Bandana was a rebel she didn’t quite intend to be. Before her parents could fix her marriage, the pahadi girl chose a partner on her own. This had never happened in the history of her huge family.
Taking about tying nuptial knots with the man she loved didn’t come easy but she finally had her parent’s blessings. Family and friends beat the chilling December cold to be at her wedding ceremony. Her new family made her feel at home in no time.
All was good. Until, Bandana got her menses in her new family.
Within two weeks of marriage, Bandana found herself sleeping on the kitchen floor. While her mattress was put in one corner of the room-like-structure which was built separately from the rest of the house, touching any of the kitchen utensils or going near the fireplace was barred.
To save the “purity” of the house the new bride could not touch anyone or anything. Sleeping in her own room was hence, out of question.
Bandana should still be considered a lucky girl. She had the option of sleeping in the kitchen in a region where many married women are made to sleep in cowsheds when they menstruate.
This is 21st Century. This is Himachal Pradesh.
Making menstruating woman live separately and barring them from touching anything or anyone is a well revered custom in many hilly regions of the state. In fact, for many people here, there is nothing more inauspicious than a menstruating woman touching a man or coming in contact with a place of religious significance. For everybody else’s inconvenience menstruating woman are hence made to live in cowsheds.
It was the fear of sleeping with cows and bulls that Bandana bargained for the kitchen. But she could not put up with the scrubbing of every tiny spot on the kitchen floor and walls for a long time. With her periods ending, the intensive labour of cleaning was mandatory after her stay in the kitchen was over, to make the kitchen ‘clean’.
Escaping the painful ordeal came at a cost though. Every four to five days a month, she finds herself eating her meals in the company of two cows and a giant bull. She sleeps on some rags in a corner of the cowshed as cow dung and all kinds of all things natural fill up the room.
It has been more than ten years since Bandana has become accustomed to being an outcast, for her ‘grave’ mistake of being born a woman. It was the same with her mother in her paternal home and it would be probably be the same for her two daughters whenever they get married.
With a strong hold in many villages across various regions in Himachal Pradesh and some parts of Uttarakhand, banishing menstruating women to cowsheds has been one of the defining customs of in the culture of these places.
When women menstruate here; they aren’t allowed to access public wells, they cannot enter the premises of the local temples for at least a week or more. Menstruating woman are not even welcomed at public gatherings like weddings and funerals. Women even avoid attending parent-teacher meetings for their children on their periods.
A similar practice of ‘Chaupadi” which involves confining women to a cowshed during their periods is a century old custom, is also prevalent in many parts of Nepal. But unlike, the Indian government which doesn’t even officially recognize such traditions as problematic, the Nepal government banned Chaupadi way back in 2005. In 2017 it even went onto criminalize the practice as well.
It is not secret that Nepali women are still forced to live in cowsheds and there have even been cases of women dying in “Chaupadi”, it is matter of satisfaction that at least Nepal recognized it as a practice that is detrimental towards women’s health and safety. Our neighboursfelt the need to abolish the practice on papers even though there was no concrete policy of practically putting it an end to it. But in India, there seems to be no commitment from the state to stop such practices or even the slightest hint that the policy makers even know about such practices in the first place.
Our country works in a way strange enough to manage almost half of the population being forced to hush up about one of their most important physiological systems. And this country is not ashamed of it. It turns out that the act of making women live some sort of dangerous secret lives in their days of menstruation gives the country a sort of pride for preserving “purity”, sometimes at the cost of risking the lives of “impure” bleeding women.
Only 12 percent of women, as per a study by AC Neilson group, are able to use sanitary napkins while the majority uses unsafe alternatives like unclean clothes, leaves, etc in India. From many young women being forced to drop out of school after they start menstruating because menstruating women are not allowed to enter places of worship or even the kitchens in their own homes. In short, Indian women are being punished for their anatomy.
The only thing worse to being a menstruating woman in this South Asian country is the silence around the discriminatory practices. Menstruation is a taboo to such an extent in the Indian society that the state or the mainstream media havemaintained a criminal silence over it and never tried to challenge the perception towards this bodily function. It is no surprise that the only time the Indian mainstream media actually address menstruation is when it needs to make profit out of it. But even in their advertisements for selling expensive sanitary pads they refrain from showing the real colour of the bodily discharge. Watching an Indian ad on sanitary pads would have you believe that women are like fountain pens and bleed blue not red.
But let’s also give credit where it’s due. Had it not been for the capitalist’s drive to garner more and more profit with sanitary pads being advertised on colour television, menstruation taboos would have talked about in much fewer spaces at much lower volumes. Many practices, myths, taboos that affect different section of women in different parts of the country in various ways have surfaced over the years. But there is much more to be brought to light.
There are many Bandanas whose ordeals during menstruation are more inhumane than our minds can imagine. But the question is for how long would be keep punishing women for being women?
How long will we allow the blood on our sanitary pads to be blue? And more importantly, are we going to let Bandana’s daughter to live in a cowshed as well?