A “Female” Taboo

A few days ago AS, N, P and I had dinner together and got into an interesting discussion about female menstruation taboos in Nepal. I don’t know if other people would be turned off by this topic, so I am warning you all outright in case you don’t want to read further.

Along the lines of the toilet paper discussion, sometimes things that are deemed to be really private are some of the things that I’m most curious about…

Anyway, I forget how our dinner topic began, but I remember a few years ago P and I somehow started talking about the taboo.

P was telling me about a time when he was young, and he noticed that for a few days each month his dad would do all the family cooking instead of his mom. As Little P, he couldn’t understand why this was happening, so one day he decided to ask at the dinner table. Uncharacteristically his grandfather shushed him up, saying it was an inappropriate topic of conversation, and something he shouldn’t be thinking about.

Little P was perplexed, he didn’t really understand. Eventually he found out that his father cooked for a few days each month because at those times his mother was menstruating and in traditional Nepali culture menstruating women are considered “unclean” and are not allowed to touch food that others will eat. Some strict families might not even serve the woman food in the same room as the rest of the family during these restricted times.

I found this both fascinating and terribly embarrassing. Particularly during my adolescence, I remember being very much a prude when it came to my body. I didn’t want people knowing what was happening to it, and I was horrified to think that if I had grown up in Nepal, it would basically be advertised to my entire family… even my brothers and father and grandfather, that I was having my period. Ick, who wants that?

It also made me really worried the first few times I spent extended periods of time with P’s family… long enough periods (excuse the pun) of time that they must have assumed I menstruated at some point. I fretted, what if they found out that I was? Would I be banished from the kitchen? Would I not be allowed to cook? Would it disgust them if I touched something that someone else would eat during this “taboo” time. I probably spent a bit too much time thinking about it, because nothing was ever said, and I never noticed P’s mom, aunt or female cousins separated out unless it was done in a way that was not very noticeable.

“If you really think about it, the taboo at one point probably made some sense,” P said, during our dinner conversation, “if you think about rural villages, especially a hundred or more years ago, it was difficult to have good hygiene in general, let alone at that specific time for women. Fresh water might be limited, material goods were limited, during that time of each month women probably were unclean because of the conditions they were surrounded by in addition to her own condition.”

The taboo unsurprisingly seems to be enforced much more in rural areas than in metropolitan areas. For example, one  development website states, “Menstrual taboos are deeply rooted in the culture of some Nepali castes… During menstruation, some girls and women are not allowed to enter a kitchen, touch water, attend religious functions, and in extreme cases, are not allowed to drink cow milk, eat fruit or sleep in a bed.” My guess is that as time goes on this taboo in the general Nepali public will probably slowly start to become less widely adhered to, perhaps more like an “old wives tale.”

But even if the taboo in the cities is less strict, a few of my female friends have explained how it affected them in their own childhood households. Every family is different, and different castes have different variations as well, but one common story seems to be that of confinement during a young woman’s first menstruation cycle. The girl is not able to see any of her male relatives or the sun, instead she has to stay in her room with the door and windows closed and shaded. Many of her female friends and relatives will probably come to visit to keep her company, but she is not allowed to do any religious activity during her period of confinement. The length of time seems to vary, around 12 days, although I think P’s younger cousin only did it for 3 or 4 (J Phupu didn’t want her missing out on too much school). Sometimes the young girl might be dressed up in a sari to be portrayed as more “womanly” during  this time.

I also think that it is around this time when Newars have a more elaborate custom for young girls, called the “Bael  Byah” or “bael fruit marriage,” but I’ll talk about that another time.

Anyway, the conversation was interesting, so I wanted to share. Since menstruation taboos isn’t a topic talked about everyday, does anyone else out there have any stories?

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16 responses to “A “Female” Taboo

  1. When you and P first started dating and I meet P’s younger cousin…I too had asked her if she had a story….she said one time she didn’t want people to know so she ate with the family however, P’s dad (or maybe the grandfather) found out and she had to eat alone in a different room.

