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No, All Women Are Not Dalit Because They Suffer Untouchability While Menstruating

This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

Menstrual taboo is a challenge for women in Indian society as we are an unequal and diverse society. But, menstrual taboo doesn’t subjugate all women in the same way.

While the caste Hindu women suffer the taboo on speechifying menstruation itself, the lower-class Dalit women may suffer the resource crunch during the menstruation with regard to access to a piece of cloth or a sanitary napkin. Caste Hindu women are isolated during their periods, and are not allowed to enter the kitchen, dine with the family members or participate in sexual activity. However, lower-class women do not have a break for rest during the menstruation from housework and their physically tedious work as manual scavengers, construction worker or agricultural labourers.

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A Brahmanical Idea

Menstrual taboo that is observed among the caste Hindus is a Brahminical practice. Women in caste Hindu society are made to stay separately from the rest of the family members when they menstruate. They are also treated with a certain amount of repugnance, which makes them feel humiliated for a very normal bodily change. Menstrual taboo makes them feel guilty and constructs them as the weaker sex.

In Brahmanical ideology, women are considered as evil sex. According to a myth mentioned in Trayambaka’s version of Manu’s Stripumdharma, Lord Indra has transferred the guilt of Brahmicide (Brahmahatya Mahapataka) to women. As a result of this, women have been cursed to bleed for a few days every month.

Though it appears illogical, religiosity is all about falling into the trap of irrationalism. Therefore, young girls are made to feel embarrassed about a normal bodily change. They are even insulted and taunted if they soil their clothes. They are not treated with the same empathy and warmth by their parents and family members when they menstruate. They are deprived of touch, hug or a kiss during this time from their mother. This affects the mental health of the child and the sense of self-esteem.

Menstrual taboo is not a simple practice that is placed to maintain hygiene. It is an expression of ritual purity and the caste identity by dominant caste Hindus. Menstruating women temporarily defile a family precisely because the family possesses a certain level of ritual purity.

Caste And Menstruation

The practice of menstrual taboo cannot be equated with the practice of untouchability. Untouchability is placed in the caste system to distinguish caste Hindus who are touchables, who have access to a certain level of ritual purity from the most inferior castes who do not have any ritual purity. This ritual purity is assigned at the time of birth into a particular caste. This determines one’s caste status of being touchable or untouchable without any change till the time of death.

Menstrual taboo is nothing but a temporary defilement that dominant castes suffer. It is similar to how Brahmin men experience a temporary period of defilement during the death of a family member. In fact, observing menstrual taboo is an expression of this Brahminical superiority/ritual purity and a way of distinguishing oneself from the perpetual untouchables, namely Dalits. Dalits who do not have any ritual purity are not defiled by the menstruation, and therefore, there is no taboo attached to menstruation among Dalits.

Since Dalit women are not allowed into dominant caste Hindu household, their menstruation would not defile them in any way. For dominant castes, kitchen and the household is the space to uphold ritual purity. Therefore, they restrain from cooking meat in the house but eat meat outside the homes from restaurants. Similarly, a menstruating woman is not allowed into the house, but she can work in their yards and agricultural fields.

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Dalit activists’ exhortation “all women are Dalits” as they suffer untouchability periodically during menstruation is a classic example of the distortion of gender politics within Dalit movement. The-three-day taboo neither takes away Savarna women’s privileges of caste such as economic and social capital nor make them equal to Dalits. In fact, many Savarna women passionately uphold menstrual taboos as well as their superior status with regards to Dalits.

By equating Savarna women to Dalits, the Dalit movement has overlooked the oppression and subjugation of Dalit women. The condition of Dalit women who have no relief from the labour in the agricultural fields and construction sites during menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding without any break and health care is a larger question that needs to be addressed.

By and large, the contemporary debates on menstrual taboo are centred upon dominant castes. Menstruation needs to be understood from various sections of women such as Adivasi women, Dalit women, women from other marginalised communities, transgender people and other people who menstruate.

Trans men may construct their experience of menstruation in a different way. In shutdown, trans men need sanitary napkins too. Adivasis may have certain traditional knowledge and skills to deal with the menstruation. But their traditional skills are subsidized by the hegemony of modern western scientific discourse and as well as the capitalist market.

It is also essential to break away from the capitalist and neoliberal market-driven ideas of menstrual taboo. Women’s experiences of menstruation cannot be homogenised. It is important to understand the heterogeneity of women’s experience. If the market can solve the issues of menstrual taboo in India by producing sanitary napkins, it could have solved the question of untouchability by producing soaps, detergents and sanitisers.

But after the production of soaps and detergents, the practice of untouchability has not declined. The dominant castes still keep a separate cup and plate for their servants. Market enhances the inequalities as not all women have the economic capacity to access the goods produced by the capitalist market.

Sowjanya Tamalapkula is an Assistant Professor at TISS, Hyderabad 

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