Tag Archives: Menstruation Taboos

Menstruation Jutho

Continuation from the last post

For a woman, jutho taboos surrounding menstruation can be challenging. I’ve written about this before in “A ‘Female’ Taboo” but I wanted to revisit it as I have experienced a few more things since then.

As I noted before, for me, a woman’s menstruation cycle is a very personal thing. It’s not something to be ashamed of, but it certainly isn’t something I’d like to announce to the world (although ironically, I’m writing about it on a blog, ha ha). This might be where my own personal feelings and Nepali culture greatly deviate, because although there are taboos affiliated with a woman’s period in Nepal there doesn’t seem to be embarrassment around others knowing that a woman is having it, since the taboos are enacted in such a way that everyone would know.

Case in point, during Dashain a cousin’s family came over to P’s family’s house to receive tikka from P’s grandfather. It was a cousin-sister and her two kids and her brother and his wife. They were making the rounds to the different family houses, however the brother’s wife had her period, so she couldn’t come in the living room where the family was giving tikka and had to sit in the hallway. It was obvious to everyone in the room why she had to sit outside, and not only did she have to miss out on receiving tikka and blessings from everyone for the year, she had to go from house to house sitting outside and being excluded, so everyone in the entire family would know she was menstruating. Perhaps the family didn’t care, but I really felt for her, and thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t have to go through the same thing, because I would feel mortified.

Right before Dashain, one of P’s cousins asked me if I knew of any medication that could delay the onset of her period. I asked why and she said that she was probably going to get hers right as Dashain tikka time would be in full swing. It was going to be her last Dashain in Nepal for a few years, and I am sure she didn’t want to miss out on the activities and gatherings.

“Would anyone know? What if you didn’t say anything?” I asked. That would have been my tactic if I was in the same situation.

“Well… if maiju [P’s mom] finds out, I might get in trouble.” She said. We didn’t talk about it afterward. She participated in the festival so I figured she sorted something out.

I’ve now spent several months with P’s family, so I’ve obviously gone through my “impure” time of the month while I was around them—handling food, sitting with everyone at the table, and no one has ever questioned anything. I’ve kept my mouth closed about it, so they probably never really knew when it happened, but they had to assume it did at some point, so I was a little surprised by P’s cousin’s comment about P’s mom scolding her if she participated in Dashain tikka while she was having her’s. Perhaps it’s easier for P’s mom to think about me in a different category when it comes to jutho as a foreigner, or maybe she is uncomfortable to bring up the topic with me, I’m not sure. Although it would be interesting to learn more about the taboos, it isn’t a topic I would eagerly bring up with P’s mom as I would hate to have menstruation jutho extended to me. I kind of like the policy of don’t ask, don’t tell we have going on right now.

But I’ve seen women perpetuate menstruation jutho on themselves—when a friend of mine got married a relative of the groom had her period during the ceremony and so she insisted on sitting outside the temple and peeking through a window while her husband and son were inside enjoying the festivities. It was only after we convinced her that the marriage was not taking place inside  the main temple, but in the breezeway/meeting area of the temple building that she felt comfortable coming inside to watch the ceremony. Had we been in Nepal she would probably have been completely excluded by family members, but here in the US no one was going to scold her.

Nepali Jiwan gave an example of living with a conservative Nepali family while she was doing a study abroad homestay and when they found out she was menstruating (I was wondering how—did they ask?) they included her in jutho taboos—she had to sit in another room and eat away from the family, and was scolded by a house worker when she touched the clothes washing water during her “impure” state.

Anyway—I guess I’m not really sure where I am going with this post except that I find the discussion of these taboos both interesting and humiliating.

Has anyone else ever run into menstruation taboos when dealing with their partner’s parents or extended family? What did you do?

Do you feel it is important to participate in the taboos when it comes to religious observance such as not entering a temple when you are having your period or would don’t ask, don’t tell?

Jutho

Nepali Jiwan had an interesting post on the concept of “impurity” in Nepal that I wanted to link to. I’ve been wanting to write about the Nepali concept of jutho or (for lack of a better word to describe it in English) “impurity” for a long time, but as Nepali Jiwan points out, the concept is very multifaceted and complicated and can seep in to many different aspects of life such as table etiquette, customs surrounding death, even women’s menstrual cycles.

Once I tried to list some of the jutho topics I’d learned about—mostly from table etiquette. For instance, one is not supposed to touch another person’s plate with your hands or eating utensils once you have started eating since this would “contaminate” the other person’s food. This even extends to reaching out to bowls in the center of the table and taking more food for yourself—a very American concept of eating (“Please pass the mashed potatoes!”)—because this could potentially contaminate the food as well, and is a reason that many Nepali women will serve everyone in the family first and wait until everyone else is done before eating themselves. In a country where we mostly use forks and spoons and our hands remain “clean” while eating, the idea of if you reach out to spoon more potatoes on your own plate you are “contaminating” the bowl of potatoes might sound a little weird, but if you are eating with your hands and they are sticky with mashed potatoes and butter, then you can imagine that multiple people reaching out to a serving spoon could get messy real quick.

