Challenging Patriarchal Tradition: Perception of Menstruating Women in Hindu & Buddhist Nepal

Challenging Patriarchal Tradition: Perception of Menstruating 
Women in Hindu & Buddhist Nepal

Special thanks to my supervisor Ayyathurai

Challenging Patriarchal Tradition: Perception of Menstruating 
Women in Hindu & Buddhist Nepal

Special thanks to my supervisor Ayyathurai

1. Introduction

Many misconceptions and lack of knowledge around sexuality and menstruation still exist in most countries in the 21st century. In Nepal, for example, women are restricted from social life during the time when they are menstruating, due to their so-called “impure” status. This devalues and restricts women to an extent that boys consequently have more opportunities, thus inevitably creating a gender gap.

This demonstrates that for humans, menstruation is not just an event of biological significance, but also of social, religious, and psychological connotations. Furthermore, the perception of menstruation is also closely connected to gender power relations. If men feel threatened, they may impose restrictions, which results in embarrassment or shame for women.

Many tribes see menstruation as some kind of supra-natural event, and almost all world religions including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism (more Chapter 2.1) and Judaism define menstruation as “impure”, usually considering women during that time to be unclean, hence they should not be touched. For many women, this idea can be interpreted as a punishment or something to be ashamed of (Guterman 2008).

Firstly, in this paper, the perceptions of menstruation in different religions will be discussed, highlighting why these ideas are so similar. Nepal’s two major religions, Hinduism (81%) and Buddhism (9%) (Census Nepal 2011) and their historic and contemporary views will be explained. Secondly, this paper will explore how patriarchy, societal restrictions and lack of hygiene can make menstruation a very challenging time. Finally, the paper draws our attention to different approaches taken in order to challenge these perceptions, before wrapping up with the conclusion.

2. Religious and Tribal view of menstruation

A very similar pattern in perceptions on menstruation can be seen amongst most religions and tribes (such as tribes in Papua New Guinea or Eskimos) (Alton 2015). It usually includes isolation, restraint from touching and sexual intercourse and exclusion from religious activities. Women are thought to have (divine) powers, and have to be excluded from society and even animals and crops to prevent contamination. The opposite can also be found among some peoples, where menstrual blood is seen as a powerful instrument. It is used as a powerful poisonous liquid, to scare away evil spirits and even used as medicine for sick men. In places in Europe, menstruating women were believed to exterminate insects such as caterpillars, if they run around the field (Alton 2015).

Even in Christianity, women were (and are still within the Catholic Church) restricted from performing religious ceremonies for centuries, and it took a long time to lift these restrictions. Judaism seems to have the most severe restrictions, forbidding any physical contact with males during the period and one week thereafter, not even passing objects or sitting on the same couch is allowed (Guterman 2008).

These ideas (of restricting women) seem to have developed independently across continents. There have been different theories on why women are seen as impure. Earlier, without the biological background knowledge, the fact that only women menstruate and only from the age of around 13 until the menopause (the time when a woman stops menstruating) (fertile years), stop during pregnancy and that the pattern is related to the moon-cycle (29 days), could have led men to think it was not a natural event, but rather something divine (Montgomery 1974).

Another theory by Douglas (1984) described that “nothing is intrinsically ‘impure’ but is only designated as such when object, natural phenomena and people become matter-out-of-place” (Kustiani 2012). He is saying that blood is not impure by itself, but only when it is a specific place, thus becoming matter-out-of-place.

Sikhism and Buddhism are the only religions which see menstruation as a natural process and do not impose restrictions. These two religions have also advocated gender equality since their origin. In Sikhism, the founder Guru Nanak and Guru Granth objected to sexism and restrictions upon women (Bhartiya 2013).

2.1 Impure women in Hinduism?

In Hinduism, menstruating women are generally seen as impure and spiritually vulnerable. In the Code of Manu (Manusmriti), women are highly discriminated against (except for a few verses, in which they are honored), classified as not independent and as being lower than men. During menstruation women may not perform puja and have to take a purity bath after the period:

“[…] a menstruating female becomes pure by bathing after the menstrual secretion has ceased to flow.” (Manusmriti V)

Reciting a Hindu legend, ostensibly women started menstruation after Lord Indra severed the head of a Brahmin named Vishwaroopacharya (2013 Bhartiya).

Even though goddesses play a major role in Hinduism, unlike any other religion, in most Hindu societies women have a lower status than men. For Dalit women, menstruation can make them twice as impure, as a member of the caste and for being a woman.

