Red. red. Red.
The color crimson of the concoction of grains of rice and yogurt adorns the forehead of the Nepali community every Dashain. As this Dashain passes by, I raise a few hushed questions harping the color ‘red’. The time has come to honor the red, the color of our flag, the color of the rhododendrons, the color of the valor, the color of prosperity and the color of blood. A lot of blood has been spilled, numerous lives lost in the wars of Ramayana and Mahabharata, in the annexations that laid the foundation of Nepal and in the civil wars that brought about democracy and republicanism. But there’s still a lot of blood being spilled every day, every hour that is unfortunately dishonored. While the value of the red has been preserved over the years, it has always been biased. While the blood sacrificed has been held holy, the blood itself has been ‘categorized’, not biologically but socially and culturally.
The blood I talk about is also red in color, comprised of the same RBCs and WBCs and platelets like any other blood. The question lies, why does the society perceive menstrual blood as inherently bad? What is so material to blood that there are biases in the red? It’s the blood of a woman, the blood that stains her knickers every month, the blood that flows through her vagina.
Blood. Red. Ironically the redness of menstrual blood doesn’t suffice.
In Nepal, Menstruation is commonly known as ‘mens’ (pronounced as ‘means’) or in colloquial Nepali words ‘na chhune’, meaning ‘untouchability’. The latter term has a weird ring to it, don’t you think? The weirdness is a culture so deeply embedded that women are shunned for having their periods, shunned for bleeding, shunned for the ‘exceptional’ red that paints their vagina. While one might be taken aback by my choice of words, the reality is far worse. The meticulous carvings of the reality, paint a red path for a woman. Ironically.
She gets her period. Hide. Hide. No temples. No kitchen. No bed. No roaming. No sun. No father. No grandparents. No men. No. No. No.
Hello, this is ___ speaking. I wanted to let you know that my daughter got her periods.
Namaste, how’re you? Yes, you’ve probably already heard that my daughter got her periods.
Her first period, not only marks her first step into womanhood, in a society as ours, it comes with a lot of restrictions and liabilities. While a few girls rejoice their first period, many girls spend their nights crying in their makeshift beds specially prepared for them in a corner of the house, or in their relatives’ house. She is restricted from performing any kind of religious activities or partaking in any cultural and social traditions. She cannot enter into the kitchen, she can’t touch any edibles or drinkables. She can’t cook for herself or for anyone else. She isn’t allowed to interact with the male members of the family, be it her father/brother or even her grandparents. She is confined to one room of the house, and at instances, she isn’t allowed to sleep on a bed. She has a different set of utensils to be used and the utensils she touches can’t be taken inside the kitchen. She isn’t even allowed to go to school for at least four days, and the number varies across families. Above all, the fact that she got her periods is announced to the entire extended family, friends, and acquaintances. Sounds absurd, right? It happens. Happened to me and many other women I know.
Why? Because she is perceived to be impure, she is an omen to the society and in many instances, her presence in any socio-cultural setting is believed to induce misfortunes. She is bad luck, an omen and a hushed reality of the society. Everyone knows she’s bleeding but you’re not supposed to talk about it, you’re not supposed to acknowledge that she bleeds every month. You’re supposed to demand of her, a lot and while she bleeds, demand more of her; demand her to exclude herself, to make herself invisible, to shut herself down until she is ‘pure’ enough for the rest of the society to be okay with her presence.
The presence of menstrual exclusion has hardly been acknowledged in families, let alone the discussion of its repercussions. While you’re on your periods, you’re untouchable. Why? Because they said so.
Sarita can’t attend the puja today.
She can’t. You know…
Mom, why are you standing outside the kitchen? Come on in.
No, I can’t.
You don’t talk about periods. You’re supposed to understand. Oh wait, would talking about it also bring about devastations? Maybe. Who knows?!
A girl, in our society, grows up seeing her mother become menstrually excluded. She questions, like any other curious child, why her mother wasn’t doing what she normally did, why her mother didn’t make the meals or why she was standing outside the kitchen door. But seeing no one around her object to it, or find it unusual, she learns to normalize it, despite not knowing what’s going on.
After a few years, as she nears the age of puberty, she’ll learn about menstruation either in grade 7, or hear it from her mother or sisters or friends. That will prepare her about what would actually happen inside her body or at least will make sure that she doesn’t freak out when she sees blotches of red on her knickers. Unfortunately, it won’t prepare her for the cultural stigma that is to follow. The day that she tells her mother/sister/guardian about the unusual red blotch on her panties, the house is in a frenzy. I’m not exaggerating. The house is in a frenzy because they start preparing a make-up bed for her or they start calling up their relatives to see if she could spend a few nights at their place. She’ll be told not to do this, or that, not to talk to her father, not to get out of the room, not to touch anything, and so on. Honestly, it’s an exile in her own home.
Red. Red. Red.
She’s exiled for bleeding. This blood isn’t honored, it’s spat upon. You bleed the ‘menstrual blood’ and you’re a prisoner in your own home.
Restrictions. Red Restrictions. Red Rage.
Poor little girl. She has to accustom herself to wearing a pad that is difficult on its own, now her shoulders are burdened with more. The fact that she got her periods is spread like a breaking news throughout her extended family, relatives and all known acquaintances. No, she doesn’t do that. Her parents do it for her.
