It can be easy for an strong, independent woman (dare I say feminist though I don’t really use the term) to look on from the outside and decry orthodox traditions as backwards, sexist or a violation of a woman’s right to equity. But I have learned over time that one needs to look beyond the surface, understand the circumstances that moulded traditions and be realistic vs idealistic in the battles we choose to fight.
I remember going on a heritage walk through the old city of Ahmedabad. Some of the non-Indians on the trip had stopped to point at and take pictures of a sign outside a derasar (Jain temple). The sign asked females to refrain from entering during menstruation. I was not at all fazed by the sign. After all, I had grown up being told that I could not enter the temple area or participate in services during the first four days of my period. It was only on the fifth day and that too after bathing and washing my hair that I would be consider “pure” and “clean” again. It went much further in the home of my orthodox grandparents in India. There the whole family knew when you had your period because you were served food separately, sat on a different sofa from anyone else and in general avoided physical contact with anyone. For those reading of something like this for the first time, your reaction might be WHOA! How is that possible in the 1990’s or 21st century. Let me tell you that it exists in many homes beyond just that of my grandparents.
I used to get frustrated. I mean girls can do anything while they have their period, including going swimming and how could an aspect of the biological cycle which allows for reproduction make a woman unpure? But then I heard the stories. A friend told me about her grandmother’s mother-in-law. She would not let her daughter-in-laws sit idle for a moment. There was always cooking or cleaning or children to attend to and if there really wasn’t anything to do, she had on occasions, mixed together dry lentils and rice and asked her daughter-in-laws to separate the two…. It was physically exhausting. If this was a the case for women just two generations removed, it is not hard to imagine that this has been the case for centuries. So what is the easiest way to the get the masses to do something? Religion. Women were sanctioned four days of rest per month and that too on the days she was likely to feel weak or in pain as she lost blood. It’s not rocket science to see how blood can become associated with impurity / uncleanliness especially when pads and tampons were not around and you have the stigma that exists today.
Circumstances have changed, so the idea seems backwards, but the reality is that the tradition came into being to protect a woman’s well-being, not take away from it.
But others traditions continue to have relevance today. From the outside we can assume that it has been imposed by society, but could in fact be an informed decision by the women themselves. A great example of this is purdah (or drawing of the veil). In the ideal world, a woman should be able to walk around wearing whatever she wants without fear of harassment or bhuri nazar (evil or bad eye). A married woman should not have to be concerned that her brother-in-law will look at her with lust and potentially physically act upon that desire. But the reality is not the same. One of the reasons for the purdah is to avoid such circumstances. Perhaps the choice of words is “anti-feminist,” but to avoid creating circumstances that can lead to harassment. In Hindi, the veil is many times referred to as one’s laaj or dignity. A mother-in-law would tell her daughter-in-law to keep her laaj or pull her veil to cover her face.
As unfair as the reasoning may seem, it is for the protection of the woman and there are countless cases when woman veil their faces or bodies not because society or men demand it, but out of their free will. I personally recall the comments and whistles that men would pass when I used to walk the streets of Ahmedabad (easily identifiable as a foreigner). At that point, I had two choices – to continue without doing anything or keeping a dupatta to cover my head and face when I went out. While I felt frustration that I could not walk down the street without the chance of harassment, my going unveiled would not stop the eve-teasing nor was it going to educate the men (but I would call them boys) would partook in it. The harassment did not disturb them, but it was affecting me. I had to pick and choose my battles. By covering myself, I could walk with more comfort and do what I needed to do with fewer disturbances. Even as a Westerner, I chose a form of purdah out of my own free will.
Before writing practices off as backwards or orthodox, its origins and reasoning should be understood, then one can make an educated comment on its validity or lack there of. The example of the days of rest during menstruation and purdah are great to illustrate how a tradition can lose relevancy or be just as needed as it was during its inception.
As much I would not like to acknowledge it, it is still to a great degree a man’s world out there. Women are making strides in leaps and bounds, but certain attitudes towards women will take a long time to be removed (if they are). It can be easy to get frustrated and also dog on practices that come across of stifling or anti-women, but they may in fact be in place for the benefit of women. We have to pick and choose our battles, be optimistic, yet realistic. There are bad things out there, not just for women, but for children and even for men.