I have written earlier about Menstrual taboos and how no matter how much I espouse feminism, there are some aspects of my upbringing which I truly cant overcome, and visiting a puja or a temple during menstruation is one of them.
There have been some recent developments in India which is highlighting all these issues. TO recap, Sabarimala, a famous temple does not allow girls and women from 10 to 50 to enter at all, because they are of the age when they may be menstruating. Most temples in India, implicitly forbid women having their periods from entering, but Sabarimala is an extreme example where women who have capacity to menstruate are simply not allowed, even if it is not that time of their cycle.
I have heard numerous justifications on this practice and I dont intend to challenge any of that. I have also heard a lot of justifications for Hindu practices for isolating menstruating women, and stuff on chakras and energy and I dont know enough to challenge that. But if all that means that practicing Hindus respect menstruating women a lot, I want to call you out on that. That is simply not true.
I grew up in a conservative family, which followed most of the menstrual taboos. I know those practices made me feel shunned and discriminated against, never made me feel special or like a ‘goddess’. I remember as a teenager being told (I think it was just a few months after I attained puberty) not to go near a person in a community function (non-religious) , because he was going to Sabarimala and I was menstruating. I didnt have the words to articulate it then, but today I want to ask, why is it my responsibility to ensure his purity. Why is it that he has the right to participate in the social function despite his ‘maalai’, and i have to take care not to pollute him by staying away. Taken to an extreme, is this not the same kind of discrimination practiced against the untouchable castes where they were expected to have a broom tied to them and sweep the public paths as they walked, so as to not pollute it for the brahmin.
It is not just restriction of movement, menstural taboos cause a lot of mental stress for women. Most conservative families have numerous fasts, festivals, pilgimage trips, and there is always a tension of whether we will become ‘out’ for it. Becoming ‘out ‘ is simply not an option, because the discrimination you face multiplies close to a festival, and if you have your periods at that time, life becomes pretty difficult, because everyone resents the fact that you are not pulling your share of the work, worse, your needs also have to be catered to. For instance, if I am not allowed in the kitchen, it means someone has to give me food, and even a simple task like this can cause a lot of stress. It is no doubt because of these stresses that women love popping pills to manipulate their periods. Women of my generation have learnt that it can be harmful if done in excess, but I do know that women of an older generation have faced lot of complications with reproductive health issues, mainly because of frequent popping of primolut (In india, you get it over the counter, no prescription or medical supervision needed)
I suffer from polycystic ovarian syndrome, a common disorder affecting almost a quarter of women today. One of the symptoms is irregular menstrual cycles, which means I cannot even accurately predict if i will be ‘out’ for these festivals. And if we choose not to manipulate our cycles and let things be the way they are, we are frequently derided, tacitly or openly, for not having postponed the cycle and being around for the festival, pilgrimage or whatever is planned. The emotional cost of having a period is simply so high, that I wonder if my mood swings during that time are due to PMS or because of all these other feelings of discrimination.
I read recently that Nepal (yes the predominantly Hindu country Nepal) has actually passed a law which criminalizes any form of discrimination against menstruating women. When I read it I wondered if it was an over reaction, without understanding the cultural ethos of a practice. But as I reflect on my own experience with menstruation, my own fears, the number of times I have been distressed because of an inconvenient cycle, the more frequent times when I have prayed desperately that my cycle is not interrupting an activity, I simply salute this country for acknowledging how deep the impact of this discrimination can be.
So for all those apologists who claim deeply scientific reasons for menstrual taboos and state that Hinduism actually reveres menstruating women and that is why she is not allowed in a temple, I will only say, Sorry, your practices dont reflect one part of this theory. This is just like the caste apologists who claim a deep rooted acceptable reason for caste system and keep claiming it was corrupted over time. If it was indeed corrupted, there has been no effort to correct it over centuries. I may personally never go into a temple when I am menstruating, I have no desire currently to visit Sabarimala, but I value this judgement, because it has made it my choice. And for all those women who are willing to ‘wait’, well once again, it is your choice.