Friday, October 25, 2013

It must be true

In a New York Times article, British author and journalist Rose George tells stories of small-town Indian girls and their experience of their first periods. She describes their horror: “Khushi knew it was cancer. Ankita thought she was injured. None of the girls knew why they were suddenly bleeding, why their stomachs were “paining,” as Indian English has it. They cried and were terrified and then they asked their mothers. And their mothers said, you are normal. You are menstruating. You are a woman now.”

“But that is not all. The girls, whose names I’ve changed here for the sake of their privacy, were also told: when you menstruate, don’t cook food because you will pollute it. Don’t touch idols because you will defile them. Don’t handle pickles because they will go rotten with your touch.”
Rose George continues, “Pickles, I asked Ankita? Yes, madam, she told me, in her schoolyard in rural Uttar Pradesh. My mother says it is so. Her mother believed it, and her mother before her. It must be true.”
It must be true. If we believe what we told, it is then natural to go along with it even if it discounts our very essence. It is only when someone comes along that questions norms that we thought were set in stone, does any kind of change happen.
In her book, Revolution from Within, Gloria Steinem talks about how one group of women was challenged to think of their own bodies, and in turn, their own selves, differently. The catalyst in this case was Ela Bhatt, the social activist and lawyer who is known throughout the world as the founder of SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) with its headquarters in Ahmedabad, India. The story is from the formative days of the organization. Steinem talks about how once the work of forming SEWA was done, Ela Bhatt suggested that the founding group celebrate by going for a holiday together.
This founding group was made of “self-employed women”  who came from a  group that was the poorest of the poor – In India, “self-employed women” is a blanket term for women who do piece-work jobs, sell vegetables in the bazaars, carry construction materials on their heads at construction sites, collect paper from garbage dumps and so on. These were the women who didn’t believe they had any rights, whose work wasn’t valued, who wrestled everyday with problems like having to bribe the local police to sell their wares on the street. 

These women had never thought that they could take a holiday away from their families. Once Ela Bhatt had managed to convince them and make other arrangements for their families in their absence, they all set off in a rickety bus to visit religious places nearby. Everything went well until they came to a temple that could only be reached by crossing a river. In Hinduism, menstruating women are not allowed in temples. Obviously, there were women in the group who had their periods. These women were convinced that if they crossed the river, the boat would capsize and they would be punished for defying traditions. As they couldn’t swim, they would all drown.
Steinem says: “By appealing to every emotion from curiosity to defiance, Ela finally convinced them to get in the boat and consign themselves to the wide river and fate.” What happened when they crossed the river was that, well, nothing happened. After the women had placed their offerings in the temple, they returned back, and again – nothing happened.
For the first time in their lives, these women had flouted the rules that denigrated them, and they had come out unscathed. This was a defining point in the history of SEWA, which went on to become one of the most powerful women’s trade unions in India, and one of the largest in the world. With that experience, the women had understood that “If women’s bodies were not so “unclean” and inferior after all, perhaps their work was not so inferior either.”


  1. Ritu.. You know whats absolutely fascinating... is that its a jewish custom.. Its in the bible as well... in the old testament !!![Christianity and Islam have branched out of the Torah(Jewsh book)] .....

    I believe through my faith... that Jesus Christ has come and fulfilled humanity of all laws....

    1. Is it? That's interesting. Customs and norms go back to such ancient times - it's so hard to trace them back to their origins and why and where they started.