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Cyclone Gaja did not kill a 12-year-old girl in Tamil Nadu. Regressive social systems did.

No religion, no culture can be exonerated of the menstruation-myths. Would we much rather sacrifice our daughters to 'purity' than embrace rational thinking?

 |  6-minute read |   22-11-2018
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On a cold December night when I had my first period, I was told by my mother that I had to stay in a separate room all alone.

Hailing from a conservative and orthodox family, this was the norm that was followed by all the women in my family every month when they menstruated.

That night, as I lay shivering on a thin mattress, with no blankets, I was more scared of bleeding to death than dying of cold. I survived.

12-year-old Vijaya wasn’t as lucky.

Vijaya, who was from Anaikkadu village in Thanjavur district, Tamil Nadu, got her first period on November 12 — three days before Cyclone Gaja hit the district she hails from. The Class 7 student was sent out to sleep in a thatched barn behind her house as is the custom for girls and women who menstruate. When Gaja struck, a coconut tree uprooted by the winds fell on the thatched room — leading to the girl's death.

This regressive custom calls for a girl to stay separately outside the house when she attains puberty. “This is some tradition in this side of the state. When a girl comes of age, the family asks her to stay separately in a thatched hut for at least a week. She is asked to come inside the house only after the rituals are done on completion of a certain number of days. It varies from community to community. That is what happened with this girl,” Pattukottai DSP Ganesamoorthy told The News Minute.

My 40-year-old well-educated sister is thoroughly conditioned by religion and society and believes — to this date — that not being isolated during her periods is a sin.

However, the archaic traditions and the social stigmas around menstruation are not limited to any particular religion or community.

The ancient Greeks believed that women are prone to mental illness and suicide if menarche is delayed, for the blood accumulating in their bodies could put pressure on their heart and diaphragm, where consciousness was thought to reside. Right into the 20th century, any inappropriate behaviour or poor mental health in women was termed hysteria — which etymologically finds its roots in the word ‘uterus’. Menstruating women were considered dark witches by ancient Romans and contact with menstrual blood, or even being in the presence of a menstruating woman, was considered dangerous — even fatal.

Pliny the Elder, who died in 79 AD, warned: ‘If a woman strips herself naked while she is menstruating, and walks around a field of wheat, the caterpillars, worms, beetles, and other vermin, will fall from off the ears of corn … bees will forsake their hives if touched by a menstruous woman … linen boiling in the cauldron will turn black, the edge of a razor will become blunted.’

He advised that menstruating women should be isolated, lest they pollute the earth.

But then, he also believed that drinking the blood of a gladiator would cure epilepsy.

If you thought that the generations to come would fare better at logical thinking, read further at your own risk of disappointment.

The Holy Quran — which came around 500 years after Pliny the Elder’s time — apparently says that women are “impure” during their periods and advises men to stay away from them during menstruation. According to the Canons — the regulation decreed by the Church —a woman must avoid Holy Communion during her periods.

These bodily functions, apparently, represent and emphasise the consequences of our 'fallen' states.

In Judaism, a menstruating woman must apparently stay "separate" for seven days. It is called niddah and must be followed by mikveh — the ritual bath.

main_woman-rep-reute_112218055559.jpgEvery culture, every tradition is guilty of penalising its women for her periods. (Photo: Reuters)

In Japan, Shinto and Buddhism are the two major religions. The code of conduct for women in Buddhism in Japan is based on a text called ‘A Mirror for Women’, written by Rinzai Zen monk, Muju Ichien, in the year 1300 AD. It is drawn heavily from the preaching of the 7th century Chinese monk — Dosen — who outlines the 'seven grave vices of women'. The seventh ‘sin’ of women is apparently that “their bodies are forever unclean, with frequent menstrual discharges. Seeing that both pregnancy and childbirth are both foul and the afterbirth unclean, the evil demons vie for possession while the good deities depart.” The other six sins are — arousing desire in men, being jealous, lacking empathy, being concerned with their appearance, being deceitful, and being shameless.

Ichien clearly needed a mirror for himself.

Shinto believes that the spirits would not grant wishes if you had traces of blood, dirt or death on you. Women who are menstruating were not allowed to visit any shrine during their periods due to their 'impurity'.

Coming to the 19th century — you thought that society would have drastically changed its outlook with scientific temper and rationalist thought?

Read on.

In 1878, letters to the British Medical Journal (no less!) claimed that menstruating women would cause bacon to putrefy. The paediatrician Béla Schick (1877-1967) believed that menstruating women released plant-destroying substances called ‘menotoxins’ through their skin. In 1919, he ‘proved it by asking women to arrange cut flowers — the flowers arranged by menstruating women apparently died sooner.

In Nepal, women and girls are banished to makeshift huts — the Chaupadis. The practice has been abolished by the law — but when has that ever been a consideration when it comes to following religious dictum?

While the list can go on till the end of eternity, the question now is on the change in traditions that has to come for the better. History is proof to the fact that the aphorisms around menstruation — in most of the cultures — stems from hard patriarchy.  The women clearly have not had any agency in deciding. Even if they do, it is clouded by the patriarchy that is ingrained in their system.

So, how does this change?

In my case, I started by haunting the library and devoured any literature on the subject I could lay my hands on. I then questioned the scientific reasoning behind the isolation — I stopped practising it (much to my family’s chagrin) when I could find none.

Independent scientific literature needs to reach every school in the country and the hands of every girl. More importantly, she should be literate enough to read, understand and question patriarchy.

Next comes economic independence. A septuagenarian in my family once remarked that if she had the finances to survive without the husband’s support, she would have never subjected herself to the mandated ‘torture’ of living in the ‘outside’ room every month for nearly 25 years of her life — she was denied more than one meal a day during her periods.

With the government harping about ‘Beti Bachao’, we need to ask ourselves — is this why we saved our daughters from being killed even before they were born? If the answer is even a remote ‘yes’, then the cure we envisaged is as bad as the illness.

Also read: Sabarimala outrage over menstruation is simply contempt for women, an attempt to restrict their prayers, their lives

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Rajeshwari Ganesan Rajeshwari Ganesan @rajeshwaridotg

Assistant Editor, DailyO

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