When criticising our religious practices, we end up criticising elders who inform us of them rather than the scriptures that propose them
The main message of Occupy Baluwatar is that we have had enough of violence against women, and the culture of tolerating it. The solution is to no longer to walk away silently from a man who throws lewd remarks at you on the street, but to speak up against it, find the root of the problem, and fight it. This is as much true of rape and domestic violence as it is of any religious or cultural practices that we have passively accepted, including the untouchability of women during menstruation. There is indisputably a need to protect our culture, but when it consists fundamentally of the humiliation and mistreatment of women, the solution is no longer to silently accept it as it has been passed down to us.
There are many examples of how we react to menstruation, including my mother’s accounts of how the treatment she faced repeatedly brought her to tears, a girl I know not being allowed to come into contact with her mother and brother for days after her father’s death, and stories in the news of girls and women losing their lives in animal sheds. But it is important now to look beyond these individual cases to understand why it is that we are putting up with this, and how this practice can be effectively challenged.
I have asked the women in my family where the practice of chhaupadi or nachhune comes from, and why they believe in it. The answer I get is that a woman is unclean, impure, and therefore untouchable for the duration of her period – that’s what their mothers had told them, the end. When I ask girls my own age, most do not know what the practice is based on scripturally, but assume that it arose for hygienic reasons. Underneath it all, despite the feeling that it is quite an absurd practice, questioning it seems dangerous.
A problem with our society (though not just ours) is that knowledge, beliefs and practices are often passed down without questioning. We are told from a young age that it is disrespectful to question or talk back to our elders. Mostly, we are not told what the scriptural bases of our religious practices are, so that in criticising them, we seem to be criticising the grandmothers who informed us rather than the religion that proposed them. So we obey, and eventually convince ourselves that it is the right thing to do.
The immediate argument against the practice of chhaupadi is that the hygiene rationale is obsolete for obvious reasons: we have the necessary means to remain ‘clean’ for the duration of our period. This is a valid argument that has proven partially successful, and needs be made repeatedly. But it still solves only part of the problem; the belief that we are ‘impure’ still remains. This notion of ritual impurity is what engenders the fear that ignoring the practice is dangerous: we are told that touching, or being touched, during these days brings terrible consequences. What these consequences are is unclear, but if we explore our scriptures, we find that it is the product of an outdated patriarchal and misogynistic mentality.
The idea of menstruation as impure is found in the Rig Veda. As the demon-dragon Vritra held captive all the waters of the world, Indra killed him. Indra then took the negative Karmic reaction of killing him, divided it into three parts, and gave one part to women: for taking on the sin of Indra, they would have to menstruate once every month, and in return would be able to sleep with their husbands while pregnant. A very strange story.
Chapter 5 of the Vashishta Dharmashastra, taking at its base this story, adds: “For month by month, the menstrual excretion takes away her sins”, “A woman in her courses is impure during three (days and) nights,” and “During her period she shall not apply collyrium to her eyes, nor anoint her body, nor bathe in water; she shall sleep on the ground, nor touch the fire, nor make a rope, nor clean her teeth, nor eat meat, nor look at the planets, nor smile, nor busy herself with household affairs, nor run; she shall drink out of a large vessel, or out of joined hands, or out of a copper vessel” and “those who recite the Veda, proclaim the following: ‘collyrium and ointment shall not be accepted from her; for that is the food of women. Therefore they feel a loathing for her while she is in that condition, saying ‘she shall not approach’.”
Reading this, I am outraged. I will not believe that my religion condemns me for smiling for three days every month, nor that I am impure and those around me should feel a ‘loathing’ for me. But at least I am outraged directly at the scripture that categorizes me as untouchable, rather than at my grandmother, aunt or mother who conveyed the belief to me. I can pose my argument constructively against the correct source.
This practice is based on an obsolete mentality; our society has progressed (as it should) beyond it, and it is supported by the law. The Interim Constitution (2007) condemns under women’s fundamental rights “discrimination in any way on the basis of gender” (Article 20, sub-article 1). The Domestic Violence (Crime and Punishment) Act (2008) defines mental abuse, a crime punishable with a fine from 3,000 – 25,000 rupees and/or six months of imprisonment (Article 13), as “any act of threatening the aggrieved person of physical torture […] or otherwise causing injury or harm to the aggrieved person emotionally and this phrase also denotes discrimination carried out on the basis of thought, religion or culture and customs and traditions” (Article 2d). The Supreme Court gave a directive to the government in 2005 to condemn and eradicate the practice of chhaupadi and na chhune during menstruation.
There are many other lines of argument that show the absurdity of the practice. A woman once told me that although she was a practising Hindu, she did not believe in chhaupadi, because she could not reconcile the fact that a woman’s womb’s lining is a source of life when it’s inside her body, but impure and sinful when it is released.
Ultimately, change will only come if we take the risk of questioning accepted practices. Modernizing beliefs to make them consistent with progressing social norms is a way to preserve religion. Going collectively to Baluwatar is one way of telling our leaders and abusers that we are not putting up with it anymore. Another way is perhaps more intimidating, as it will have to take place in our private spaces: it is by convincing ourselves that it is acceptable to find ways to individually challenge what our parents, grandparents or other authority figures have taught us; and then that it is necessary if we are going to end violence against women.
The author is currently working at Forum for Women, Law and Development