Once, there was a sage with his disciples in the forest. Every time he prayed to God a cat used to distract him. One day the frustrated sage tied the cat to a tree with a rope and gave it milk so that it wouldn’t disturb him. He would untie the cat later on, after finishing the prayer.
His students understood why he was doing so and followed him. A new group of students joined the class and they also did the same thing without knowing the reason behind. “Feeding the cat while praying” became a ritual. The cat also died one day and not knowing what to do, the new group of disciples started searching for a new cat, so that they could tie it, and start the prayer. This is how tying a cat to a tree became established. Everyone did it not because they really knew why it had to be done but because this was being followed for generations.
This is just a hypothetical example of how we are continuing with some of the practices in the name of traditions even though they don’t do us any good without knowing the reason behind it. While most of the traditions we follow are harmless and safe, some of them are downright evil.
Dashain, the biggest and extravagant festival of Hindus just passed, but most of the women in our society were not able to celebrate it just because they went through the most fundamental and biological process of menstruation. How is this justifiable from any point? When asked the reason behind restricting women from celebrating festivals during their periods, the answer is simple and of a word, “tradition”. Where do our traditions originate from? One of the sources is traditional scriptures where there must be written rules to do and not to do something. A lot of assumptions have been made as to how the menstrual stigma started but nowhere in Vedas is written that women become impure during menstruation.
The four Vedas never state anywhere that a woman’s body is impure or a woman cannot perform poojas during menstruation. Prohibiting women from entering temples and castigating them is against the teachings of Vedas. Madhavacharya, who is a prominent Indian philosopher, has asserted that women have the right to learn and perform rituals. He gives the examples of women such as Urvashi, Yami and Sami. Such instances are innumerable in the Vedas. Even the religious texts have not regarded menstruation as something impure. Women were not allowed to do household chores in the days of their periods not because they were considered impure or everything they touched would decay, but to ensure that they could get some rest. So that they could feel comfortable during the painful periods. That was the original idea. Nowadays, in some parts of the country even if a woman is dehydrated or starving from hunger, until and unless someone gives her food separately, she is not allowed to enter the kitchen or touch any kind of food.
Science believes that menstruation is a completely natural process and the blood component of menstruation is as clean as the arterial blood. Contrary to the belief that menstrual blood is dirty or toxic, it is as “clean” as the venous blood that comes from every other part of the body. A study (by Fraser, McCarron, Markham & Resta, 1985) pegs that menstrual hemoglobin concentration is at 35 percent of venous (the blood in our veins). When blood is left to stand, it separates into layers with 60 percent plasma and 40 percent RBC’s and WBC’s. There is no scientific evidence to show that menstrual discharge is dirty, impure or contagious. It is completely a natural process that makes reproduction possible. Treating menstruation as a dirty topic and a taboo is not only exacerbating the physical and mental health of women, but is also violating basic human rights of women such as the right to water and sanitation, the right to health, the right to education and the right to work.
What makes a tradition worthy? How can we decide what to keep and what to eliminate? Truth, wisdom and human dignity should be taken into consideration.
Although the human right to water and sanitation was recognized by all UN member states in 2015, menstruating women are not even allowed to bathe in some parts of the country. It is believed that menstrual fluids may be misused for black magic, so washing and drying of clothes used during menses should be done secretly or in a hidden corner so that it cannot be seen by others.
In order to kill all the bacteria and germs, the clothes should be properly dried in the sun, but the cultural expectations and restrictions seem to be more important than proper hygiene. Chhaupadi pratha, which menstruating women have to follow mostly in western parts of Nepal, has not only put their health but also their whole life at stake. The menstruating women are forced to stay inside goth, even in the freezing temperature in winter. This can cause life threatening life problems like diarrhea, suffocation and respiratory tract infection. Not only this, according to a report by National Human Rights Commission, there have been 18 reported cases of women and girls dying in Chhau goth, 13 of them in Achham district alone, since 2005.
So, menstruation hasn’t just been a health issue, rather it’s a life issue. Change is the only constant thing in life. There is always a reason behind following traditions and if those traditions do us no good at this point of time, it should be removed. One needs to take certain questions into account. What makes a tradition worthy. How can we decide what to keep and what to eliminate? Truth, wisdom and human dignity should be taken into consideration before answering anything with just a mere word, “tradition”.
Ruchi Dhital is a BALLB student at Kathmandu School of Law.