Monthly Exile for Menstruating Hindu Women in Nepal: It’s Lonely and Dangerous, ‘But the Fear of Sin Is Bigger’

This is the kind of place where Durga Buda, a 31-year-old Hindu mother in Nepal, spends four miserable nights every month. In her case, it’s a backyard shed that the locals call a goth, erected from bamboo and straw, with walls made of mud and dung. It’s four feet wide, four feet tall, and dangerous. When she’s in her goth, after darkness falls, Buda is afraid of wild animals, including snakes, and also leery of drunk villagers who may disrespect or even attack her.

(image via Bijoyeta Das – Al Jazeera)

Were it up to her, she’d sleep in the main house, the one that’s made of bricks, where her family of eight resides, including her in-laws. But Buda is not allowed to when she has her period. You see, during that time, she’s dirty, and everything she touches becomes dirty too.

Buda is following the centuries-old chaupadi ritual, prevalent in far and mid-western regions of Nepal. During menstruation and childbirth, women are isolated to a cowshed, hut, barn or cave because they are believed to be impure — their touch is said to contaminate — resulting in doom for the family, neighbours and domestic animals. During Buda’s first period, she was segregated for 11 days, “I was scared, cold and confused. But the fear of sin was bigger,” she says.

The Hindu tradition is common to all castes in the region. Women who violate the practice are blamed for crop failures, illnesses and sudden deaths of animals. “Who wants to be ostracized?” she asks.

There are reports of chaupadi leading to deaths, attacks by wild animals, snakebites, diseases, rapes, poor mental health, and infants dying of pneumonia.

It’s not all like it once was. Nepal’s Supreme Court outlawed chaupadi nine years ago (although that ruling is never enforced, experts say), and some women have risen in protest against the monthly banishment. A courageous few have burned their goths, and “chaupadi-free zones” are no longer unheard of.

For now, that doesn’t help Buda, or thousands of women like her.

“It is said if we touch men or anything in the house, cook or use public water tanks and wells, our God, Debti, will punish us. Our hands and legs will be twisted, our eyes plucked out,” Buda explains. Fruits will rot, cows will stop giving milk, wells will dry up, houses will burn, and tigers will attack at night.

According to this news story,

The dread of divine wrath cuts across class, caste, education and ideological divisions. …

Lalaji, a village elder in Achham, believes the tradition should be respected. “The new generation wants to change things. But as long as we live we will teach them what is right and ask them to follow our Hindu culture,” he says, sitting on a cot chewing betel nuts. “Many people have fallen sick because of eating food cooked by menstruating women,” he adds.

A doctor and women’s rights activist, Aruna Uprety, who wrote a book on chaupadi, says the harm isn’t purely patriarchal.

“We cannot identify the perpetrator as man or woman. The religious and cultural leaders are to blame.”

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Although practitioners of the Abrahamic religions no longer, as a rule, necessarily insist on punishing or shunning menstruating women, their holy texts propagate the idea that menses are monstrous. Leviticus 15:19 states

When a woman has her monthly period, she remains unclean for seven days. Anyone who touches her is unclean until evening. Anything on which she sits or lies during her monthly period is unclean. Any who touch her bed or anything on which she has sat must wash their clothes and take a bath, and they remain unclean until evening. … The Lord told Moses to warn the people of Israel about [menstruating women’s] uncleanness, so that they would not defile the Tent of his presence, which was in the middle of the camp. If they did, they would be killed.

Orthodox-Jewish custom still forbids contact with a menstruating woman — a niddah. The word literally means moved (as in separated). Wikipedia says that niddah

… generally refers to separation due to ritual impurity. … As with most of the arayot (Biblically forbidden sexual relationships), all physical contact “Derech Chiba v’Taavah” (in an affectionate or lustful manner) is rabbinically forbidden when a woman is in her niddah status. Such contact is forbidden whether or not the man and woman are husband and wife. In the case of husband and wife, however, the sages added on extra restrictions, including touch that is not Derech Chiba v’Taavah, passing of objects even without touching, and sleeping in the same bed.

By contrast, Islam allows a menstruating woman to take part in all normal activities — except religious duties such as prayer, and intercourse with her husband.

More on religion and menstrual taboos here.

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