Acknowledging the harm of menstrual taboos in the debate around Sabarimala

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.

 

Advertisements

A Nonchalant Admission of Having sought Psychiatric services to a complete stranger

I was blown by this bit of conversation at the swimming pool.

Context : Me still learning to swim, but gaining basic proficiency (by that I mean, I was floating well and easily swimming across the pool), a newbie in the pool (who was at least 60) and a regular swimmer (again someone who was over 50 at least).

Regular swimmer is giving me and the newbie tips. His advice is good, though slightly patronizing (I learnt on my second day in the pool, why are you still just swimming across, learn to control your breathing and do a lap). His advice to newbie (be regular, you should get to a stage of doing 40 laps if you need to shed that belly of yours). I cant help mentioning that regular swimmer also had a pretty Healthy Belly.

We got around to discussing what we do for a living otherwise and regular swimmer asks newbie, you must be in business too. Newbie replies, “No, I am a doctor.”

Regular swimmer removes his goggles and looks closesly, recognizes him and says “wow Doctor, didnt realize it was you. You may not remember me, but I was one of your patients.”

Normal enough conversation, you may think.

I decide to contribute and ask Doc, so what is your practice doctor, are you a specialist. I expected cardio, or diabetes, or I dont know, maybe opthalmology.

Turns out he is a psychiatrist, running a psychiatric hospital in town.

Regular swimmer adds, “He is a great psychiatrist. Helped me a lot. You should go to him if you have a problem. He also does good counseling. ”

Now this conversation is surreal at so many levels.

For one, in a country like India where it is still rare for people to seek psychiatric help unless driven to it , in a relatively small town (Tier 2 city) like Trichy, where one presumes messages of Therapy is good for you may not have permeated, here is a man openly talking about having sought psychiatric services, to a complete stranger. What is more, he even recommends the service, just as non chalantly as he would a hotel. And considering that till about a moment before in the conversation, this guy was trying to be a total alpha male who was trying to impress us- accomplished swimmer to our bumbling ineptness- this acknowledgement of his vulnerability was surprising. Nay, he did not even think of it as a vulnerability, just stated it in a complete matter of fact way, like he would have if this doc had been any of the other specializations.

I learnt a lot from Regular swimmer, many of it swimming related. It got to a point when he was so judgmental about my efforts that I started going at an alternate time, simply to avoid him. He is definitely not my favorite person, but his casual acknowledgement of his mental health issues thought me a lot. I dont know the precise nature of his problem. I know there are different kinds of mental illness and people sometimes acknowledge a few but not others. But I am simply not bothered. In a situation where he never need to have acknowledged his issues, he tossed it in so casually, and thought me a valuable life lesson.

 

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , ,

The Waiter at the Hotel and his blow for Women’s Rights

I have blogged earlier about the feminist audit of restaurants, a practice of looking at how restaurant staff treated the women customers, what were the roles they were expecting from men and women and how equitable was this.

 

I think at this point, the undoubted winner on my feminist audit is a little roadside stall in Coimbatore. I was there a few months ago with my husband. This  is a little shop with just maybe four tables, but he does roaring business. We were staying for a couple of days at a nearby lodge and we pretty much had every meal with him.

Like many little places in South India, food is served on banana leaves. Some of the restaurants also insist that the customer clears away the banana leaf themselves. Its probably a labor saving practice, and also the concept of ‘Ecchal (or Jhoota) is very powerful in Tamil Nadu, and some places may therefore feel that everybody clears up their own plate and food remains.

As customers, sometimes we forget to do this, not because we think it is wrong, but because one generally never thinks of cleaning up the plates in a restaurant. I had myself forgotten one morning during breakfast and he had to come and remind me as I was washing my hand, that I had to put my plate away.

This is what happened when my husband finished eating and walked away to wash his hand. He forgot to pick up his leaf. Two waiters were standing nearby, and one of them called after him to pick it up. Even as my husband was turning, the other one indicated to his colleague that I was at the table and I would probably clear up both our plates. But the first waiter gave a sharp rejoinder. Its his plate and he clears up. We cant expect her to clear it up for him.

I am not saying this man is a great feminist. I dont even know what he does at home. Does he wash his own plates or expect the women in the family to do it. And I have also seen men who may be doing all household work and not expect anything from the women, but still have their own notions of patriarchy and male superiority. But it was nice to see a public upholding of men and women having to take up equal responsibility.

Reflections of a almost five year old on Fairy Tales

I have recently introduced Migu to popular fairy tales and now our bed time reading as well as meal time stories are generally Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.

