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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  1. #1 Sabita Banerji 11 May 12

    Fascinating to see the different attitudes of different cultures towards this very natural and universal process. There are even generational differences... my mother refers to it at ’the curse’ while friends laughingly refer to ’Manchester playing at home’! Mainstream Indian society has much to learn from the adivasis; in January I visited projects looking at this issue and found that many Indian women suffer great inconvenience, ill health and humiliation because of the shame associated with menstruating. The Indian government is, I believe, planning to distribute free sanitary towels to all adolescent girls in rural areas - and while this is good news for some women who are currently risking their health with rags, sand and ash, how will the green hills of Gudalur cope with this onslaught of non-biodegradable waste? Thankfully, some women, like EcoFemme ( are exploring greener alternatives. Thanks another really interesting blog, Mari.

  2. #2 Dhun Daruwala 11 May 12

    Great article Mari.
    What varied customs! ! !
    Some joyous others bordering on untouchability.
    Did you know that even in my community previously there was untouchability.
    Yes as you say a rest period from daily drudgery.
    Dhun D

  3. #3 Aloke Surin 11 May 12

    I'd like to contrast this with a news item on the radio I heard yesterday while driving : about a clash between ’pro-life’ and ’pro-choice’ groups in Ottawa which had turned rather heated! It is really about natural processes and their acceptance which the indigenous (hate that word!)people throughout the world had seamlessly assimilated into their rites of passage. Our world today has evolved and changed beyond recognition from even 50 years ago, and what we are seeing is the constant challenge to come to terms with our place in the universe. Perhaps that dictum from the Old Testament about ’go forth and multiply’ and have ’dominion over the things of the land and the things of the sea’ should stop being applied today....perhaps we need to go back to trying to live in harmony with the forces that shape he world, for which we obviously need to change our mindsets and ways of living. One more argument for sustainable development and keeping the ecological balance intact...

  4. #4 Indy Bhulla 11 May 12

    Should men become more feminist?

  5. #5 Premila Ashok 11 May 12

    Absolutely agree with your viewpoint. Have always thought the same. Old wives tales and habits have so much wisdom ingrained and need to be revisited by us today. Dig deep and you are sure to find gems which sustained women for ages. Think the idea of a blog is priceless. So more power to the old and the new!!!

  6. #6 Prabir 12 May 12

    A Tamil (Christian) relation of mine who faced this around 65 years ago hated the way they were locked up and not allowed out of the room and all that. Also the excessive secrecy and the shock of the first period. So I am not sure that everyone in the south (or in the Tamil diaspora) is treated like the adivasi child described here

  7. #7 enakshi ganguly 12 May 12

    The concept of shame differs from culture to European friend of mine always remarks that showing legs is shameful in Indian culture but showing the stomach while wearing a sari is not...she is totally bewildered by this coming from a culture where wearing skirts is the norm. So is it with menstruation--while some cultures celebrate it as coming of age, others hide behind shame and secrecy....

  8. #8 enakshi ganguly 12 May 12

    The concept of shame differs from culture to European friend of mine always remarks that showing legs is shameful in Indian culture but showing the stomach while wearing a sari is not...she is totally bewildered by this coming from a culture where wearing skirts is the norm. So is it with menstruation--while some cultures celebrate it as coming of age, others hide behind shame and secrecy....

  9. #9 Arundhaty 12 May 12

    While as a result of the polluted tag ,women got a rest from the hard daily chores, it's never a treat to be treated as an outcast and polluted one , even for a few days.
    Could she not have been entitled to the well deserved rest without the unseemly baggage!

    Today the modern tennis playing woman can take that rest if she wants. As for the poor, either way it's hard, she has no choice specially with nuclear families even in the villages becoming the order of the day.
    And think of the daily wage migrant construction labourer ! The system is , the Man stands in one place and lifts the stone on her head and she carries the heavy stone the distance required .
    You are right Mari, Oh to be an Indian Woman !


  10. #10 mari 13 May 12


    This was just an observation abt the way us, middle class city Indian women experienced that first 'period' and the attitude I observed not merely among elite women but rural, unsophisticated people. Of course the average Indian women have a hard time..but I have recently seen tow other young girls 'celebrate' their coming of age. A Tamil tea picker she had this task as the aunt to fuss over the girl with sweet payasam(rice pudding), special country chicken eggs, give the child an oil 'bath' followed by turmeric rub down..altogether the community considred it a joyous event. Girls of my background had nothing.. No big deal or philosophy, just a random observation triggered off by my personal experience. The poor celebrate and are jhoyful too, in spite of the drudgery, hardship etc.

  11. #11 Sonali 06 Nov 12

    I have to respectfully disagree. I grew up in India where I wasn't allowed to ’touch’ certain things because I was considered unclean. My small town raised Mother ignored her hard earned Masters in Philosophy and had my ceremony of joy when I had my first period. Every time that day of the month came along if there was celebration I was excluded. I tried to tell myself I was glad that I didn't have to go. But seriously it was just me convincing myself that this vile and barbaric custom was somehow justified. 8 years in America by myself and independent, I returned all my Indian Hindu idols to my mother, never stepped into a temple again and go running as usual on my first day of my periods and do yoga as per usual. Tampons help and I feel free and human. Old customs are barbaric. There is no wisdom in them and they need to be treated as the outdated bronze age nonsense they really are.

  12. #12 Henna 25 Jan 13

    World moves in circle and a circle may be 1 or 2 generation or long as 10 generations. So superstitious looks divine, divine looks black magic and so forth. Human mind can't grasp so much and so keeps on moving in circles!

    Regarding Menstruation most of the Indians I have met treat it as impure. And it is not the Male population but the female population who force the idea of not being pure, clean those days.

    Now regarding what used to happen in older India or even today in many pockets of rural or urban India regarding separate place is nothing but need of the hour. Those days sanitary facilities were zilch, clothes were few, water was scare and required long walks for fetching. So woman was treated like scum bag and asked to sit in corner or outside.

    I still remember that my grandmother to,d me that after giving birth women used to retire to separate room with lots of grass for a month. Hardly any hygiene was maintained. Bath was given once a 4 days.
    We try to see history And romanticise it. Fact is advances in sanitary care were zero and top of that people were used to doing physical work for getting basic needs.

    A women who is menstruating was supposed to rest because one she can't do much physical activity and second that she can spoil the area with stains and again that will need physical labour for cleaning.

    Now a days people don't follow sitting in separate area but they follow not visiting temples, not praying to Lord. Women are more hygienic today, take bath everyday, wash their private parts each time while changing pads. So they are more cleaner that old folks.

    But inside heart they feel impure and so refrain from religious activities. May be Hindu women should try Shivaism Tantra Where all objects in maya are considered pure and essential.

  13. #14 Susannah Clemence 29 Aug 15

    Thank you for this, Mari. I am researching menstrual practices all over the world, and have recently met Sinu Joseph of the organisation Mythri Speaks. She is keen to redress the way that indigenous Indian practices are dismissed as 'unhygienic' especially by international development agencies and promoters of ’menstrual hygiene’ supplies ie commercial interests. If you are not already in contact, I would encourage you to do so.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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