principle of maintaining caste purity and avoiding caste pollution. In my experience, so long as they can maintain the illusion of superiority, the oppression of women and caste-based oppression will continue. Upper-caste Hindus use the concepts of purity and pollution to assert the status quo. This is done by controlling the freedom of identity, mobility, sexuality, and self-expression of women. We must learn to recognise brahminical patriarchy for what it is and fight back!
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.