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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Untouchable Women

The social fabric of India has in the past few decades undergone remarkable changes and is becoming more progressive and inclusive. However, many of the rules and norms that restrict the freedom of women in contemporary society have largely remained unchanged . The ambassadors of obsolete social rules are often oblivious of the origin and context of these . As society shaped itself to enter the new era, it shed some of them, the ones that remained were reflective of the position women enjoyed in the patriarchal setup. One such set of rules, which still resides secretly within the walls of all Indian households is that which treats all menstruating women as untouchables.

From time immemorial, women during their menses were untouchables. Even today , most households follow it , without any guiding reason other than fear. Daughters are locked up in rooms; Daughter-in-laws sent back to their parent’s homes. Like outcastes they neither have entry to places of worship nor can they touch anything considered holy. As a young girl , I was told that it was a sin to break any of these rules. Apparently, the rules were integral to God and religion and going against them meant bringing God’s curse upon the entire family. I was often perplexed at how could I be an untouchable to God if he himself created me ? The questions were many and were always responded by contempt followed by advice.

A little research brings out the truth and the truth is women were not “made” untouchable . It was a choice they exercised at a time when they had limited access to sanitation and hygiene. Menstruation was considered to be equivalent to being ill as it involved bleeding and release of toxins from the body. This made women both susceptible to infections and being able to infect others. As temples used to be the place where social gatherings were conducted in the past, women restrained from socializing for the fear of spreading infections. This is no longer applicable today considering the access we have to sanitation and good health.

Secondly, women till recently were primarily responsible for taking care of the household, family and children. During their menses they needed rest-both physical and mental. This is one of the reasons they were asked not to enter the kitchen, in the assumption that they would be spend the time taking rest. The other family members were expected to take up the house hold responsibilities at that time and support the women. Most house holds might be following these rules today but are they followed to preserve the true intend ?

A significant aspect to be considered is that the rules made in this context were merely social norms that were relevant at the point of time when they were put in place .They were incorporated in civilizations to control the spread of infection within a society and to provide support to the needy, unlike the commonly sold theory that these are rules made by the Gods and written in some scriptures. It is clear with some introspection that there is no need to feel guilty if a menstruating woman touches a piece of cloth kept in the wardrobe or accidentally entered the kitchen. All rules are made by humans. God merely gives us the intelligence to make the best rules. It is a matter of grave irony that women go through hard times every month to propagate life and it is the same capability that makes them untouchable. They are treated with contempt and isolation exactly at the same time they suffer from depression and loneliness and need family around.

As the challenges facing a society changes, new social reforms need to be put in place for the benefit of the people, rather than still clinging on to the old-world rules that is irrelevant in today’s circumstances. Considering the fact that a number of women work today, they could easily succumb to stress and depression. What they need today is support and understanding than domestic mental harassment in the name of obsolete and misguided rules.

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  1. Indians have to go a LONG WAY before they can take the social stigma off the natural phenomenon called "Menses". I still remember, during our school days if our skirts (our uniform was white top and white skirt) used to get stained accidentally it used to cause such an embarrassment as it would have others understand the poor mortal has got into her monthly cycle. I do not think in any of the western countries girls are brought up to feel embarrassed about getting periods.

    1. Apart from the physical pain that is associated with periods, it has always been mentally traumatic for me not just because of the embarrassment and untouchability factors but also because as a girl I was never educated of what it is. It all seemed like the consequence of a sin I had committed as a consequence of which I was treated differently ever month.I would mostly try my best to hide it . Till I started going to college, I used to hate my body for going through this cycle , during which I felt everyone hated me.I wish someone had prepared me better for this.But then I realize that families don't think there's much of any reason to mentally prepare anyone for this.