Chhaupadi In Nepal: Making Women Hide When They’re On Their Period
Nov 12, 2017
Nepal has a shameful secret to hide.
Quite literally, actually, as the ancient Hindu custom of engaging in the practice of Chhaupadi is still prevalent in the country today, particularly in the western villages of Nepal, according to TIME. We explore the Hindu tradition of making women hide when they are on their period.
To provide context, National Geographic details that the practice of Chhaupadi is when women and girls alike are confined to huts or sheds while on their periods, as well as during and after childbirth, at which time they are also forced to bring their infants with them, consequently putting both mother and child at risk. Often, according to Aru Bhartiya, the hut is a “…small clay home or cowshed located 10-15 met[res] from the main residence” or it can be further away. Typically the hut is windowless, unclean or shared with animals. It is also dangerous, unhealthy, and can enable traumatic experiences for the females staying in them. In spite of this, the belief that fuels the practice is that while females are menstruating, they are impure.
In fact, CNNnoted that in Nepal, they “are forbidden from touching other people, cattle, green vegetables and plants, and fruits. They are also not allowed to drink milk or eat milk products and their access to water taps and wells is limited.” In addition, CNNhighlights that not adhering to these customs may upset “…a God or Goddess…which could result in a shorter life, the death of livestock or destruction of crops. In some areas, the restrictions extend to girls reading, writing or touching books during menstruation out of fear of angering Saraswati, the goddess of education.”
Historically, according to Hindu mythology, Bhartiya outlines that females have been viewed as being impure while on their periods. This stems from the legend that “Lord Indra (the king of gods) severed the head of Vishwaroopacharya (the second teacher of the gods). Since Lord Indra killed a Brahmin he got ‘Brahmahatya dosha.’” This is one of the highest sins, and to relieve himself of what he did, he spread it. As such, “…women from that day on started menstruating every 28-30 days.” This is largely why menstruation is thought of as being impure because its existence resulted from a sinful act.
In addition, Hindu’s believe that “Anything that is an excretion from the body i.e. sweat, blood, tears etc. are toxic and are hence classified under tamas. Tamas is darkness or obscurity. Hence for traditional Hindus touching a menstruating woman is considered [to be] a ‘Tamasic’ (inappropriate) act.” For instance, “During menstruation some women aren’t allowed to enter the kitchen and temples, sleep in the day-time, bathe, wear flowers, have sex, touch other males or females, [or] talk loudly” among other things.
Exploring The Stigma
In retrospect, Bhartiya argues, that the stigma surrounding periods seems to have been more closely related to physical cleanliness, by way of ensuring the temple remained sanitary. If that’s the case, today it is confusing that the introduction of feminine hygiene items has not made this archaic way of thinking about females and their periods obsolete. In fact, on more than one occasion I have been asked not to participate in prayers, to not touch anything related to a religious event, and to stay away from the temple because of my period. For me, this was bothersome because you are made to feel self-conscious about something that you cannot control. Therefore, I can only imagine how damaging the experience of being sequestered to a hut, having your meals tossed at you from a distance, according to TIME, and being treated as if you’re not human, is for a girl.
On another note, these notions are also ingrained in the cultural norms that are passed down from generation to generation, whereby females are taught to hide and be ashamed of a natural part of their life. For instance, The Huffington Post reported on Rupi Kaur’s Instagram posts (a collection of images dealing with different struggles that women have while on their period, including bleeding through their pants onto their sheets), which were intended to enable “a conversation without words [using] imagery that would battle societal norms” that were removed from the social media platform.
As a South Asian-Canadian, according to The Huffington Post, Kaur was looking to celebrate the period, particularly from the perspective of a woman of colour, as “growing up there was still that cultural idea” that having your period was wrong or unspeakable. In fact, in an interview with The Huffington Postabout her deleted Instagram pictures, Kaur remembers that “When I was on my period I remember I wanted to go for a bike ride once and my mum was like, ‘You can’t because you’re sick.’ Or jumping on the trampoline, I wasn’t allowed to do that. I’ve always had to whisper the fact that I’m on my period or hide my pads so my dad doesn’t see them. My dad’s actually an open-minded guy but my mum’s been groomed to think that these things are taboo.”
Instagram has since amended their guidelines and Kaur’s pictures have been re-posted. Nonetheless, her images went viral and the reaction, which ranged from messages of support to receiving death threats, enabled this unintentional feminist movement to reclaim and celebrate the period as being a natural part of life, rather than an ugly, dirty or impure taboo that should limit how a female lives her life, in any aspect. What is most shocking about this “movement” though is that there needs to be one at all.
