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Menstrual Festivals: Yet Another Means To Celebrate Systemic Patriarchy?

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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.

A girl’s first period has a significant impact on her life. It is considered a sign of maturity, a sign that she is now a woman. While there is still much stigma and shame associated with menstruation in India, there are several Hindu rituals that mark this significant event of a pubescent girl’s life.

Commonly seen in the South and North East, rituals and festivities mark the onset of a young girl’s menarche. Celebrations, feasts and gifts are all part of welcoming her into womanhood, but behind all the joy and festivity lie horror stories of shame, isolation and social distancing.

With the rituals evolving from a time when child marriage was still an enormous part of Indian culture, most of these festivals were a visible sign that the young girl is now of marriageable age. The celebrations also project a hetero-normative, patriarchal view of womanhood, where a woman’s attainment of puberty is celebrated because she is now ready to marry a man and bear his children. Many feminists and women today shun the practices involved, and most of the rituals have been abandoned in urban cities, but the celebrations persist in rural towns and villages.

Tuloni Biya

Photo by Mayurimdas

Celebrated during the onset of a young girl’s menarche, ‘Tulonia Biya‘ (translates to ‘Small Wedding’) is an Assamese tradition similar to a typical wedding ceremony. Girls are commonly restricted from all sorts of activity and are confined to a room by themselves. I spoke to one of my friends from Assam, who did not have to take part in the ritual herself but knew of others who did and she said, “It’s exactly like an Assamese wedding except, here, the girl is married to a Banana Plant instead of a man!“.

The menstruating girl is kept in isolation for seven days, and looking at the sun, moon and stars are all considered bad omens. She is not supposed to be in contact with any men and should touch no one during this period. After the seclusion, the girl is dressed up, and takes part in a series of rituals leading up to her marriage to the banana plant. Relatives come over and participate in the ceremony, and the young girl is lavished with gifts.

Ritu Kala Samskara (Ritushuddhi)

Commonly referred to as the ‘Half Sari Function’, Ritu Kala Samskara is a common South Indian function celebrated during the young girls’ first period. It is celebrated mainly in Tamil Nadu where it is called ‘Manjal Neerattu Vizha‘ and Karnataka where it is referred to as ‘Ashirvada‘.

Harshita, who hails from Bangalore, spoke to me about her personal experience with the function. “The girl is supposed to become a goddess on the fifth day, after her period ends, but is almost untouchable until then. I had to sleep on the floor in a separate room by myself and was asked not to touch anything, not even the curtains because it would have to be washed afterwards!

During the menstrual period, the girl is expected to not step into the kitchen. She has to perform a special puja every morning and stay away from everybody else in the family, especially men. At the end of the five days, she is decked up in jewellery and wears a sari for the first time in her life. “A special puja happens where you have to sit next to a doll. It is supposed to imply the end of childhood and onset of puberty,” Harshita adds. The festival ends with a large feast where is the girl is given gifts and has to bless all the food in the house before the entire family eats.

Ambubachi Mela

Ambubachi Mela

Rooted in Hindu mythology, the Ambubachi Mela is an annual festival celebrated at the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati. It is believed that Goddess Shakti’s womb once fell to the ground where the temple was built. While the Mela does not celebrate menarche, the rituals and customs surrounding the festival closely resemble those of the other menstrual celebrations.

Every June, the temple remains closed for three days when the goddess is believed to be menstruating. On the fourth day of the Mela, the temple doors open and devotees receive a red cloth which is supposedly soaked in the goddess’ menstrual blood. Both men and women gather in hordes for this festival, and women are celebrated for their bodies.

While celebrating menarche is a beautiful thing, we must consider the impact that social exclusion has on adolescent girls who have just attained puberty. Especially in cultures where things like menstruation are rarely talked about, festivals like the ones mentioned above may confuse and scare young girls if they do not know of it beforehand.

We must try to avoid practices of social exclusion and arbitrary rules like not stepping into the kitchen. Focusing on the joyous celebration and family gatherings will lead young girls to believe that menstruation is something to be celebrated, not to be ashamed of. Even during the menstrual period of the goddess during Ambubachi festival, devotees believe that mother earth is unclean and do not engage in cooking or puja. When the goddess herself becomes unclean when she is menstruating, how could a young child be considered any different? There is a need to change this mindset.

Performing arbitrary rituals and customs are expensive as they involve preparing elaborate feasts, erecting pandals and decorating the household. Low-income households are forced to borrow money to conduct the ceremony. Those belonging to the Dalit caste are impacted the most by the expenditure as they have very little income and cannot borrow from the upper caste Hindus but are forced to conduct the celebrations to keep up with social customs. In such cases, the family regards the girl child as a burden and a liability.

All the women I spoke to recounted their experiences as embarrassing and confusing. Some were glad they never had to take part in anything of the sort. When something that is supposed to be positive carries several negative connotations, it becomes difficult for young girls to view themselves and their bodies positively.

While it is important to keep traditions alive, it is also essential to ensure that we adapt these traditions to keep up with the times. Restricting women during their periods only serve to promote the innate sexism and patriarchy these traditions were built on. It’s about time we use such traditions to elevate women and encourage menstrual health and positivity.

The author is a part of the current batch of the #PeriodParGyan Writer’s Training Program

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Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

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