For five years, Anita Bai came by my house in Mumbai every afternoon to dust, sweep and mop. But we'd never had a conversation about periods — until two years ago. We were in my kitchen.
See, insects had invaded my spice rack, and I was annoyed at having to dump out the turmeric. Anita Bai insisted that this is what happens when women cook while they're "impure" — that is, when they're on their menses. Back in her village just south of Mumbai, menstruating ladies wouldn't be allowed to enter the kitchen, she told me. I was reaping what I had sowed.
I've always known that in certain parts of India, women are shunned for the duration of their periods. But in urban India, I always felt periods were a private matter. Even in big cities like Mumbai, where most Hindu temples post signs asking menstruating women to stay away, I figured the decision to pray — or not pray — while bleeding was ultimately between a woman and her god.
This Fall, that decision became a whole lot more public. It started at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, which is dedicated to the Hindu deity Sri Ayyappan. For at least the last hundred years, women of reproductive age have been barred from entering the temple because Ayyappan, an ascetic, had shunned bodily desire. Only men are allowed to visit, after undergoing 41 days of ritual fasting and abstinence not just from sex, but also alcohol and tobacco.
In November, reporters asked the new president of the temple's governing board, Prayar Gopalakrishnan, whether he'd consider lifting the ban on women aged 10 to 50. His response: "The day there will be a machine to detect if it's the 'right time' for women to enter temples, that day they will be allowed in Sabrimala."
His remarks struck a chord with a student activist who goes by the alias Nikita Azad (Azad means free). On the site Youth Ki Awaaz (the voice of the youth), Azad wrote an open letter to Gopalakrishnan questioning this discrimination against a natural, biological function. "Aren't all the men who enter the temple product of the blood formed in their mothers' uteruses?" she wrote. "You have decided that I should not bring my polluted blood inside the temple. But, which God gave somebody the right to choose what I do with my blood?"
Azad then posted a picture on Facebook with the hashtag #HappyToBleed, which quickly went viral. Women in India and around the world started using the hashtag on Twitter and Facebook, and many changed their profile photos to depict sanitary napkins and tampons.
"This is not an anti-temple campaign," Azad explains. "It's against menstrual taboos, which affect health because there is no space to talk about it."
Lots of Hindu temples ask menstruating women to stay away. Even the Kamakhya temple in Assam, which celebrates fertility and menstruation, bars women who are on their periods.
"Who knows when this prohibition started?" says Khevana Desai, an assistant professor of sociology at Mithibai College in Mumbai. "There is no logic to it."
In fact, the oldest scriptures in Hinduism, the Vedas, refer to menstrual blood euphemistically as kusum (flower), pushpa (blossom) and jivarakta (the giver of life). The Laws of Manu, the ancient Hindu codes of governance, are fairly neutral about menstruation.
Most scholars agree that the idea that periods are impure likely sprang up in medieval times. The practice of shunning menstruating women was a way for upper-class male priests to protect their position at the top of the hierarchy, Desai says.
A lot of cultures and religions have rigid rules around menstruation, she notes.
In India, those who perpetuate the taboo sometimes give it positive spin, saying it's a way to protect women. "The original idea may have been to give women a break because they used to do a lot of strenuous manual work — collecting water, harvesting grain," says Desai. One religious guru says it's because menstruating women are too pure to enter a temple.
But anthropologists and historians point out that across cultures, the emergence of menstrual taboos tends to coincide with a lower status for women. "I think the patriarchy added the idea of impurity as a way of reinforcing their supremacy," Desai says.
"I've seen women shunned, being treated as untouchable, made to sleep on jute mats, not fed in the same plates," Desai adds. Some traditions hold that if a menstruating woman's shadow falls on certain plants, the leaves fall off. It's clear that these beliefs hinder, rather than help women, she says.
But these days, more and more people are starting to question such superstitions, Desai says. Many of my female friends and acquaintances tell me they don't abide by their families' old-fashioned conventions. One woman I recently met at a wedding says if she's expressly barred from enter a temple when she's on her period, "I make it a point to go in."
Online, Azad's #HappyToBleed tag has not only given rise to plenty of tongue-in-cheek posts but also stray discussions about menstrual cups and feminine hygiene.
Not everyone is on board with #HappyToBleed: Online commenters are calling Azad and her supporters names and telling them that if they want to defy traditions that are thousands of years old, they should "go abroad." She notes that these assailants are overwhelmingly male.
Azad and some fellow activists are taking the Sabrimala temple issue to the Indian government's National Commission for Women, to "take a stand on menstrual taboos and discrimination across all religions." And she wants the commission to work toward something even bigger: free menstrual hygiene for all women.
Meanwhile, until that period-detecting machine is invented, a woman's monthly cycle remains between her and her gods — except, of course, at Sabrimala.