New Internationalist

Some thoughts on becoming a woman in India

A few months ago, an unusual (for me) message was flying around our small community. The daughter of an adivasi friend had started menstruating. Her first period was pretty much the news of the day for a week or so. There were big smiles and phone calls from friends and family saying, ‘Great news, Bindu (name changed) has come of age!’ I must confess I was somewhat bemused by all the fuss.

Where I grew up in Kolkata, among my less traditional city friends, having your period was something the girls whispered about in corners, giggled about privately and generally felt embarrassed about, without exception. And at any age practically, women dreaded that time of the month. Girls were petrified about that tell-tale blood stain on the back of one’s clothes. We’d feel mortified that people in general might have noticed it and slink away to wash and change. Periods were not something anyone in their right minds would dream of shouting about.

Traditional communities all over India treat a girl’s coming of age with a lot of ceremony. Here, in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri Mountains of South India, I first attended the ‘vyss ende kalyanam’ or ‘coming of age’ ceremony, twenty-five years ago. The word ‘kalyanam’ means marriage and it was treated like a mini wedding. Three or four girls were celebrated simultaneously in a big community affair.

Obviously, it’s far less expensive if four families bear the expenses together, since a few hundred people have to be fed. In traditional adivasi communities most people contribute generously, bringing rice, vegetables, fruit and cash. The girls wear new clothes, are given a ceremonial bath with turmeric after being oiled with sesame or coconut oil from head to toe. It’s a way of announcing that the nubile young things are available for marriage, and families with sons can come in search of brides. People give the girls money and presents. And everyone treats it as a joyous occasion, one worthy of celebration.

Another Indian custom common during women’s periods which anthropologists and feminists have questioned is the treating of a menstruating woman as polluting and unclean. In many communities here, it is customary that a menstruating woman cannot handle food, enter the kitchen and so on. In some places the woman must stay in a separate hut by herself till the ‘polluting’ period is over.

Though many feminists talk about this custom being demeaning and discriminatory, I’ve often wondered if the women themselves (especially in rural communities where they are often forced to work from dawn to dusk) don’t enjoy this break. It’s the only time in the month when they are freed from the daily grind, can lie down all day for those four or more blessed days and don't have to service their husbands on demand. Crude as this sounds, that’s mostly what life is for poor, rural and urban women.

In the ayurvedic system too, women are required to rest during their periods. And yoga is stopped because they say a woman’s body needs rest during this time. I can’t help contrasting this with the seventies ads for tampons which showed the new super women playing tennis and even swimming once they’d bought those magic new products.

Proud-to-be-modern women often dismiss the old ways as superstitious nonsense.Yet, the traditional folk seemed a lot more at ease with their natural processes like monthly cycles and child birth. As I grow older I'm inclined to appreciate the wisdom of the old ones.

I'm not attempting to make any great point here. Just looking at different cultures and customs. Random thoughts.

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