Friends from New York and new acquaintances alike ask me if I have experienced culture shock during my time in India. One incident always comes to mind.
I had just arrived at my uncle's home in southern India, where I would be staying for a few months on assignment. A day or two into my stay, I made an offhand comment to my aunt that I had gotten my period the morning of my flight. I was expecting a little lady-to-lady commiseration, but instead we had this conversation in a weirdly hushed tone:
"Oh. We have to close the prayer room."
"And when you throw away the soiled napkins, make sure to wash them first."
"But they'd be disposable?"
"Yes, but keep them neatly, you know, many people clear the dustbins [referring to the maids]."
"And also, please refrain from cooking over the open flame."
"Oh, you know, it was a tradition kept from my mother-in-law. We have had such good luck, why change tradition? Many other people follow the rule more strictly."
I was completely confused. Forget trying to explain the concept of a tampon. I didn't even know where to begin with this news. My mother had once mentioned to me an old tradition in South Indian villages where women were supposed to refrain from housework during their period. Apparently, the practice had started during ancient times, when women performed labor-intensive tasks. They were expected to fetch water from the well, cook meals for large, extended families and perform a battery of household chores that required a great deal of physical exertion. So, when their "chums" time came, this blanket ban on work was supposed to give them a few days' rest. I figured this was literally ancient news, though. There was Midol now! And heating pads!
After this unexpected conversation with my aunt, I decided to do a bit of research. Apparently, it was decided that husbands would compel their wives to bend or break this rule if it wasn't codified. Thus, women were banned from setting foot in a temple or a prayer room on their period because it was henceforth considered "unclean." They went so far as to demand that women use separate utensils and plates while menstruating and confine themselves to a separate, closed room. Menstruation officially ended on the morning of the fourth day, when the woman bathed.
"When you bathe tomorrow, also wash your hair da kanna," my aunt said on the third day, referring to me as "sweetheart" in Tamil.
The feminist in me was screaming THIS IS SEXIST. The idea that I was impure for a natural function, one that half the population experienced, was odious. I just kept thinking, this is some DUMB old rule written by DUMB old men. I hated it. But this belief was at odds with other beliefs I also held. I was a guest in my aunt's house. She was a good person. Her Hindu orthodoxy rarely interfered with my decisions, which was clearly a conscious effort on her part. I found that I couldn't entirely give up being sensitive to my host's feelings for my principles. This is important to her, I rationalized. I went along. I let her pack my lunch for work. I avoided cooking altogether. The prayer room stayed closed, indicating embarrassingly to the whole house that for one of the girls, Scarlett had come home to Tara.
But I slipped up twice the next time the painters were in. My father, whose visit overlapped with mine, wanted to take me to the ancient Parthasarathy temple in Chennai. I was desperately curious to see it with him, and he would be leaving in two days. I had gotten my period that morning. I hadn't explicitly been told that I couldn't set foot in a temple while menstruating, but had extrapolated that this was one of the rules. I figured it best just to go and never mention it.
Somehow the topic came up when I was eating lunch after the temple. She asked me outright if I was In the Red.
Because I'm bad at lying when someone asks me a straightforward question, I somberly answered.
"Did you know that you can't visit temple at periods time?" She looked affronted.
"No?" I squeaked.
"That's OK then, if you knew, that only would be bad."
I felt like gum on the bottom of a shoe. Also, my anger was bubbling back to the surface.
"I find it hard to believe that God would be angry about this," I muttered. More loudly, I added, "Why is the rule this way?"
"I don't... We don't go asking Why? Why? like this," my aunt answered. Her voice was getting shriller and angrier by the minute. This was clearly a moot point. It was time to diffuse the tension.
"The food is delicious," I said, ending the conversation.
The same evening, my cousin and I were making grilled sandwiches on the stove. I had just finished flipping the sandwich when I looked behind me to find my aunt with a pained expression on her face.
"Let her do it kanna," she asked, sweetly. It finally hit me. I realized that following this rule was a compulsion for her, something that had been drilled into her, something that she would feel uneasy without. I had my own superstitions. I felt that same pained, gut-wrenching feeling when people touched books or money with their feet, a superstition adopted from my parents. I would immediately take them and touch them to my closed eyelids in apology. I feel a knot in my stomach when I don't carry out my little routines. I'm guessing it is how OCD sufferers feel in a very diluted form. It literally pained her not to do it. The rule had all sorts of sexist implications for me, but there was no way my open resistance or arguments were going to convince her not to continue following it.
Nevertheless, after she left for bed, I motioned to my cousin for the spatula.
"I can't follow this rule, it just feels wrong and offensive to me," I explained. "There's nothing unclean about your period. It is just another way to convince women to feel ashamed to be women."
The words came tumbling out. I couldn't help but explain myself, to lash out, because I had been trying so hard to suppress myself, to be considerate. One way or another, either my aunt or I would end up being offended. I had decided to take the burden upon myself because it seemed like the right thing to do. Now I realized that I couldn't be completely deferent.
I have always felt that cultural relativity is a convenient excuse that people hide behind to perpetuate oppression in its many forms. However, in this situation, I didn't feel it wise to ram my western feminist ideologies down my relative's throat only for these ideas to be strongly rejected and for me to seem like a disdainful jerk. I still do not know if I handled this situation correctly. Maybe I should have spent more time trying to convince her that the rule was oppressive. That it might have been created as a practical solution but that it had been distorted into a sexist religious practice. That not all traditions are good. But maybe there was no correct way to handle it. Maybe you have to pick your battles. So I just stood at the stove and flipped my grilled cheese on the sly.
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