The first time she bled on wood shavings and ashes, she cried out for her Maa’s soothing. But soothing found no place as she lay writhing in pain in the small Gaokar on the outskirts of her community. The red of her legs painted the confluence of shame and indignity on the canvas of the mud floors. Whilst her mother’s words croon in her mind, “You’re impure.”
“The wine is sour, flowers wilt, seeds dry out, bee colonies die, even the mirror becomes dull, and ivory loses its gloss.” -Pliny the Elder
This quote by the roman author who lived over 2000 years ago, in his book; Naturalis Historia, depicts that menstrual taboos are not a thing of the present. These have continued across generations and over thousands of years. Even today, all across different regions of the world, the biological process of menstruation is associated with impurity.
In the past, there have been many instances that continually reinforce and reiterate the existence of menstrual taboos and religious norms. For example, the heated controversy against the admission of women who were of menstruating age in the Sabrimala temple in Southern India.
Furthermore, there was another incident where an institution forced young women to strip to authenticate that they were indeed not menstruating. These institutions of education are to be revered. Still, their students are subjugated to religious norms, being barred from common areas and places of worship on the grounds of their questionable purity.
Besides the ridiculous perceptions of purity, impurity and societal taboos that have been perpetuated over a long period, there also exist caste-based taboos. Menstruation and caste are intertwined as well.
For instance, in several upper-caste households, women who are menstruating are not allowed to carry out or perform certain activities. They are also required to follow a set of rigid rules and procedures based on the concepts of caste purity and religion and have no scientific background.
Many women are not allowed to go into the kitchen or touch the food or utensils, and enter places of worship. Many may not be permitted to use the same utensils as the rest of the family members or contact or touch the male members of the family. They might not be allowed even to take a bath. In many places, they are entirely secluded and isolated from the rest of the community. The list of these societal standards thus goes on and on and on.
But even in the process of menstruation, one shall not dilute the caste system, which takes precedence within Indian society. Thus, even menstrual purity is perceived with double standards, presenting a surreal dichotomy.
While upper caste women are subjected to numerous restrictions, women from oppressed castes and communities are subjected to the same limitations only in upper-caste households and not their own. Many a time, these taboos are waved off behind the farce of hygiene or culture and traditions.
But, one has to understand that this class and caste segregation and ideas of purity are nothing but suppression of the marginalised. Or intended to patriarchal practices and control individuals by forcing them into a cycle of never-ending shame.
“A tradition that is followed even today in Andhra Pradesh is that the upper-caste girl’s clothes worn on the day of attaining puberty, clothes with blood stains are mandatorily offered to chakali women. This ritual relieves the upper-castes from the pollution caused by the first menstruation of the girls, thus directing the pollution to chakali women. These chakali women are considered as receivers of the pollution in order to protect the purity of the upper-caste households. Untouchables and lower castes are an essential part of the society for the upper-castes to uphold their purity.” – Why the Debates on Menstrual Taboo are One-sided? by T. Sowjanya, 2017.
Conversations around menstrual purity are also distorted. In Indian society, which is highly casteist, it seeps even in this arena. It is usually upper-caste, Brahmin women who are considered to be impure or dirty during menstruation as their status as a member of a higher caste entitles them to enjoy the privilege of being pure. Thus, during monthly cycles when they are deemed impure, they have to follow a plethora of restrictions to uphold caste purity.
On the other hand, according to Brahmanical thought, oppressed castes don’t enjoy any such privileges of purity. Therefore, periods considered impurities or something that can pollute the upper caste’s purity is shameful for upper-caste menstruators. But aren’t shameful for Dalit menstruators.
This is because of the twisted belief that oppressed caste women or Dalit women aren’t pure in the first place, so when they are menstruating, they cannot be considered impure. While, on the other hand, upper-caste women who are epitomised as the symbol of female purity are turned and transformed into manifestations of indignity, shame and impurity during their monthly cycles.
Besides the fact that the concept of menstrual purity finds assertion in cultural taboos and is entirely denounced by science, one has to keep in mind that Brahmanical ideas too influence this.
While talking about menstrual purity, one cannot ignore the impact that caste plays in solidifying these social rituals and systems. The need is not just to break barriers of taboos through education but also to terminate the notions of caste purity.