Editor’s Note: This month, that is May 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Menstrual Health, where we invite various articles about various experiences that revolve around menstruation or the absence of the same. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our bodies have never quite been our own. Pursued, owned, violated, and medicalised, we’ve been labelled as deformed, hysterical, and also the harbingers of death and decay when menstruating. Taboos like these were held even in the time of Pliny, the Elder (death 79 CE). He believed that, “…bees will forsake their hives if touched by a menstruous woman”. Such far-fetched beliefs cast the woman as an impure being. Statements as such soon pervaded the religious beliefs and practices and seeped into the medical literature too. With every decade, new nails were added to this coffin of curse till it took the form of a hut.
The misogyny-possessed seem to have conjured this plant-killing and food-spoiling hex upon womankind. As, paradoxically, this flow of blood indicates the ability to give birth and bring life. The hut, a device created to contain this hex, is said to be used throughout history. According to Frazer, the tribes of Native America (Déné), Australia, and Uganda practised menstrual seclusion. But this custom has spread beyond the illustration of Frazer, up to South Asia.
Menstrual Huts in India
The practice of banishment is prevalent in many states of India. It is recorded among the tribes, such as Gonds and Madiya, from Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and Orissa. It is also said to be in practice in Tamil Nadu. Called ‘kurma ghar’ or ‘gaokar’ in the local lingo, these bathroomless shacks barely have any basic amenities. These shacks are usually located on the outskirts of the village or near a forest.
These “untouchable” women are expected to make it through their cycle within the hut in isolation. The only contact they are allowed to have is with a family member who comes by to drop a meal. Vulnerable to several mishaps, these women cannot even find comfort in the idea of God. It is considered blasphemous to enter a temple during that time and also to consume ‘prasad‘. They are left to the whims of nature in the heat and drought, and the rain and floods.
NGOs like Sparsh are trying hard to help these women and educate people about the redundancy of this practice. But their efforts are limited due to dissonance among the public regarding these progressive measures. And since the Constitution guarantees protection of tribal customs, any government intervention could be viewed as interference. In fact, a panchayat in the Champawat district of Uttarakhand collected funds to build a proper hut. This showing that people are willing to improve the exterior though not their interiors.
Comparison with Nepal
Despite the severe steps taken by the government, Nepal’s infamous menstrual huts are a bitter reality. Banned in 2005, and criminalised in 2017, the ‘chaupadi’ system is a brazen example of practising superstitions. The global media, via articles and documentaries, has vastly covered this system to reveal its lethal consequences. Despite all these measures, 77% of Nepalese women are still quarantined in these poorly built shacks.
Even in the absence of a chaupadi hut, menstruating women are required to sleep outside the house. Or in cowsheds beside animals. Rooted in the orthodoxy of Hinduism, families are still sending their wives, daughters, and mothers, to these huts. Although the government has been offering many incentives, women confess it to be difficult to go against the customs. Fears of being social outcasts or offending the supernatural keep them from speaking up.
Hardships Faced During Menstrual Seclusion
Women are exposed to multiple types of risk in these menstrual huts. Poorly built, these outhouses can barely withstand heavy rains, let alone calamities, as recorded in Tamil Nadu, where a teenager died in a cyclone, in 2017. In extreme weather conditions, such as frosty winters, they are helpless. Many women, in Nepal, when starting a fire to keep warm have died due to asphyxiation. Women confined to menstrual huts are vulnerable to animal attacks and snake bites and are also victims of sexual violence.
According to a study, the “practice of chhaupadi is significantly correlated with reproductive health problems such as dysuria and genital itching”. Additionally, women have a higher chance of developing pneumonia and diarrhoea. Besides these physical dangers, fear and psychological stress seem to be taking a toll on the women. Young girls probably internalise the blame for being “impure”, and hence carry on the practice. They, regularly, skip school due to their untouchability, eventually leading to drop-outs.
The Need for Change
Despite external agents trying to overcome this patriarchal inertia, the change seems to be possible only from within the community. Younger and educated members of these communities can, perhaps, challenge and reform the traditions, upheld like some cosmic law. The “educated” families who still practise the untouchability minus the quarantine, forbid women from entering kitchens or touching food.
Tried, tested, and failed is its rationalisation behind a “possible science”, yet people cling onto this. While the huts are an extreme manifestation, the epicentre of this havoc can be traced back to the inbred misogyny. As we try to solve these physical consequences, we must simultaneously try to uproot the beliefs that led to them. For women are hexed due to their uterine identities, and it’s time to lift the spell.
Also read: Setting Straight The Menstrual Myths
Featured Image Source: The Week