By Bhaswati Bhattacharya
The first time I shared my experience about my first period with my college friends, most of them were shocked. I was a little embarrassed as the rules of my culture could not be comprehended by my friends from other parts of the country. The kind of rules I had to follow after my first period (which continues to be widely followed) seemed hilarious and totally weird to them. However, when I was expected to do things when I had officially “grown up,” little did I think about it as being unfair, illogical and unnecessary as I had grown up seeing girls, including my cousins and neighbors, going through all that. It felt it is an important part of me growing up as it is correct, all because it being socially “acceptable.”
It all started the moment the “auspicious growing up” suddenly occurred. I was still at school and when I informed my teacher in confusion, she immediately arranged to send me home as early as possible after calling up my mother at work. My mother came rushing home just to ensure I have not spilled the beans by telling about it to anyone at school. She was well aware of the catastrophe that would follow. However, half of the people in my school (a girl’s convent), came to know about it, which included my neighbor. She came with me and told her mother as soon as she reached her place. In no time there were women from my neighborhood gathered inside my house and talking about it. I was clueless as to what was going on. It was a kind of attention I did not enjoy.
The first thing I had to do according to the rulebook was take a bath. After that I was taken to a separate room and not allowed to sit on the bed. The reason given was that I was “impure” as I was menstruating, which is why I am not even supposed to touch anything, including the curtains, bed, chairs and of course, the male members of the family. I was inside my room for a good one week, not allowed to eat normal food cooked with oil. Women came to my house with fruits, all kinds of dry fruits and ghee!! I was not allowed to go to school for a week (thereby missing my favorite teacher’s day celebration) and was not supposed to even touch anyone else except my mother, provided she took a bath after she touched me. Also, she was forbidden from touching anyone else if she touched me! I agreed to do all this as I was out of choice and thought it is the right thing for me.
In some cultures, menstruation, which is a universal phenomenon and the most natural of all, is celebrated. I still remember the series of “pujas” done for me, mostly to shoo away all the evil around. On the seventh day or so, I was forcefully woken up early in the morning by a number of women from my neighborhood. Before I could get a hang of what was being done to me, I was taken to the verandah, where again there were a range of rituals lined up for me. This included a series of prayers as I shivered in the cold. It all ended with me getting married to a banana tree! As ridiculous as it sounds now, I actually went through all of that as the society was all up for it. I was now ready to “bear children” as I was a grown woman now, which is a cause of celebration. I was given lectures on how I should stop behaving like a kid (basically be me) and act matured as I was no longer a child. I was expected to forget the child inside me and change overnight. I still do not remember who those women were as I nodded my head to everything they said, which included teasing me with my future groom to be. All I could think of was I do not want a banana tree as one.
It did not end there. There are rules imposed on me for the rest of my life (at least till I get my menopause). These rules range from not sitting on the bed or getting out of the room for the first three days, not entering the kitchen or the worship place even by mistake, eating separately on my own without sitting with other family members on the dining table and washing my plate and placing it separately. On the third day when I suddenly turn pure, I have to take a bath early in the morning and wash my mattress, sheets, pillows and everything under the sun that I might have touched in those three days (like I am the carrier of the most fatal virus). All I wonder is how girls are from such a tender age taught and brought up in ways in which they are made to consider themselves inferior because of certain biological traits they cannot possibly prevent. Also, the justification given for these rules is that if any male member touches anything that I touch or I touch any male member, I push myself into a world of sin as a result of which I will have problems in bearing children. Everything boils down to reproduction, which is the role women are born to play. Really now! What about all those cultures where women do touch men and still bear children in their lives? I asked this question once to my aunt who was shocked to see me have opinions as such. I just wonder… had men menstruated would they be made to follow such rules? Also, women are victims of their own history as a result of which they are also convinced that such rules make sense and should be followed.
This is just one story. There will be so many more stories where girls are from a tender age made to believe they are inferior to men as a result of which the same notions of patriarchy are passed onto generations. Each culture in itself imposes stringent rules on their women, and it is ensured that such rules are followed in spite of resistance. Those who resist are evil as they try to disrupt the rules of the universe which are meant to be. In the name of custom, tradition, principles or religion, women are made to compromise in every walk of their lives without raising any question, no matter how educated or how open minded. I am not trying to put culture down. Nor am I saying all people practice it. But a lot of people do. All I ask, is this necessary? Why can’t we teach our children the facts rather than impose stringent illogical beliefs? Well I hope I find the answer soon. Period.
(An age old ritual that is still followed in Assam, the ‘Tuloni Biya’ or the small wedding of an adolescent girl when she attains puberty, and its many repercussions as well as other aspects are discussed in this article. This topic has also been previously discussed elaborately in one of our earlier issues, which can be read here.)