  2. As a male, I was given very little information about periods since it was seen as a “need-to-know” basis… and since I wasn’t female, it wasn’t “necessary”. However, this got me extremely curious I ended up learning about it via the library (internet was no mainstream then). I remember growing up and asking for information about menstruation was a complete no-no, so that pretty much stopped me dead in my tracks given that I was raised in a traditional, conservative Asian household.

    However, menstruation being taboo is highly present even in the so-called “Modern Day North America”… and I hope I can change the way men view menstruation. Both males and females have a role to play when it comes to shrouding period-related things in negatively… just look at commercials, girls are supposed to HIDE their periods as if they committed a crime.

    There are many traditions and cultures around the world that have varying mentalities on periods. Since I am respectful of all beliefs and choices people make, there are always things that people value and hold closely to even though it is hard to apply in “present time.” However, the fact is that certain traditions that are held are negatively affecting the female body image, especially when it comes to menstruation, so if that can be changed without hurting a beliefs or tradition, then that’d be a great start!

    • Prexus, I checked out your website. Pretty interesting. I think demystifying menstruation for men is an important, and often over looked, endeavor. Keep up the good work, and thanks for dropping by.

  3. Hey C,
    Interesting Article. Being a Newar, let me tell you we go through a little less embarrassment. The “Bael Byah” or “bael fruit marriage” have nothing to do with it actually and in the case of Newars, the 12 day confinement is in most cases prior to young girls starting their menstruation cycle. So the whole world doesn’t have to know when it started! :)

  4. Agreed with KS. My 12 day confinement was like years before the actual thing! My sister and I were “placed” into confinement together and it was during our winter break so that we don’t miss school. I actually have fun memories of those 12 days, lots of food, games, gifts and face packs!

    You might want to read about Chhaupadi – it’s a tradition followed in western Nepal where women are confined during their period and after child birth. It was outlawed a few years ago but apparently is still in practice.

  5. There is actually a science behind this cultural practice, which is mentioned in koran and in one of the Vedas of why women should stay away from food. Although in Hindus and muslims blatantly follow this practice with the assumption/internalization that women are “unclean” when they menstruate. I remember a story from Holy Cow where the author talks about how all Parsi women in India are actually aware of the scientific reason behind why they should avoid touching food that will be shared / eaten by other people.

  6. It’s a pretty common custom all over the sub continent, but thankfully is dying out in most places. The most innocuous explanation I’ve heard so far is that it’s aim is to give women a break from household chores and rest. There are different variations ranging from complete isolation to exclusion from religious ceremonies. I always found it very discriminatory and thankfully never came across an occasion where I had to participate in such rituals, though it was common for me to hear friends mention that they would not visit temples etc. on those days. Apparently there are still temples in South India that won’t allow any women to enter because of the risk that they may be menstruating, so it’s still a big taboo in some places.

  7. As a follow up you mind find this post interesting :)
    http://ultraviolet.in/2008/06/09/menstruating-goddesses/

  8. Pingback: Doing things just because… | First Impressions

  9. I remember a Women & Religion class I took in college exposed me to the first I’d ever heard about something like this among Jewish people, but I had no idea that the Nepalese had a similar thing. Really interesting – that’s why I keep coming back here, I learn something new every time!

  10. A Goan Catholic friend of mine told me that there is (or at least was) a similar tradition in her community. I find my non-Western friends are much more open about talking about periods etc. than Western friends (pretty much would never be talked about) and it is something I have slowly gotten used to over the past five or six years.

  11. I am so glad I found this!! I am American and my boyfriend is Nepalese. We’ve just started dating and many cultural differences have come up… One of them being “that time of the month”… He said he can see me but can’t touch me for 7 days… Where does the 7 come from??
    He couldnt explain it- I can only accept it but can’t help but wonder…it is a process which women have to go through and it was programmed into us by a higher power so how can it be deemed unholy or dirty?