Then why not use your other hand? Because the left hand is reserved for “cleaning yourself in the bathroom” and even though one washes your hands after wiping yourself, your left hand is ritually impure due to this, so it would be considered impolite to reach out to a serving spoon with such a hand.

While P’s family was here, they adapted to my more “American” style, and although they ate with their hands, I think they served themselves by reaching out with their left hand to the serving spoon or asked for someone like me, who was using a spoon at the table and had a clean hand, to dish out more food. I’m not sure if this made them uncomfortable, because I never thought to ask, instead I was just pleased to have a more “family style” (to me) way of eating, rather than P’s mom running back and forth serving everyone and then eating by herself. When we got to Nepal, the “Nepali” style returned.

This example is just one basic example of jutho, but there are many many more. I’m not in the best position to explain them as I live in the US with many younger Nepalis who don’t necessarily follow many of the rules of jutho, but when you live with a family back in Nepal the rules can become more evident depending on how strict the household is. Nepali Jiwan mentions a few—such as the jutho taboos surrounding a recently deceased family member.

Her mother-in-law passed away a few months ago, so the entire family is unable to celebrate holidays for an entire year. She writes about how she can understand how this can be useful in excusing yourself from the many social obligations in Nepal during a sad time, but the yearlong ban can feel lonely. I remember some of my Nepali friends and even P feeling very surprised the year my Grandfather died—he died at the beginning of December and my family celebrated Christmas that year. For a culture that waits an entire year, I think it made P feel uncomfortable to celebrate Christmas only two or three weeks after a close family member’s death. This makes me wonder what would happen in the future with a close family member’s death– I can understand not celebrating Nepali festivals for a year in respect of P’s relative, but will this extend to American festivals too? I can’t see my family accepting that–what, no Christmas presents this year? If we were in the US it might be less of a problem than if we were in Nepal, but I think I’d be sad not to have my festivals for a whole year if we were living over there. I guess this is all food for thought, and ramblings.

Someone I know who was getting married experienced some of this type of jutho. If you are informed of a family member’s death, then the celebration ban of jutho extends to wedding ceremonies and even eating (you have to abstain from meat, salt, and certain other spices for a certain number of days) so sometimes people will delay relaying information about a death until after meal times, or after a ceremony so that the ceremony won’t be disrupted. This can happen if you are far enough away in relation to someone, but if you are too close in relation then you have to be told no matter what. So this individual’s parents couldn’t travel to the wedding ceremony in the US because an elderly relative was close to death and the parents of the friend would have to be told if that particular relative died, whereas my friend could be delayed in being told until after the ceremony if the relative happened to die before it took place.

I originally started writing this post because I wanted to write more specifically about menstrual jutho, but this post is already getting long. I’ll break the post in two and write more tomorrow.

In the meantime, do others have jutho examples they can share? It would be good to learn about other juthos out there!

Kumari and Indra Jatra

Yesterday was Indra Jatra. I know this only because I like to look at BBC’s “in pictures” each day and there was a photo from Kathmandu depicting the ceremony.

From BBC "In Pictures"

I don’t know much about Indra Jatra (so I’ll look up some information to share) but the festival caught my attention because I’ve been reading up on Kumari (or the “living goddesses” from Nepal). I find their stories fascinating and was thinking of writing about them for my writer’s group. Indra Jatra is one of the festivals that kumaris participate in.

Basically Kumari are little girls chosen from a specific Buddhist Newar ethnic group (Shakya) in Nepal who become the embodiment of the Hindu goddess Taleju (which is an avatar of power goddess Durga). Much like the Dalai Lama or Pachen Lama, the girls are a reincarnation of the goddess, and are chosen based on specific attributes such as “a neck like a conch shell,” “a body like a banyan tree”, “eyelashes like a cow,” “chest like a lion” and have to pass a test to prove that she is the goddess. Supposedly one such test comes during Dashain (coming in October), when the young goddess has to spend the night in a temple with 108 sacrificed goats and buffalos. Since Durga is strong and fearless, the Kumari candidate must also show no fear.

Various photos of Kumari in full regalia including headdress, full tikka, and naga (snake) necklace. Kumari are not allowed to touch the ground, so they are carried or ride in chariots when they have to go outside for religious functions

Girls are chosen very young (usually when they are only a few years old) and live out their childhood in a temple away from their families. They are worshiped and often sought for guidance, and I believe the Royal Kumari of Bhaktapur gives a tikka to the king of Nepal during Dashain as a blessing (at least, back when there was a king). Tradition holds that if a king does not receive tikka from the Kumari at this time, something horrible will happen. I remember reading somewhere (although now I can’t find the link) that supposedly when the former King Birendra went to take tikka from the Royal Kumari the Dashain before the Royal Massacre (June 2001), she cried (or something like that) which denotes a bad omen. Less than a year later ten members of the royal family including the King, Queen, two princes and the princess were dead.