As I have blogged in the past,here and here  Migu does not like to consume stories in a docile way. She has to constantly comment or critique a story. So this is how our story telling session on Snow White went.

Snow White had a step mother who had a magic mirror.

Migu : Wow step mother and magic. Is she like the fairy godmother? Will she wave her want?

Me : Well, no step mother and fairy godmother are different, sort of very opposite to each other. Will you let me continue?

As I continue we come to the bit about the mirror.

Me : The step mother asked the mirror, “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, who is the fairest of them all?”

Migu : Wait, wait, I am the mirror, you are step mother, now ask me.

Me: Ok, Mirror Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?

Migu : Goldilocks

Me : Not Goldilocks, Snow White.

Migu : But that day you told me Golilocks was also beautiful.

Me : Never minds, its another story. Can we continue.

After some time, as we come to the bit about Snow White falling after eating the apple

Me : How do you think she revived?

Migu : How? How?

Me : A handsome prince came and saw Beautiful Snow Whites Body. When he kissed her, she revived.

Migu : Thats not fair. Thats what happened to Sleeping Beauty. You are simply saying this.

Me : No that is the story.

Migu : Why is it always the prince?

Me : I dont know, can I continue?

Migu : Ok

Me : The prince and Snow White got married and lived in a castle

Migu : No, that is what happened to Rapunzel

Me : So its a different prince, and it was perfectly OK for him to marry Snow White.

Migu : Getting irritated, there is always a prince (She said it in Tamil, so all who follow Tamil can truly understand the impact of a line like Eppopathalum Prince, Eppopathalum Prince.

After some time,

Migu : I dont like these stories, I only like Red Riding Hood.

Me : Why

Migu : There is no prince, only a wolf.

The Feminist in Me : You go girl, yes you dont need a prince.

Like I have written before, I didnt really question any story while growing up. I dont not always fantasize about a life similar to the one which I was reading about, but I accepted it and never thought to challenge their choices. I am glad Migu is growing up, questioning stories, and maybe unconsiously breaking stereotypes and challenging possibilities and choices.

Tagged , , ,

Adventures in Trichy # 1 : Trichy Paruthi Paal

Paruthi Paal refers to cottonseed milk. Its a mix (like horlicks or bournvita) which you can add to milk and consume. Its considered a very healthy drink.

I never knew about paruthi paal before. Frankly the thought of cottonseed milk is a bit disconcerting. Particularly when Paruthi Kottai (cotton seed) has always been seen as livestock feed. When I first heard of it, I was like, can humans even eat this.

But I have grown to really appreciate this drink and I even have some packets of the mix at home. My daughter adores it. She sometimes prefers it over her usual milk drink.

Though I got familiar with the drink, I never realized this was a Trichy special. Untill I heard an adorable PA announcement next to a cycle vendor who was selling Paruthi Paal for 5 bucks. The announcement translates to something like this,

Trichy Paruthi Paal, made from pure palm jaggery and cotton seeds direct from the villages. Only at 5 rupees, you will wonder how we can afford to give it to you so cheap.

Just like Rockfort temple (a famous landmark in Trichy) symbolizes the spirit of Trichy, so too does Paruthi Paal.

Just like Jigar Thanda is for Madurai, so too is Paruthi Paal for Trichy.

The announcement had my heart. A city which wants to define itself with its food. What more do I want.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning to Like a Small Town : Adventures in Trichy

 

This year, i moved to a city in Tamil Nadu, Tiruchirapalli. Its not really a small town. Its one of the major cities in the state. Its a huge trading centre. But in my head, it was very much a small town. It was also a bit of a come down because as a Tamilian, I was going back to the heart of Tamil Nadu. I started thinking where I lived would no longer be exotic. I would no longer try to understand other people’s cultures, their world views. Because everyone would be just like me.  Never mind that I have never lived in Tamil Nadu and actually have a very poor understanding of Tamil culture. That my understanding of Tamil culture was limited to an elitist brahmin culture and Tamil Nadu had much much more to offer. But for me, Trichy just didnt seem exciting enough.

And the food. I had lived in Ahmedabad, which I thought was foodie paradise. What could trichy offer other than Idli or dosas. ANd I dont even like eating them. Definitely not at hotels. How could my food devotee image survive in Trichy.

I tried my best to think positive, but I came here with deep misgivings. Maybe it was good I had those misgivings. It made me overcompensate in trying to find joys in Trichy. So I am now going to start a little series – of little things I love in this city. Its my gratitude journal for this place. For people who know me, you will not be surprised to see that most of these little joys are to do with food. But beyond that also, Trichy continues to surprise me.

