Posted by Akshara Mehra
Any discussion about women in Indian households is incomplete without taking into consideration women’s bodies and biological processes. Menstrual cycle, a normal biological process for many, is often seen as a taboo and only discussed in hush-hush tones, if at all, in many Indian households.
In yet another session as part of the Social Action Project, we initiated a discussion on the menstrual taboos surrounding women. Many prejudices emerged, like not being allowed to take a head bath, not being allowed inside the kitchen and not being allowed to pray. Participants admitted resisting the taboos to an extent but when it came to religion and praying in the temple, women often refrained. Majority of participants admitted respecting elders and not hurting their feelings by praying or going to the temple while menstruating.
A lot of pop culture references were used during the session to help facilitate the discussion.
What emerged from the discussion was that perhaps taboos are strongly prevalent but the younger generation, especially the women, are out there to resist them. A majority of participants admitted how initiating a discussion about menstruation was difficult within the family setups and that it was especially difficult to talk to the male members of the family such as the father or the brothers.
Even though they showcased resistance to prejudices and taboos, they found it the most difficult to counter the religious aspects that reinstate menstrual taboos. The concept of women being impure during “that time of the month” manifests into a lot of rituals and taboos oriented towards restricting the autonomy and the mobility of the women.
Absence of open communication and acceptance of menstruation as something normal was observed as widespread. Young women hardly have any idea why they are being mocked upon when they are menstruating, a process which for many involves excruciating physical pain and mental agony. Ironically, while a situation, in addition to the challenges it brings about, also leads to the shunning of women from the society. It further also curbs any healthy conversations one could have around the same, including access to menstrual products.
As one participant narrated during the session, “Nobody in schools uses the word ‘sanitary napkins’. The word is only limited to the awareness sessions taken in schools.”
The problem is, as another participant asserted, “It is not seen as something normal and when something is not normal, the hush-hush dialogues are common. It is looked down upon and seen as the time when women become impure and as a result, segregated. We need to normalise it first to address the taboos.”
On one hand, women are considered impure during menstruation, on the other hand, women’s reproductive ability (as long as they are birthing male children) is glorified and pedestalised. What makes motherhood so important and pure when what is just blood from the menstruator’s body is shunned as impure?
Often glorified as the best time of a woman’s life and made synonymous to the ultimate sacrifice, we dwelt on what motherhood means to our participants in the session. While several narratives came up, one of the participants mentioned how motherhood as a system of providing love and care to one’s offspring should be applicable to the men also and not essentialised as only the mother’s responsibility. Another participant was of the view that “Motherhood is synonymous to being sacrificial. Women should be treated as humans first and mothers later.” The question that emerged then was that why women are restricted further after giving birth to children?
“Glorification of motherhood as we all know is common but what about women who carve out their own paths?” was an important question raised by one of the participants during the discussion. Often women are expected to choose between career and motherhood. It is assumed that a child becomes of supreme importance and everything else for a woman, then takes a backseat.
The culture of asking newly married couples about “good news” is problematic and has to end. The blessings given to newly married couples also focus on the aspect of giving birth to a child and motherhood, thus putting inevitable pressure on a woman to conceive to grow into the ideal mould of a woman who is “good” wife and a “good” mother.
Motherhood in our society is thus glorified, idealised and seen as a milestone. This awareness was present in the cohort. One of the participants narrated her personal experience about being often teased by her siblings for being angry. She said, “They feel I cannot be a good mother because I get angry often and I am often suggested to be calm and caring.”
The gendered aspect of motherhood needs to be viewed and understood more carefully as it is ingrained from the childhood itself in girls that they need to more caring and demure as women who will become mothers in the future. Even as children themselves, they are expected to take care of their younger siblings so as to learn “how to care”. Socialisation of women happens very differently than men and it focuses on the imbibing of ‘womanly qualities’. Caregiver qualities are something that are expected in women rather than from both men and women. The socialisation of women takes place keeping in mind the future role of mothers that they have to play.
There is no doubt that women face a lot of pressures about motherhood. The culture of co-parenting is largely absent in the Indian context. It is emerging but is still rare. As one participant observes, “Co-parenting is seen as something ideal and is very rare. The onus of upbringing ultimately falls upon the mother.” Another participant mentioned, “Once you marry, everybody asks about good news, pressuring the woman to get pregnant. You don’t have the choice to have or not to have kids. What if the woman does not want to bear kids?” Our social structure does not permit women the choice to not become mothers. It is seen as something which completes a woman. Would this societal perception come to an end? Even if the person is courageous enough to make a choice, would society ever stop reminding ?
Motherhood is perceived as the solution to issues in marriage and is often seen as something easy and effortless. There is a need for effective communication and co-parenting to reduce the pressure on women. The identity of a woman becomes limited to that of being a mother. This is something which needs to change.
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth article in a series based on a Social Action Project called ‘Consciousness Raising Sessions on ‘The Role of a Female in the Indian Household’. This was formulated by fellows with Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA)’s Youth-N-Democracy program. The Social Action Project aimed to connect with women in the age group of 19-26 years of age in order to introduce them to the idea of how unseemingly common everyday activities turn out to be deeply discriminatory.
Akshara Mehra has completed her Masters in Social Work from Jamia Millia Islamia. Currently she is working with Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN) as a Development Apprentice. Previously she has interned with various organizations in the non- profit sector. She is an avid reader with keen interest in subaltern literature and poetry. You can find her on Medium, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Featured image source: Ommcomnews