Puberty marks a significant change in a child’s life. It is a transition into adolescence, a coming of age that indicates the start of a new stage in one’s life. Despite the challenges that come with this major shift, it is something that adolescents celebrate among their peers, friends, and communities as an initiation of sorts to the adult world. There are various coming of age ceremonies across the globe, some are celebratory in nature while some are not. For example, the adventure sport of bungee jumping originally emerged from Pentecost Island, where it was considered a means to prove one’s manhood.
Puberty celebrations are a popular cultural event celebrated across India, the most popular of which is the half saree function performed to mark a young girl’s first menstrual cycle. It is known by different names across the nation: Langa Voni, Ritu Kala Samskara, Ritu Shuddhi, Peddamanishi Pandaga in parts of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Tuloni Biya in Assam, Manjal Neerattu Vizha in Tamil Nadu.
When the young girl’s first period starts, she is made to live in isolation for 6-15 days. She is confined to a room and instructed not to touch anything. She is fed a traditional diet consisting of rice, ragi, pulses, ghee, foods rich in vitamin E, etc to prepare the body for menstrual cycles. On the 7th, 9th, or 16th day she is bathed by her aunts after which there is a haldi ceremony where all members of the family take turns applying a haldi and neem paste to purify her. A priest is then called to perform a purification ritual for the house. After this, there is a feast that is somewhat similar to a wedding reception, where the young girl wears her first half-saree and is graced with several gifts to celebrate her initiation into womanhood. The half saree function while representing a transition into womanhood also indicates that the young girl is fertile and of marriageable age i.e., she is ready to wed and bear children. However, the background and purpose behind these celebrations contribute to a very patriarchal attitude towards womanhood. They imply that the attainment of puberty is celebrated because the young girl is now fertile which promotes the notion that a woman’s value in society lies only in her ability to bear children. Her identity is reduced to that of a mere baby-making machine. They essentially announce to the community that a young girl, a minor who is barely starting her teen years, is available for marriage. While the ceremony does not indicate that her family is actively searching for potential grooms, it still indicates that she is open to considering marriage, irrespective of the potential groom’s age. Moreover, a woman is considered impure during her menstrual cycle and is expected to isolate herself for its duration and is restricted from having physical contact with anything and anyone. She is prohibited from entering temples. There is no such ritual for boys, which challenges the notion that the ritual is to celebrate puberty, a natural biological process that is universal. Additionally, it is restricted to women who are biologically born as a female, thus discriminating against transwomen, and restricting them from celebrating their physical maturity, should they desire it.
This is the scenario on one end of the spectrum. On the other end, there are schools that conduct sex education sessions to educate young girls about the biological process behind their menstrual cycles. However, they are also taught that their periods are something to be ashamed of and something that should be hidden. They are taught how to use sanitary napkins but are also taught to dispose of them secretly so as to not alert others, especially men, about it. It is drilled into our heads from an early age that none of the men in our houses should catch even a hint of when our periods start and end and that the younger males of the family should be shielded from the knowledge of menstrual cycles. In our so-called modern cities and urban areas, we still hold on to belief systems like this that compel a young girl to spend the rest of her life dealing with social stigma, discrimination, and shame surrounding her period.
Both ends of the spectrum are absolute in their beliefs. What is considered a shameful taboo in some parts of India is celebrated in others. The stark differences between both these sides open questions on whether it is necessary that this natural phenomenon should result in women either being compelled to live a life of secrecy, restrictions, and shame or be introduced to the concept with pride but at the cost of being advertised as “available for marriage.” The most obvious and effective solution to this issue would be to educate the public and young children not just about the natural and biological nature of menstrual cycles to help mitigate the stigma to whatever extent possible, but also to spread awareness about the patriarchal implications of puberty celebrations being conducted only for girls and their potential to delimit a young girl’s identity to just being a reproducer. We can start by teaching our young girl’s that there is nothing shameful about something as natural as menstrual cycles and make boys aware from a young age that there is nothing impure about a menstruating woman. This education must start at home with scope to widen the impact with more inclusive and less discriminatory lessons at schools and workplaces.
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