M M Hassan’s controversial remark suggests menstruation still taboo in India

New Delhi [India]: Congress party leader M.M Hassan’s shocking description of menstruation as being impure and women should not enter places of worship during that time, has once again brought the issue in public debate and that it is still considered taboo by a section of Indian society.

The fact, however, is that there are several Indian states where puberty is celebrated. From Assam to the southern states, the tradition of puberty-related rituals exists. Most of these rituals are similar in belief and customs.

“Menstruation is impure and during this period women should not enter temples. There is a scientific reason behind the instruction that women should not enter during this period. It should not be given other interpretations. During this period, Muslim women do not observe a fast. My opinion is that women should not go to the temple, mosque or church when their body is impure,” Hassan said at a public function in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, after taking over as the interim president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee.

Opinions are divided on Hassan’s remark. In the past, menstruation was largely considered untouchable because people used to believe that women in this state were unhygienic, smelly and water touched by them could be infected.

In most parts of rural and urban India, as also in other parts of the world, menstruation is taboo; treated as an embarrassment. In some parts of India menstruating women are not allowed inside their homes for three nights.

In some respects, however, menstruation is seen as a positive aspect of a girl’s life. Celebrating it marks the young girl’s formal introduction to her society as an adult with full rights and privileges.

Assamese people call it “Tulani Biyah”, equivalent of marriage. It is celebrated by a family after a girl has reached the age of puberty. There is no taboo in Assamese society announcing that a daughter has reached the age.

Assam is not the only state in India where puberty is celebrated since ages. Similar tradition of the puberty rituals exists in many parts of our country with striking similarities, matched by similar beliefs and customs.

In a house of ‘Naalu Kettu’, a house of four blocks built with Keralite architecture, ‘Dakkini’, south block of the house, is for women with menstrual cycle. They would confine themselves within the block and would not even enter the kitchen or go to the northern as well as the eastern sides of the house, let alone going to a temple.

The connection between divinity and menstruation is shown both in fieldwork and through an ethnographic analysis of literature in Kerala, where the pan-Kerala Goddess Bhagavati’s rituals appear patterned on those of menstrual maidens. Such reverence can also be found in some communities.

A poem written two millennia ago in South India described women as filled with ananku , a sacred power associated with sexuality that was considered particularly potent during menstruation. The Sangam era description of ananku is a precursor of the later concept of shakti (divine vivifying female power).

In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu girls who have attained puberty are given presents and people celebrate to mark the occasion.

In Andhra Pradesh a girl who has attained puberty is called “Pushpawati”. The word is derived from pushpa -flower, metaphorically explaining that girls who have reached the age are like flower blossoms, says senior Telugu Journalist Naresh Nunna. Such practice is also prevalent in other states of India.

The people must ask themselves, why such rituals begin in some sections of our society, when there were no talks about women empowerment at all. And if this custom is there in many states, why should it not be celebrated throughout the country and the world?

Why can’t we educate the masses? Can things ever change? There is a culture of silence in the entire North India about it. Why the status of women in India, despite the brave talks, remains as precarious as ever? No one talks why we let this happen. Why we constantly victimise women when it is only a biological routine that is part of womanhood?

Assamese and many other communities in India celebrate first menstruation of a girl, which is worth following, does not exist in our larger society. Such good tradition should be propagated, promoted and followed. That will truly empower the women psychologically.

Hassan’s remark places women as second class citizens in society and jeopardises all efforts of women empowerment.

Indian society would do well to launch an awareness campaign to propagate celebration of girls attaining womanhood across the country and the world. Stopping women from entering places of worship during menstruation, is notng but an abuse of their rights.

(The views expressed in this article are that of Mr. Onkareshwar Pandey and are personal. (ANI)