My First post on this series will soon come up : Trichy Special Paruthi Paal (cottonseed milk)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yoga and Me

I recently had a rather startling realization that my public persona is very much defined by yoga. Our public life is now almost exclusively on social media, and around 80% of my posts on social media is about yoga with photos of me doing yoga.

And it is funny because none of the conventional yoga narratives seem to suit the relationship I have with yoga. I dont claim that yoga is both a physical and spiritual exercise (for me at least). I dont necessarily feel more at peace or connected with myself after doing yoga.  It is not even a social exercise any longer, because it has been more than two years since i stepped into a yoga class (or yoga studio, to use the new term which has even caught up in small town India), and for me yoga is largely a family exercise.

In fact I came into, and continued to practice yoga for probably all the conventionally wrong reasons. But here I am, with over five years of experience, so something must have worked for me.

To start with, I started practicing yoga based on the advice of a gynaecologist, who suggested that if I were trying to get pregnant yoga was a good way, since it generally keeps you relaxed and fit. I dont know why I latched on to this particular advice, since there were many other suggestions she gave which I ignored. A yoga class was happening very close to home, at times which were convenient for me (I never could stand early morning classes, so these evening classes suited me). So I signed on.

I know what I should have been doing was to focus on yoga and not worry about pregnancy. But that is exactly what I didnt do. I would constantly google about pregnancy related yoga, and try to learn and perfect all the poses which were supposed to aid in pregnancy. Yoga was simply a means to an end and I rather felt very self righteous that rather than go for any medical treatments, I was doing yoga to aid pregnancy.

This continued for many months. I did not invest in yoga for myself, but my body seemed to take to it very well. I used to slouch very obviously, and even though my posture now is not perfect, the slouch is much less pronounced (one friend remarked that I seemed to have grown taller). I felt good, even looked good.

I have never been a physically active person. As a child, I was pathetic at all games, and somewhere along the line I cultivated a self image that I never could not anything physically challenging. As an adult, I had had some forays into aerobics, hip hop dance and even swimming, but none of them lasted. Yoga seemed to be the only physical activity at which I was good. Yes, I know in yoga you are never good or bad, you just keep doing whatever your body permits you to do. But hey, we all have egos, and whenever my teacher praised a certain asana of mine or when I pulled off an asana, which other students could only gape at I preened like a peacock. Finally I was able to come out of the self image of being limited physically. Yes, I could be clumsy when it comes to certain activities, but hey, there were many at which I excelled as well.

This continued for a couple of years. I finally started enjoying yoga for itself and at one point even started wondering if I would miss yoga when I finally became pregnant and had a child. That was not to be, since we ended up having an alternate route to parenthood. Our daughter came into our lives at about a week’s notice, a wilful, independent 8 month old whom we adopted.

The adoption threw me off yoga for about a month. I think as a major life event, it threw me off life for almost a year. I had to suddenly cope with the needs of a totally different person, focus on her full time and in the initial days, I didnt have a moment for myself. Within a month, I had to return to yoga, and in that period, perhaps for the first time, I was doing yoga as it was meant to be. It gave me a space for myself, made me feel a bit relaxed and offered a temporary break from the hundred and one demands of motherhood which were suddenly on my head.

I continued to have anxieties and doubts about motherhood for a long time, even after I cracked the routine tasks associated with it. I was deeply insecure, kept wondering if my daughter would bond with me, and more importantly find me fun. To myself, I presented a dreary serious picture, hardly playing, hardly watching TV, hardly having fun. Why would a child ever like my presence, specially when I was also the stern disciplinarian in her life.

And then the answer came to me, and yes, once again it was yoga. Yoga was the one unique physical activity I could do which she could enjoy. Right from the beginning, when my yoga practice meant I could comfortably wriggle under tables and chairs and be with her and play with her, onto giving her rides on extraordinarily fit back, onto her being curious about the asana, looking at it from different perspectives, and trying to figure out their names (and yoga can be fun that way, crow asana, camel asana, lion asana, a veritable zoo of asanas), I was finally able to offer her something unique, something which we both could share.

My daughter is now 4, and we now have some brief daily yoga sessions, where she tries to match me. I like it that I am her role model in this one activity, and I like it that it is one activity we have taken to doing regularly as a family. Not because it is healthy (it certainly is), not because it is a symbol of glorious Indian civilization (it probably is, but I am not too concerned about it), but because it is a lot of Fun.