During Navaratri, I was in a village in Uttarakhand where I attended Ram Katha celebrations – the dramatic telling of the Ramayana. After the event, I met a woman who lived in the house next to where I was staying and asked her whether she liked the afternoon’s performance. She said that she had not visited the celebrations. On further enquiry it emerged that she was “alag”, a local term indicating that she had her period.
“Alag” in Hindi means separate and is an accurate description of the how women are treated during their periods. In India, this control takes place in many forms, both obvious and subtle. One of the most overt forms of control relates to exclusionary practices women must face during their periods. Menstruating women are considered polluting. They are not supposed to visit temples or religious ceremonies, and village elders often keep strict vigil to ensure they do not. In parts of Uttarakhand, they are expected to sleep separately, away from the rest of the family for the five days of their period.
A recent study by the NGO Sahayog based in Lucknow found that similar menstrual taboos were present in several regions of Uttar Pradesh as well as Uttarakhand. A study by Suneela Garg and Tanu Anand published last year shows that women from across India face many restrictions during their periods. In some places they are forbidden from cooking, in other places they cannot handle certain foodstuffs.
Women themselves have internalised the ideas of impurity and pollution and often show a tendency to self-regulation. This silent control moves in even widening circles of restrictions on women’s choices of spouse, the ability to seek an abortion and other matters.
Right to abortion
We live in conflicting times. While the idea of a woman’s choice in the number and spacing of children has received official and some social endorsement, the right to seek an abortion remains contested in many countries. In India, the courts have been expanding the scope of women’s reproductive rights while social control continues to be very high.
On September 19, the Bombay High Court upheld women’s right to abortion asserting that “(t)he right to control their own body and fertility and motherhood choices should be left to the women alone”. This is significant because it takes the decision about abortion away from the medical practitioner, as is the usual interpretation of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1973, to the woman herself. The judgment also expands abortion rights, previously restricted to married women, to women in live-in relationships. However, to ensure that all women have complete autonomy over their own bodies the law of the land would have to guarantee abortion rights to all women irrespective of marital or relationship status.
Breaking into the festivities
The issue of women’s entry into places of worship has been in focus with struggles by women’s groups to enter the Shani Shingnapur temple and the Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai and was a topic of hot discussion earlier in the year. The Bombay High Court and even the Supreme Court of India have had to weigh in on this issue, with the Supreme Court questioning whether a physiological phenomenon like menstruation could be a reason for denying women certain rights.
The first half of October during the Hindu celebration of the Navratras or Durga Pujos thousands upon thousands of women participated in these festivities in all parts of the country. But, like the woman I met a few days ago in a small village in the Himalayas, there are also thousands who are being excluded from the celebrations because they are menstruating.
We cannot wait for courts alone to make their participation possible. Small efforts like the "Happy to Bleed" campaign by students have begun to challenge the age-old social control of women’s reproductive functions, but we need to amplify these into a much larger campaign with men and boys joining in. For a start let us ask women who are staying away, “Why?” If they are staying away because of their periods, let us invite them to join the festivities. Unless this happens, social control will not give way.
The author is the director of the Centre for Health and Social Justice in New Delhi, clinical assistant professor in the department of global health at the University of Washington in Seattle, co-chair of the MenEngage Alliance and convener of the Community of Practitioners on Accountability and Social Action in Health.