Paradoxes often hold the key with which to unlock the real nature of things. One recent incident, much in the headlines, would suffice to illustrate this: the protests over the outlawing of the age (and hence menstruation) taboo in Sabarimala. One of the most strikingly odd things in those pictures was the number of orthodox women who protested in favour of the taboo. It seems anomalous or even incoherent, at least on the surface, because they are the subject-victims of the taboo. And grumbling about being excluded during the ‘curse’ is one of the staples of female bonding across castes and classes. This is more so in societies like India where this most normal higher-mammalian occurrence is treated as a polluted, untouchable, shameful state. Why would women want to hug their chains?
The answer perhaps lies in human history. A good place to start is the differing view of women’s bodies between matriarchy and patriarchy, and the scarred zone of many battles in between. Both attitudes exist uneasily with the mobility and vocational freedom given to women in today’s globalising, multicultural society. The crux of the conflict between the two is this question: Is menstruation a sacred state (matriarchy) or a shameful one (patriarchy)? Women are avoided in both states, but for different reasons. And the question of entry to temples occupies a curious position in these two approaches.
Etymologically, the word taboo entered the English language through Captain Cook: he encountered it in Polynesia as ‘tapua’, which meant both ‘sacred’ and ‘menstruation’. Was menstruation the original experience through which, as hunter-gatherers moved to modern human consciousness, the very idea of the forbidden evolved?
Also, this etymological root implies that menstruation was both sacred and forbidden (the latter being the common meaning of taboo now). Cultures close to their indigenous origins, including India’s tribes, or those practising matriarchy, still see it as a sacred, power-bestowing thing. Indeed, in prehistory, it was said to be the focus of an empowerment ritual that, in matriarchies, became a source of fear to men. Anthropologist Chris Knight has argued that, in matriarchies, the treatment of this natural biological phenomenon was very empowering and advantageous to women. Female-led ideologies created their own taboo. Since, as Freud said, blood scared men, who associated it with the hunt of wild animals, the state was used to distance men, and thus curtail predator sexuality.
Venus of Willendorf, female fertility idol dating back to 30,000 BC
At the same time, even in societies that were not technically matriarchal, like hunter-gatherer societies, the period set women’s bodies off as empowered and sacred. The hunt was synchronised to coincide with women’s periods and, because of the old correspondence of periods with lunar phases, this was also often associated with the idea of using the full moon and the light it provided to provide food. Also, that this energy was possible due to the men’s sexual banishment from women. That is, both in hunting societies and in matriarchies, menstruation was used to assert women’s mystical control and synchrony with processes of nature, to frighten men, keep them occupied in providing food, keep them away. An anthropologist has called it the sex strike.
Ironically, in all traditional post-farming and settled societies, this process was totally coopted by patriarchy. Romans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, all believed in some sort of taboo. Common to all is also a confusion: it is sacred, in that it marks a state of in-betweenness, like death and childbirth, and yet all of these are also polluted states. Most societies do see it as a biological rite of passage, but one where women must be kept hidden. How did patriarchy so stigmatise menstruation?
The answer is a complex one, and we could speculate that it has to do with the shifting balance of power as human societies moved on from hunting, and female periodic bodily synchronicity in cycles became more diffuse, affecting solidarity and empowerment. (The etymological trail remains, linking both ‘menses’ and ‘month’ to the moon. See Sara Read’s Menses: A Medical History in Fatuity for theories about menstruation in the history of medicine.) Territorial wars might have placed women in vulnerable positions—there was a fear of blood as societies became more ‘civilised’ and less connected to the ‘hunt’. The taboo developed differently and at different times in various societies as they settled into patriarchy. In India, no doubt the coexistence of indigenous, more natural, tribal ways and the developing hierarchies of the caste system played a role.
For, scattered all over traditional India (as in many other parts of the world) are varying taboos surrounding menstruation. Seclusion, forbidden temple entry, prohibition of contact with food for fear of spoiling it, general pollution, and so on. Most religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—associate some sort of contagion with it, believing it could spoil food, wine and pickles, although it was proved scientifically in the 1950s that it contained no toxins .
Tribes and those of other heterodox traditions conduct ceremonies when a girl attains puberty. This is, of course, more embarrassing than celebratory for the girl. However, the ‘higher’ the caste, the greater the taboo. That, here, patriarchy controls the gender/biological roles is quite clear—studies have shown that the degree of seclusion is always closely tied to the separation of males from domestic duties (it’s other women who fill in), even though it is sometimes rightly claimed that seclusion and separation during the three days also liberate women from household chores. Still, the taboo went with families where men assumed obvious patriarchal roles and was part of intense gender socialisation.
The ironic aspect in more privileged-caste families, though, is that while men routinely broke taboo barriers in their sexual lives, it was women who were deemed the ultimate agents of pollution. In village India in the past, menstruating women were deemed the agents of pollution, along with Dalits. A subcaste’s lines were compromised by impure behaviours. ‘Madi’, a state of ritual purity needed for worship and preparing food, was observed by orthodox housewives. The ‘out of doors’ woman was the antithesis of the ‘madi’ woman. A group was valued more if it executed bodily repressions and punishments, like widow tonsure or diet restrictions, on its women.