What’s the point in this? I’m still trying to figure that out. But I know for a fact that it’s a violation of her right to privacy. But does our society care about a woman’s privacy? Of course not.
There. The first message that you give her is that she has no privacy, her life is an open book for the society. Every time she has her period, it is her duty to let the family know that she is on her periods.
My friend had her first period while we were having examinations. She did not give the remaining exams, she was exiled in her own home. There. Another message: first-period confinement is more important than education.
Don’t enter the kitchen. Even if she is hungry, starving, she cannot enter the kitchen, she cannot touch any of the sources of water because while on her periods, she is impure. Her touch is the touch of a satan. Message given: she is inherently sinful.
Each restriction imposed on her, at this day and time is defeated by logic and sense. However, menstrual exclusion is a very, very common practice in majority households of Nepal.
While these messages are sent to girls and women, they will start questioning their self-worth. Not all girls are as strong as many women, not all girls can overcome the pressure to conform to societal expectations. Many girls give in to the pressure. They believe that they are impure, that they are satanic and a bad omen while on their periods. Their self-assessment of their abilities will rank low because they have been assured that they possess evil, the evil that gets activated while she is on her periods. Every time you ask her to stand outside the living room and participate in the conversation, you’re telling her that her opinions are unworthy. The physical distance between the conversing parties, as the society might say won’t matter, it clearly implies that women need to shout louder so that their voices can be heard; so that their voices don’t fade away before they reach the ears of the recipients.
In ancient times, menstruating women were excluded from various daily activities and social settings because of unsanitary conditions. In absence of pads and tampons, that was logical. While I do not question the reasoning behind menstrual exclusion in ancient times, I would have entertained it more had I received a better response from elderly people when asked about the need for menstrual exclusion. In the limited circle of elderly people that I interacted, a common answer lingered, “Since it’s always been done, we should do it.” Despite my lack of knowledge or awareness of the historical advancement of women, I, for sure can see the flaw in this reasoning. In fact, I wouldn’t even consider this to be a reasoning. It’s blind faith. It’s ignorance. It’s illiteracy. What hurts more is that many educated parents, many uncles, and aunts still use the same ‘reasoning’ to exclude menstruating women. And, honestly, it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating because, our parents, many that I know of, are educated and are completely aware of the biology behind menstruation, they know of pads and tampons and they know that sanitation would no longer be a sensible reason to exclude women. Yet.
I am not denying that women are physically weak while on their periods, but that doesn’t encompass all women. While my cousin used to pass out on her periods, I used to run on tracks. It’s different for everyone. During a conversation with one of my male friends about periods, I asked him if he knew that when women get their first periods they aren’t allowed to go to schools. He assumed that girls didn’t show up in schools because they were in pain. Wrong. They didn’t show up because they weren’t allowed to. Not all women go through cramps. And I don’t blame him for holding that opinion, it’s not his fault. Well, not entirely.
Take a step back.
If you think about it, isn’t it a good break for women? They don’t have to cook or do any household chores for 4-7 days. Doesn’t this instead favor women?
You might still say menstrual exclusion favors women because they don’t have to work for a few days. Personally, I do know of a lot of women who say that they enjoy the break. But what if one woman is a workaholic one? What if doing household chores is her personal therapy? What if cooking gives her solace? What if she’s a professional cook? What if she works in the water industry? What if she works in a meditation center? Just because she is on her periods, and (hopefully) as fit as ever, she can’t work? This is a violation of many of her rights. Not allowing her to go to school while on her periods is the violation of her right to education. It is a violation of her right to decide for herself, to choose for herself.
Say, there’s a gathering and a number of people have been invited, and so is a woman, who unfortunately happens to be on her periods that day. I use the word ‘unfortunately’ because she has to let everyone present there know that she is on her periods. What’s the harm in letting everyone know? Physically, no harm, but the way it impacts the woman mentally, socially and psychologically in that setting is something that goes unacknowledged in our society. Mentally, this provides a constant reminder to the woman that she is inferior, that her days of freedom are restricted. It reminds her that she is valued only for 3/4th of a month. Her days are numbered. Socially, she is categorized as a different class of her own, one that fluctuates with time, some days she is valued more and some days she is valued less. This implies that she will never be considered an equal asset of the society, she will never be looked upon as an honorary figure despite her sacrificing 10-35 ml of blood each month. While one might say that the amount of blood sacrificed is too little to be significant, one can’t undermine the fact that women’s bodies tear themselves apart and rebuild themselves each month. Of course, there is no greater cause to the loss of this blood like that of the martyrs’. But this blood that gets spilled every day is the reason our nation still stands.
A woman’s blood, her menstruation is the reason for the continuation of life. A new life is born from the womb of a woman who menstruates. Had the woman never shed blood, she wouldn’t have been able to conceive. The society shunning a woman for having periods, exiling her in her own home, dishonoring her sacrifice stands on the grounds of hypocrisy. It is a very hypocritical act because as you celebrate Dashain, you pray to Goddess Durga, you honor her for her valor and her sacrifice all the while shunning and spitting upon women and girls in your own homes.
Let a woman choose whether to work or take rest while on her periods, let her decide whether she wants to cook or not for the family. Let her choose. She is a free human being, don’t tie her down with your rules and restrictions, with your illogical and insensible reasoning. Honor her menstrual blood, let her have what she deserves, her free will.
Why, why is there a discrimination in the red that you honor?