In the prim and sanitized West, we think of purity rules as superstitious and primitive. We have transcended such nonsense. 

Mary Douglas and other anthropologists have tried to convince us that we’re self-deluded, but leave that to the side. As Rose George reports, there are places in the world today where “Levitical” defilements still defile.

During her menstrual period, 16-year-old Radha “can’t enter her house or eat anything but boiled rice. She can’t touch other women – not even her grandmother or sister – because her touch will pollute them. If she touches a man or a boy, he will start shivering and sicken. If she eats butter or buffalo milk, the buffalo will sicken too and stop milking. If she enters a temple or worships at all, her gods will be furious and take their revenge, by sending snakes or some other calamity. Here, menstruation is dirty, and a menstruating girl is a powerful, polluting thing. A thing to be feared and shunned.” 

She is chhau and sleeps in a small chhaupadi shed with other menstruating women, or, when the shed gets too crowded, in the open field. Nepal’s Supreme Court declared these practices illegal in 2005, but in remote areas enforcement is rare.

Nepali women wash regularly, and have to atone on the off-chance that they touched a man or offended the gods: “In early September in Nepal, Hindus – who make up 81 per cent of the country’s 30.5 million people – celebrate Rishi Panchami, a festival that commemorates a woman who was reborn as a prostitute because she didn’t follow menstrual restrictions.” Women gather for ritual cleansing – washing in a river, smearing their hair with buffalo dung and washing it with urine and milk. 

Many girls stop going to school when they reach puberty; finding a private place for care during menstruation is too difficult.

George discovers some pockets of resistance. In the western region of Achham, “the first chhaupadi-free villages have emerged, and . . . a government minister’s wife in 1998 became the first menstruating woman in her district to spend a night in her own house.”

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