  12. hi there…
    yes it is true that..stil this taboo is prevalent in our society.. for those who are new in our newari or nepali society, ppl think this period is impure period where u cant enter yr kitchen, take part in religous functions, touch water and so and so. the lady have to take bath in 4th day/ 5th day. then only she is purified. and about bel biyah and the conindment for 12 days( gufa). bel biyah is performed when a girl is in her odd age( 3-5-7..). she is married to a bel, fruit( incarnation of lord bishnu) so that she wont be window even if her real husbanb dies. and Gufa is when the girl reaches her puberty they are kept in dark room for 12 days. they cant see sun or any male members. on the 12th day she is dressed up like a bride and took her to worship the sun, this is the second marriage with lord sun.

  13. Hi Americanpali, great discussion of the menstrual taboo. The 12 day confinement (though number of days varies) also serves a kind of coming-of-age ceremony for girls. I remember being so embarrassed about my period when I first started getting it (the idea of publicising it by obvioulsy avoiding food is still preety icky), but I’ve noticed in Nepal amongst family that people are very open about when they’re menstruating (called “na-chooni”, or “don’t touch”) – it’s not really considered something to be embarrassed about. My mum and her friends often discuss their 12 day confinement affectionatley (in front of their husbands), as it does ritually mark a step into womanhood. My dad has also pointed out that his mum always got a 4 day break from household chores each month, which isn’t always a bad thing, especially in rural areas where women rarely get a break (though some of the stories of being forbidden from the home are awful).

    From another, perhaps more analytical perspective, this links in a bit with your Kumari post (another great read, thank you!!). Constructive and destructive power in south Asian culture, whether tantric or vedic-influenced, is essentially conceptualised as feminine (‘shakti’). Menstural blood – containing all the fertile powers that can create yet also destroy the world – substantiates this power. Therefore when it seeps out menstrual blood must be controlled and it’s constructive powers harnessed for the good of society, usually by marrying off a girl and ensuring that her procreative powers underline the reproduction of her husband’s family. (Traditionally in Nepal, the ideal was to arrange a girl’s marriage around the time of first menstruation amongst some castes). In a similar way, the King’s powers were ritually and symbolically underlined by the powers of Kumari/Telaju; the first the goddess in a virgin and pre-menstrual form (all her powers are contained within her and have not yet seeped out – in this thinking pre-menstrual girls are the most potent), the second – Telaju – the goddess in one of her most terrifying, blood-thirsty forms (in this thinking, the powers of mother-goddesses are recognised as particularly potent). Meanwhile a girl’s destructive powers/capacities must be contained – hence when this power starts seeping out uncontrolled through menstruation the girl herself is literally contained (and Kumari replaced). A girl’s power at this time is so potent that she will even destroy the sun (a male god – Surya) if she looks at him for the first 12 days (hence during her confinement the curtains are usually drawn over the window)! This controlling of women to harness their powers to fuel what is basically a rather patriarchal social structure spills over into most aspects of Nepali life – down to what a woman wears (a sari is wrapped around her body, bangles bound her wrists, her hair is usually plaited and not allowed to flow wildly), and all the social rules generally confining Nepali women to the home.
    Interesting bit of ethnographic fact (hope this doesn’t gross you out!) – in Bengal, there is a muscial sub-caste in which male and female members sometimes ingest menstrual blood (a tiny bit diluted and mixed into a special soup) to increase their powers. They then pass this power onto listeners through the medium of music. The menstrual blood they ingest is usually that of the first menstuation of one of the group members/daughters, because again, this is the most potent blood; the most potent power because it has only begun to seep out.
    Phew! Apologies for the long comment….all this is simplified obvioulsy, and I’m not saying that Nepali women always feel like their daily bangles are bounding their power etc (they also just love jewellery!)…but I’m a bit of a sucker for any discussion on south asian religious symbolism, and corressponding practices such as menstrual taboos…the ickier, the better ;)
    Thanks for the post!

    • Hi Taswin,

      Your comment was really interesting… there is so much to know about South Asian religious symbolism and cultural taboos– particularly when it comes to women in society. We will have to continue the conversation sometime soon!

  14. Would love to continue the conversation :) Just read over my comment and realise it sounds *a bit* hyper…but as I said this is one of my fave topics!

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