I Was Shamed For Being “Impure”
Women still grapple with the tradition of period isolation in southern India
My grandmother Ritu was a tough village girl, always roughhousing with her cousins. She lived in a farmhouse with a cavernous granary for the rice her grandfather sold, a large central room that echoed with laughter during meal times. The family ate in rows, Brown legs crossed on the floor, each one hunched over a vivid green banana leaf, which served as a plate for steaming rice, hot tamarind stews, and tropical vegetables tossed in fiery spices.
She was 14 when she got her first period. She was told to sit in a separate room. She slept and took her meals in there. After the fourth day, she washed her hair, there was a small ceremony, and she resumed her normal life. Every time she got her period after that, she was isolated to this separate room.
This practice is called theetu, which roughly translates as “impure.” Brahmins, people of high caste in India, are ritually obsessed with cleanliness. Mourners are theetu, having come in contact with a dead body. And of course, under the caste system, whole classes of people are designated as impure.
I only learned that my grandmother had experienced theetu, period isolation in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, after I experienced it myself.
In my early twenties, I left for India. I was staying with an aunt in Chennai, one of its largest southern cities. She asked me one day if I was on my period, and I told her yes.
She walked over to the prayer room, an incense and flower-filled shrine, and shut the double doors. And just like my grandmother many years before, I was theetu. I couldn’t use the stove or any utensils in the kitchen. I had to ask someone to help me if I want to fix a meal.
Years ago, I wrote a story about this experience for an American publication. I teetered between cultural relativity (what may be immoral in one tradition is fine in another, and who are we to judge) and a Western conception of feminism (that any discrimination between genders is immoral). We lived in a post-sexist society, and our biology should play no part in our social treatment. The piece made some traction in Western feminist circles.