The menarche (first menstrual cycle) is celebrated in some areas in India and Nepal, whereby girls receive presents at the celebration. This contradiction shows that women are expected to menstruate but at the same time are punished for it. A personal memoir from Assam, tells a story of a girl who is restricted from leaving the house, seeing the sun and to be seen by a man. After the menarche, a big celebration was held and she was married to a banana tree (Bhartiya 2013).

2.2 Equality in Buddhism?

Buddhism is very different in terms of menstruation and sexuality compared to other religions. It sees menstruation as a natural, genetic process. Unlike Hinduism, it doesn’t restrict women in their spirituality and sexuality. Intercourse itself is seen as a hindrance to attaining freedom of mind, as described in the noble eightfold path, where abstaining from sex or sexual misconduct is listed under: right conduct/action.

Menstruation is discussed in the Buddhist Book of Disciplines and the Book of Discourse. In the former, a story is told about a group of nuns who had requested lodging from the monks. The Buddha gave perm
ission and the nuns stayed in a building that was not used by the monks, so as to prevent temptation. However, several nuns were menstruating and shed blood on couches, chairs and on their robes. After the nuns left and the monks reported it to the Buddha, he ruled that during menstruation, they may not sit or lie on the furniture. The decision was taken on the grounds of sustaining cleanliness, not because of impurity (Kustiani 2012).

In the Samyutta Nikaya, menstruation is listed as one of the five sufferings of women; the others being: leaving the family house and moving to the husband’s dwelling, the risk of pregnancy, giving birth and serving men. These points simply describe the life of a woman within the Hindu society, and the text sees menstruation as a physical process and not as a hindrance to spiritual knowledge (Kustiani 2012).

Brahmanism/Hinduism however (which had an influence as far away as today’s Indonesia) had a major impact on Southeast Asian Buddhist and some Muslim societies, in which till now menstruating women are “impure”. For instance, in northern Thailand women are requested not to visit temples during that time. Some Buddhist tribes in Nepal have also adopted these taboos, although there is not enough data to state how intensively.

3. Challenges during Menstruation

Menstruation can be very challenging and can cause psychological stress due to taboos, restrictions and body pain. This differs from person to person, as for some, it may not cause any stress or discomfort. Furthermore, in non-industrialized countries lack of personal hygiene and hygiene products are common. However, the biggest burden is Dysmenorrhea, the medical term for body pain during menstruation. Stress and other body related reasons can also lead to an irregular pattern of the period, also called amenorrhoea.

In some cultures, women are given less work (paid menstrual leave) and more freedom during their period. However, allowing women to relax and spend time with other women is very different than labeling women as impure and secluding them.

3.1 Patriarchy & Power

The main reason menstruation is deemed “impure” and “disgusting” is due to male dominance. Historically, in Nepal, where Brahmanism has shaped cultural ideas, women have a lower status than men and everything related to menstrual blood is tabooed. That these taboos are closely related to gender relations, is supported by Gloria Steinem, who became famous during the second feminist movement in the US, in the 1970s and 1980s.

Speaking from an imaginary opposite point of view, Steinem argues that menstruation would be sacred and sex during menstruation would be advocated as pure and hygienic. Based on the idea that a superior group will justify what it has as superior and what it has not as inferior, Steinem argues that if men instead of women were to menstruate on a monthly basis it would become an enviable and worthy event. It would be socially acceptable to bleed and religions would discriminate against women and see them as unclean since they cannot naturally release blood. This idea suggests that men use menstruation to define it as something weak or unclean to justify their dominance and superiority (Steinem, 1978).

This is one of the reasons that across the world restrictions were imposed upon women. Historically, many women were responsible for the upbringing and caring for children, women who were not reproducing were seen as “useless”.

3.2 Restriction & Exclusion

3.2.1 Restrictions on cooking and touching

In Nepal, in some rural areas women on menstruation are restricted from touching people and eating certain foods (pickle, meat, vegetables) and sleep without a bed — in other words, they become untouchable — being punished for something, which is not their fault but simply a biological event. In fact, even many women hold onto that practice or tradition enforcing it upon their daughters. School girls may also be denied the right to go to school and miss up to one school week per month (Robertson, 2015).

