Life needn't stop on 'those days'


Life needn't stop on 'those days'

Come festival time and women in India begin to scramble. Does the festival fall on one of ‘those days’? That would be a problem. Growing up in a small village in Southern India, I’ve seen the celebrations — albeit secret – when girls got their first periods. They were a women’s only function, our first peek into the woman’s world.

Slowly, a whole new set of restrictions followed and one of the first shocks was when we were asked to stop ‘running around’. To this day, educated women decline invitations for religious gatherings, especially if it is on one of ‘those days’.

The self-inflicted ban

From the time a girl attains puberty, she also enters a world of many don’ts: Don’t touch others, don’t pray, don’t enter the puja room, don’t touch the pickle, don’t water plants and many other such ‘don’ts’. No wonder women grow up to continue such practises like my good friend, who refuses to water even the tulsi plant. “It withers,” she declares obstinately.

The ideas have become so deep rooted that we are not even aware that we can question these practices. What’s more is that we follow it with such sincerity and continue to force little girls to do the same. There used to be a time when women couldn’t enter the kitchen. Over time, with the advent of nuclear families, that practice has largely been done away with. The urban women now go about their usual daily chores and even go to the gym. But they shy away from the puja citing that our scriptures don’t encourage it and that they want to be keepers of old traditions.

There is another aspect to this ‘period problem’. Women are actually embarrassed and refrain from talking about it and call it ‘that day’ of the month. Women also feel dirty and this is perhaps due to the fact that a menstruating woman has long been deemed impure. She is so impure that whatever she uses or touches has to go through the ceremony of purification. If the rest of the world comes in contact with a menstruating woman, then you guessed it right, they become impure, thanks to the long-instilled belief system.

But truth be told none of the practices we follow today were originally meant to suppress or stifle women like it has over centuries. What was originally intended for that time in history, when it was relevant, has now become a ritual women practise out of fear and in the name of keeping traditions. “We don’t want to incur the wrath of gods,” one educated friend told me as I persuaded her to join us for a bhajan at home.

Another friend argued that reiki and yoga subscribe to the practice of abstinence. There are many reasons or theories as to why women prefer to be secluded or not be part of public gatherings. One of the popular reasoning has been that women need that rest during menstruation. But today when women voluntarily take up strenuous jobs, why should we shy away from offering our prayers?

True freedom

In 1950, our constitution abolished untouchability. It was during the British rule that many social activists fought for the rightful place for the outcasts and untouchables. What made a man untouchable? Why was he ostracised from the society? Why was he not allowed inside a temple? Over time, many such practices have become, largely, a thing of the past.

Yet in modern India, educated women who scorn the practice of untouchability, have somehow strangely banned themselves from entering temples. Women continue to be second-class citizens on ‘those days’. Many women, who call themselves ‘liberated’, cook and clean. But the one thing they don’t do is pray. They are too afraid of displeasing the gods. I have had countless arguments with friends about how they are stuck up in this age-old tradition. Alas, who’s listening!

However, this does not make me an atheist. I will continue to have my conversations with god, whether or not I have my periods. Women all over the world menstruate. It is a sign of ovulation, which in turn is a sign that we are ready to procreate. It is a signature to good health. Why then should we shy away from doing certain jobs or ban ourselves from places of worship?

India may have got its freedom from the British decades ago, but its women are yet to get theirs. This is a bigger and tougher struggle because we have to fight our own demons.

It’s time we truly break free and soak in the festive fervour. Enjoy the freedom you truly deserve. And grant that freedom too to the little girls who step into the woman’s world. When your daughter gets her first menstrual cycle, please don’t deprive her of the following rights:

Right to play
Right to pray
Right to feel good about herself
Right to be treated as an equal human being, not an outcast

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