In North America, one would think that people, especially within the South Asian community, as they have more agency to question the validity of or leave behind old-world ideals, would be more open-minded about discussions surrounding the period. However, as seen by the negative reaction to her posts and its removal by Instagram, it is evident that this is not that case. Instead, it seems the period is still the elephant in the room that should not be spoken about because it isn’t “proper.” As such, this type of behaviour illustrates that there is still much progress to be made within the South Asian community, as a whole, to dispel and do away with these entrenched and warped methods of thinking.
Chhaupadi vs. The Law In Nepal
That being said, it is clear that the practice of Chhaupadi is not only an oppressive and demeaning method of discrimination that forces a woman to be excluded due to her being “untouchable,” but it is also a form of gender-based violence. According to The New York Times, the United Nations states that “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”
As such, the catalyst for bridging the gap between the illegality of Chhaupadi and actually enforcing was likely the death of Tulasi Shahi, 18, who was sleeping in her uncle’s cow shed as she usually did during her time of the month, on the floor, no less, when she was bitten. The snake, which was venomous, bit Shahi twice. The New York Timesdescribed that Shahi’s “…mother took her to a shaman, but he could not cure her. Then she was taken to a health clinic, but workers did not have the antivenom medicine she needed.” As a result, Shahi died on July 7, 2017.
Unfortunately, though, according to TIME, Shahi’s death is just one of many tragedies as the practice often “…leaves women susceptible to illness, rape and animal attacks.”
That said, it is important to note that despite Chhaupadi being officially outlawed and deemed to be illegal in 2005 by the Supreme Court in Nepal, the practice continued to be prevalent. However, what’s interesting about this, as reported in TIME, is that “a local poll found that only 40 per cent of people in the midwestern region even knew of the ban.”
Apparently, there was a discrepancy or breakdown in disseminating the information to the Nepalese people.
Thus, over a decade later, in response to these tragic incidents, as highlighted in The Independent UK, the Nepalese “…parliament has passed a bill toward making women safer by strengthening laws against…the ancient Hindu customs of…exiling women who are menstruating.” What the bill is seeking to do is impose penalties against those who force women to sequester themselves while on their periods. According to The Independent UK, “the new law goes into effect in August 2018, with violators…facing punishments of up to three months in jail or a fine of 3,000 Nepalese rupees, or about $29 [US].” Ultimately, the hope is that families will be deterred from pushing females to partake in the custom out of fear facing legal repercussions.
That said, while the bill is full of promise, in terms of combating violence against women, it is also problematic for a few reasons: 1) While the law gives women the agency to report if they are being forced into the practice, it will likely be difficult to enforce these “punishments” because of how deeply rooted the Hindu scriptures are in Nepal. 2) According to Al Jazeera, while “Nepal’s patriarchal society plays a part…” it is not always true that women are forced into the practice, in fact, “it’s the women who make themselves follow Chhaupadi.” 3) Lastly, the law will be challenging to implement and hold people accountable for breaking due to how remote some of the villages are, within which, many deaths often go unreported. In addition, although the huts may not be outlawed, CNNnotes that alternative methods to engage in the practice, such as seclusion within the household, may become more widespread. This may ultimately make breaking down the core beliefs enabling the practice and opening up the conversation around it much more complicated as it will become much more hushed.
Nonetheless, according to STAT, to aid in the implementation of the law, which will take effect in August 2018, the Nepalese government is introducing “social campaigns” that are intended to spread the word about the inhumane practice and its now enforceable illegality.
This is certainly a step in the right direction in abolishing this normalized and oppressive practice for Nepalese women. However, education within villages for females and males is also a necessary factor that will help to shape and change the stigmas surrounding menstruation, as this will consequently be more effective in eradicating the deep-seated myths of the Hindu scriptures. As well, girls and women alike need to be taught about proper feminine hygiene so they do not think their only option is to seclude themselves.
That said, the criminalization and punishment for engaging in Chhaupadi is pivotal because it opens up the discussion to unpack and deconstruct the myths about menstruation and the post-partum “impurity” of Hindu women. As such, the larger South Asian community should heed the experiences of the Nepalese women and seek to turn these backward cultural norms about menstruation that are oppressive and discriminatory on its head. It’s high time to stop hiding behind religion, culture, and simply accepting what has always been so as not to be seen as offensive. This is important because the girls of today should not grow up to be ashamed of their periods insofar that they need to physically hide. Instead, all females should celebrate their periods, like Kaur did, as something that is normal, rather than disgusting, because the underlying meaning with that thought process is that the woman is lesser and impure, which is just not true!
And so, the time for change is now: speak up, educate yourselves, your peers, and your families, and take action, because without it, these types of normalizations will continue to be allowed to dictate how females are allowed to live, and that simply won’t do.
Devika (@goberdhan.devika) is an MA graduate who specialized in Political Science at York University. Her passion and research throughout her graduate studies pushed her to learn about and unpack hot button issues. Thus, since starting ANOKHI in 2016, she has written extensively about many challengi...