Restrictions also seem to be present in some Buddhist communities; in Taiwan, women are seen as polluted and as dangerously vulnerable (Guterman 2008). For Buddhist tribes in Nepal data is not available, so more research needs to be done. However, among the Buddhist Gurung tribe in Nepal there tends to be less segregation and discrimination of females (concerning menstruation) (Macfarlane 1992, Gurung). With the help of personal memoirs, harsh restrictions have also been documented among Buddhist tribes such as the Tamang (Waiba 2014). There has also been little research on the relationship between sexuality and menstruation. Furthermore, only little is known about how different cultures and identities perceive it and how religion plays a role (Fahs 2011).

3.3.2 Menstrual Hut

Chhaupadi (Nepali: छाउपडी) is a Nepali practice, in which menstruating women are expelled to stay in a hut located next to the house or at the edge of the village. Menses (blood and other matter discharged from the uterus at menstruation) are seen as a curse. It was abolished by the Supreme Court in 2005 but is still practiced in western Nepal. The practice was passed on by ancestors and nowadays restrictions are slowly decreasing. In villages, women had to stay 7 days in a shed, and nowadays approximately 4 days. Poor education, lack of basic health and mistrust of western medicine keep the practice alive. Women are blamed for crop failure, disease and water shortages if they do not strictly follow the tradition. It can be an unbearable burden for women, who already suffer from body pain, to be socially separated and physically damaged (staying in the cold without protection, lack of nutrition). Some women actually believe in the righteousness of these traditions, because they grow up this way(Robertson 2015).

Chhaupadi has received international attention and is widely criticized. Even after childbirth, women have to stay for up to 11 days in the hut (Ghimire 2005), risking their health due to easy infection with diseases and a weak immune system caused by low nutrition intake.

3.3.3 Temple restrictions

Women are not allowed to visit temples while menstruating. Many girls still believe in these restrictions and (personally) choose not to enter a temple during their period. Historically, due to lack of sanitary products, the rule might have emerged after finding drops of blood on the floor. However, this problem no longer exists due to the use of absorbents. Especially young girls don’t follow these rules anymore. (Bhartiya, 2013).

The Sabarimala temple in Kerala denies access to women between 10 and 50 years of age as they can be menstruating, thereby being ineligible to enter temples. This has been ruled by the Supreme Court of Kerala in 1991, before that, all women
were allowed to enter (Marar 1991). The Indian Supreme Court is currently reviewing this restriction. Posters stating: “Attention! Women are not allowed to enter the temple during menstruation. Thank You” are put up before the entrance of the temple, inevitably offending and demeaning women.

Another example (suggesting that the topic is being talked about openly) is Ambubachi (Assamese: অম্বুবাচী), an annual menstruation festival in Guwahati, Assam. The legend narrates that the goddess Devi Kamakhya (see picture) was punished with menstruation. Hence, congruous with the women’s menstrual seclusion, the Kāmākhyā Temple remains closed for three days (during her “impurity”) and reopens on the fourth day when she regains purity and rituals are held again. It has been criticized that though the menses have nurturing power, still the idea of impurity is enforced upon women by the priests (Chawla 2002).

3.3 Lack of Hygiene

Proper hygiene is very important since it is easier to get an infection during menstruation. In Nepal, women may be restricted from using fresh water or cleaning themselves. Reusing water and the lack of hygiene products can cause severe problems, such as Vaginal Yeast Infections. Considering that less than half of Nepal’s population has access to proper toilets (WaterAid 2015), means that many have to clean themselves and defecate out in the open. A study conducted throughout India concluded that 23% of girls drop out of school, due to improper hygiene and lack of proper sanitary products (Sengupta 2014).

3.4 Absorbents used for menstruation

Nowadays, many kinds of absorbents are available. In Europe, tampons and sanitary napkins/towels (simply known as pads) now are widely used. In South Asia, a mix of new, but mostly re-used old cloth/rags and commercial sanitary pads are used. Pantyliners, thinner and narrower than pads, can be used throughout the month to collect discharge.

3.4.1 Cloth and rags

In rural areas in South Asia, the majority of women use cloths to absorb their menses. In urban areas, mostly commercial pads are used. In Europe, tampons are widely used, but in South Asia only among a very few.

3.4.2 Sanitary Pads

A study conducted in rural Nepal among school girls, finds that the use of sanitary pads is very low (2%), although a quarter of the girls had tried them. According to the author, the use of commercial single-use products (pads and tampons) raises questions of supply, affordability and disposal. In areas where there are no waste management facilities, disposal may be problematic, leaving no other options than to burn, bury or to dispose of it in the environment (Oster 2009).