Anthropologist Louis Dumont has spoken of hierarchy as an important principle in caste that has survived, even thrived, in modernity. Ideas about gender form an equally enduring mechanism of power. Even as India modernised, women retained their symbolic position as temptresses or polluters in the sacred space—in myths, apsaras always tempt sages—or as weak, vulnerable points in caste survival. With Hindutva, it is easy to see why these aspects are increasingly asserted.
India is, however, a particularly interesting case, for it contains a blend of matriarchal as well as patriarchal attitudes. But while the latter treats women as polluted and inferior, the former traditions see it as a source of sacred power to keep men at bay. Both, however, mystify an experience that is best treated as a normal biological occurrence. All across the board in traditional India, from orthodox Hindus in the South to indigenous tribes, the taboo is still observed. Urban centres vary in their responses. Where it is observed in an orthodox manner, with seclusion, the following is what a growing girl might experience.
Seclusion, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg of embarrassment, shame and secrecy that shrouds the monthly experience for all women. Children see it first in the sudden disappearance of mothers or aunts into a room in the terrace or an outhouse. Children watch their mothers’ strict aloofness from household duties, as if suddenly they had been turned into social outcasts. I remember being bewildered, on holidays in south India, at how sudden but how complete it was! It could be mid-day or late evening: in the midst of family togetherness, the mother or aunt would sheepishly retire to the secluded room. The child would feel bereft—or eventually, even relief!—knowing that the mother would be inaccessible for the next three days. Of course the cause could not be explained to a child, so it remained mysterious. Then, three days later, they returned to join the fold, in clean clothes, bright smiles, the bindi restored, with combed and oiled hair.
For a child, this is at first intriguing. I remember thinking, as a child of six, when the biology of it had not yet been explained to me, that it was some sort of genie that entered the women in my grandparents’ household and left them after three days. As it turned out, my childhood speculation was not that far off the ideas contained in mythic lore. The Bhagavata Purana says Kali’s presence in menstrual blood is what causes the dangerous power that should be locked up, lest it harms men!
A sanitary napkin ad
As young girls move through life, those three days move from the realm of the mysterious to the shameful. Young girls in cities, if privileged, might learn about it in a biology class or from their mothers, and be equipped with the instructions to deal with it, but in many places girls stop attending school due to lack of sanitation facilities. It is ironic that a condition that is the focus of so much negative attention is still not considered important enough for the State to allocate facilities. For, taboo or not, it’s not an easy change for a young girl to navigate even physiologically. Even with access to water or sanitary aids (whose spread is fairly limited…see Sinu Joseph’s Miss Third World, I Presume for a counter-view), a young girl of 10 or 12 is bewildered by the sudden occurrence, but all she is offered is shame. In my Catholic schools, when a girl’s clothes were stained, the girl went into hysterics, the nuns gave her lectures on being prepared…all hell broke loose. The rest of us watched in horror or shame, hoping such a thing would never happen to us. The fear of the stain itself stains female adolescence.
The next hurdle is women’s spiritual or religious personhood. Traditional India steeps women in mythologies and cosmic awareness, emphasises a spiritual life, and asserts the powerful presence of female gods. Yet, how are women meant to traverse this realm? With their power leashed in a regime of control. Temples forbid women on the ‘polluting’ days. In special temples like Sabarimala, the god Ayyappa is celibate and a renunciate, so women at any stage of the month, not just the ‘impure’, would distract him. Imagine a young 12-year-old going on a pilgrimage with her family and being told that she is excluded from a temple because she is suddenly unclean. She is then to see herself as either a seductress, who might distract or pollute the god, or as a person incapable of a spiritual life in the only terms she knows, as a temple worshipper.
But in this exclusion, an awareness develops. Even today, in orthodox households, while there is a secret bonding among women in this shared oppressive seclusion, it takes a toll on girls’ self-confidence. The psychic burden makes it intolerable. Women in modern urban sectors might not face seclusion, but neither do they receive any medical help or counselling to deal with the mood swings, the hormonal and concomitant emotional changes that do occur.
Menstrual art by Jen Lewis
The main reason why we should upturn all of this is twofold. The menstrual taboo, whether for sacred or profane reasons, in either a matriarchal or a patriarchal mindset, is an example of biological essentialism that we must move beyond. The essentialism defines woman only by her biology. To glorify women for the occurrence of menstruation or to revile them for it is to persist in a mystification of the female reproductive function. Women are thinkers, sportswomen, cooks, scientists, engineers, writers. Menstruation should be treated as a routine cyclical event, a health issue to be navigated like any other, divested of myth, ritual and shame. Women must be helped in the psychological and hormonal trials of growing up to reach full selfhood.
Finally, in both matriarchies and patriarchies, the idea that men are the vulnerable sex to be protected either from the sacred or the shameful aspects of menstruation (no matter what toll it takes on the female psyche) is the real problem—and profoundly ironic considering the violence men inflict on women. Men should stop punishing women for their own weakness. Scapegoating a natural, biological female state as polluted, while men engage in all sorts of truly transgressive, taboo activities, highlights the irony. The orthodox condoned a double standard—through devadasi exploitation, it sanctioned a virtual polygamy, an institutionalised sexual prison for women from the poorer castes. This ritualised male infidelity went unpunished. And this double standard existed even as men claimed spiritual superiority and the right to pilgrimage, while women were meant to retreat in shame to the outhouse, three days every month.
(Nalini Natarajan is the author of The Unsafe Sex)