The Kumari remains a goddess until her first menstruation, at which point the spirit of the goddess leaves her body to inhabit someone else, and she again becomes a mere mortal. Image the confusion for the poor child—having spent the formative years of her life worshiped and treated to every desire only to reach adolescence and be tossed back to her family (which at this point she hardly knows) and be treated like a regular person again.

BBC "In pictures" from today... girls dressed like Kumari dance in the street (although they are not real Kumari)

Another BBC "In Pictures"... a (real) Kumari peeks outside her temple window at the Indra Jatra festival

If you want to learn more about the Kumari I recommend watching the documentary “The Living Goddess” (watch trailer HERE), it is currently streaming on Netflix. Interestingly, when the documentary came out, the Kumari featured traveled to the US for the premiere, and she was temporarily “fired” from her role as Kumari because she became “unclean” from traveling abroad.  A purification ritual was performed before she could be reinstated.

So back to Indra Jatra—Indra is the god of rain and the festival is celebrated for eight days in the Kathmandu Valley mostly near Hanuman Dhoka. Classical dancers assemble in the square wearing different traditional masks and costumes to celebrate Indra’s visit. On the third day the Kumari is brought to the square in a chariot procession to watch over the ceremonies.

Pictures of Indra Jatra dancers

Panchami and the Bhutanese Refugees

Back from New York, Teej and fasting.

I fasted from about 9pm on Friday night until about 9pm on Saturday so that when we were in the South Asian section of the city (Jackson Heights, Queens) I could eat at the Nepali restaurant with our friends. I found fasting a bit easier this year, I think because we were so busy walking around and doing things in the city that it made the day pass more quickly and kept my mind off of it. Although when someone sitting next to me at the tennis match ate a delicious smelling panini it made my mouth water.

Me at the US Open, Roger Federer in the background, wearing my red Teej clothing

On Sunday P and I woke up early and drove back to Massachusetts so that I could meet up with AS and S-di at the Bhutanese refugee gathering. By the time I arrived one of the pujas had already taken place, but I was quickly ushered to the newly forming ring of women preparing for the second puja.

AS and S-di were dressed in beautiful red saris, AS wearing the same clothes as she wore several months prior for her wedding including potes, bangles, dori and tikka. Since I was walking in straight from the highway, I was only wearing a red shirt and sweater and P’s mother’s red Teej necklace, but at least I had the right colors on.

AS explained that the women had organized a puja for Panchami, which is technically the fifth day (panch= five) but was actually the third day of Teej (Day 1—Daar feast, Day 2—Teej fast)– sometimes I really don’t get the Nepali calendar. The puja is in honor of seven gods represented by seven stars in the sky that are in the shape of a question mark (I’m assuming she was referring to the “seven sisters,” or Pleiades, in Orion’s belt, but maybe she meant a different constellation?). Again, the women generally fast until after the puja, and the puja is supposed to cleanse them of any sins they committed during the year (particularly sins they may have committed breaking menstrual taboos such as touching food, etc).

I enjoy pujas, especially larger chaotic ones. I don’t ever really understand anything that is going on, but there is always a lot of activity and confusion. Yesterday the large cluster of women sat in a circle with the priest (the only man in the group), who had spread before him an assortment of puja paraphernalia such as flowers and flower petals, fruits, rice, water, and incense. As the priest chanted prayers the women would pass around paper plates/bowls with flowers, water, or rice. I’d periodically be prompted to take a small handful of flower petals or water, hold it between my hands (in the namaste gesture), drip the water on my head, or touch the petals to my forehead, and then throw the petals into the middle of the circle.

At one point I was given a small plate on which  I  had to place a banana, apple, rice, flowers, water dyed with red tikka powder, and coins, and I offered it to the priest as a blessing. Even if I’m unsure of what to do, the other participants are usually willing to share or help me out, passing me handfuls of rice or miming the hand gestures I should follow.

Near the end of the puja the women stood, and started shuffling clockwise around the pile of puja material while the priest chanted, and plates with apples stuffed with handfuls of incense were lit as an arti and burned like candles. We were supposed to circle the altar seven times (but I might have only made it around three), and after the priest circulated through the crowd giving post-puja red tikkas.

Here are a few pictures from the event—

women sitting in the circle near the priest

AS (left) explains a few nuances of the puja as I'm passed a bowl of water. The priest's peach-pink-gray topi hat is seen to the left.

Listening to the priest for the next step. S-di is in the red sari with green pote to the left

Center of the puja activity-- bananas, flowers, yogurt, incense, apples, oranges, money, rice, nuts, even glass bangles

Giving offerings to the priest

Apple arti

Circling the puja area. You can tell the married women from the unmarried women by their necklaces (or lack there of).

Puja aftermath

And apparently a Nepali website (Sajha.com) captured me in action too-- chatting with AS and S-di

And posing for pics! AS, me, S-di, and an acquaintance of S-di's

For more views of Teej you can check out Nepal News video clip on celebrating in KTM this year.

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?