Arunachalam Muruganantham, a Tamil man has broken sexual taboos in India and started to produce low-cost pads. Discovering the “filthy” rags his wife used during menstruation, he started experimenting in the beginning. His wife and then mother moved out because of their embarrassment of him. Even then, he did not give up. Seven years later, he produced his own machines to make pads and employed 7000 women. He won an award for the “best invention using technology for the social good” and was awarded by Indian president (Nolen 2012).

3.4.3 Menstrual Cup

The first patent of a menstrual cup goes back to 1932 (Goddard 1932). Menstrual cups are bell-shaped silicon devices worn inside the vagina to collect blood (Rice, 2014). It has a high potential for improving the situation of women, not only because it can hold blood better but also because it is reusable. Women may be reluctant to use it since it needs to be inserted inside into the vagina. There’s a misconception about losing one’s virginity by wearing a menstrual cup or tampons, which might also explain the low usage of tampons in South Asia. There’s also the problem of being able to afford female hygiene products (the recurring monthly cost of expensive commercial pads), and since a menstrual cup can last up to 10 years, it could help them financially.

A study in Kenya points out the major benefits of using a menstrual cup. Although the use of the cup only increased school attendance slightly, it helped to increase the concentration of girls. The chance of embarrassing oneself was lower, since with pads, there’s a higher chance of leakage or misplacement, especially when doing sports, and a smell can arise through the blood’s contact with air. But knowing that their “secret” is kept safe, lowered stress levels in girls. (APHRC, 2010)

A study conducted in 2009 in Chitwan District in Nepal examined the impact of the menstrual cup on school attendance. The study was conducted in four schools, and the treatment group was given menstrual cups. It slightly helped to improve school attendance, but it particularly made life more convenient, as in spending less time washing clothes and being able to ride a bike with ease. The study concluded that the main cause of girls not going to school is menstrual pain and cramps (Oster, 2009).

3.5 Internal Pain & Cramps (Dysmenorrhea)

In developing countries, there has been a historical gender gap in education. Oster’s study concluded that the main reason for girls not attending school is dysmenorrhea, as described by 50% of the girls (Oster 2009). Whereas most girls and boys attend elementary school, in secondary school a gap exists (Arnold, 2005).

A study in India among adolescent girls shows that prevalence of dysmenorrhea is at 80%, a similar study in Sweden shows similar rates (Agarwal 2010). It is worth highlighting that fear and stress can also cause Dysmenorrhea. Dysmenorrhea was also found to be connected to the family history, a study in India, found that girls with dysmenorrhea were more likely to have female relatives who were also suffering from it. (Chauhan 2015)

The pain can be reduced by applying heat on the lower abdomen or drinking a tea based on ginger, basil, cinnamon or fennel (top10homeremedies).

4. Challenging Tradition

It is easy to criticize something, but it is much more difficult to provide a realistic approach or alternative. Therefore, the question is, what is the right approach to improving the situation and the perception of women?

To judge people based on their
culture and tradition is fruitless, since people only do what they know, and have learned from their parents and ancestors, just like we consider most customs our parents have taught us as right. The main elements of one’s culture are not often questioned as we consider our practices to be normal.

So, a simple prohibition of Chhaupadi could even deprive women of their cultural identity. Educating women about their bodies and encouraging them to speak for themselves can help to convince others of abandoning it (Sauve 2014). It is difficult to change, even for women after so many years of habit.

Compulsory sex education curriculum in schools will help to spread more knowledge about the body and sexuality. As even teachers sometimes have little knowledge and express embarrassment talking about it in front of students, further compulsory sex education for teachers can assure the quality of education. Furthermore, the government must make sure to enforce it properly.

5. Conclusion

Today, women in many places in the world suffer due to restrictions and taboos. These are imposed by religion and society. In terms of religion, Hinduism does not provide a gender or women-friendly approach on how to deal with menstruation. Ultimately, Brahmanism has enforced the Hindu caste system on Nepali/Indian society and the practices defined by them. Buddhist philosophy does not restrict women or define them as impure, enabling women to be seen with more dignity. Taboos also prevent knowledge and proper hygiene. New promising ways of improving women’s hygiene, i.e. the menstrual cup, have been implemented and shown that women can have their period without fear and more ease. In order to bring progress, women’s empowerment could help breaking taboos and the impact of patriarchy. But it is still a long road ahead…


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