A Visit from Aunt Flo in Nepal

This article is a testimonial written by a friend from France (Delphine) who experienced what Chhaupadi is first hand. This was in the more urban part of Western Nepal. We will do the Rato Baltin project in the more rural and remote ares. Originally published in: https://seedstoplants.wordpress.com/2016/09/29/a-visit-from-aunt-flo-in-nepal/

A little while back, a friend of mine, Clara, asked me if I could help with a prospective project and write about a rather interesting experience I had when I first arrived in Nepal- when I had a visit from Aunt Flo(w) in Far West Nepal.

Clara, whom I travelled most of Southern India with, continues to bravely and creatively lead photography workshops in many Asian countries in order to support different community projects with young monks, orphans, women, etc…  From February 2017, she will go back to Nepal and work collaboratively with local nurses in Far and Mid West Nepal, in order to raise awareness regarding menstruation and its management and hopefully decrease chhaupadi.  Chhaupadi, which literally means ‘untouchable beings’- is a tradition where women are banished from their homes and social interactions for the duration of their period as their blood is deemed ‘impure’.  This originally religious tradition  (Hinduism) was outlawed in 2005 by Nepal’s supreme court.  However the strongly ingrained believes and superstitions surrounding menses are still present in parts of Nepal, especially remote areas of Far West Nepal region.

For my part I did not know of this tradition until last year, when I travelled to Far West Nepal with my Nepali Couchsurfer Zach in order to trek to the nationally famous and highly regarded Rara Lake during the auspicious Dashain Festival season.

I had only been in Nepal for a handful of days when Zach invited me to join him on the trek, first stopping by Dhangadhi, a  large-ish town in the southern part of the Far West Region, to greet his uncle, aunties and cousins.  We started our journey in Kathmandu where we jumped on a rickety bus and stayed on for over 28 hours.  During that rather adventurous bus journey, my periods started and little did I know that that common monthly affair was going to give me an insight into a part of Hindu culture I yet had to discover.

On our arrival to his family house, we were warmly greeted, my hand was shaken by several people and tea and biscuits were offered from a common plate.  The atmosphere was festive and many questions were asked until I got up to go the toilet.  At that moment, Zach asked me to wait whilst he exchanged a few words with his family.  Although I could not understand the language, I could feel that the tone had  changed and I saw his aunty’s face literally fall.  Zach approached me and asked me if I had my periods- he must have seen me gearing up for the toilet each time the bus stopped.  As I nodded, the air tangibly shifted, as if the faster pace in people’s breathe actually influenced the outside air.  From there a new order was set: I got given access to ‘my own’ toilet (the good one in honour of the visiting Westerner) and was then showed to a small adjacent room to the house where to my surprise I found a young lady sitting on a chair with her feet on a single bed, typing away on her mobile phone.  Anjali, one of Zach’s cousins, travelled home from Kathmandu where she goes to school for the festival and was also on her menses- day 2.

Anjali could speak some English and was quite happy to have company and an opportunity to improve her English, and for me to learn some Nepali.  The bus journey had been long and I also used the unexpected opportunity of being ‘in quarantine’ to have a nap for a little while.  However after waking up, what I wanted most was to get my stiff legs out for a nice long walk and I asked Anjali if she fancied to join me to the nearby river that I had just been told creates a natural barrier between Nepal and India.  A suggestion  I naively thought would be easy became a negociation which was granted.  I indeed learnt later that Anjali would not have been allowed out of the room until day 5 of her periods if it had not been for an overseas visitor ‘pushing’ cultural boundaries.

For me, started an internal conflict between politeness and willingness to accept cultural norms but also a complete disapproval with the custom that tells all women that during their periods they are dirty and shoudl be kept away.  Indeed women (and I) are not allowed to interract socially,  receive tikka, nor to access any kitchens, touch people, share a plate, a toilet or any thing that their ‘impure’ body may have touched.

What I learnt though was that Zach’s family was not everyone.  Zach had told me that his aunties were more conservative than most families in that neighbourhood but that there were also much harsher practices in the area where we were to trek, such as girls left in barns in any seasons throughout their periods.

I came to an internal agreement that I would respect some of the customs, mostly as a way to experience this custom first hand, but that I would also use the exceptional status I had as a Westerner and take regular leave of the room to visit more broad-minded or simply curious neighbours who invited me in their homes for food.  I even joined Zach and his male friends for a beer out in the community, thing that I know is not usual for any woman and certainly not during her menses.  As a matter of fact I did not sleep in the little bed with Anjali at night as I was offered to sleep in another home by two young ladies living in New Deshi and home for the festival.  On my last day in Dhanghadi and ‘day 4’ of my periods, a lovely neighbour made an exception and gave me tika– a blessing that should normally not be done before ‘day 5’ minimum.

I made an exceptional friend during that time, Oshin, who to this day continues to share with me thoughts on many aspects of our cultures.  She helped me a lot to comprehend the different customs and the slow but definate change parts of Nepal is seeing in terms of women’s rights. Chhaupadi has no place to be in this world but I also think that a man-initiated law to ban Chhaupadi is not enough to compete with the all-seeing omnipotent gods that guard many beliefs in Nepal, mainly in more remote parts.

From my limited experience, I feel that a change is slowly coming thanks to technology and school programs.  Young educated people are starting to challenge a few grim and irrational practices and will hopefully and with time see periods as a healthy cycle of life rather than a shameful aspect of a woman’s life.  Projects such as Clara’s could lead in the long term to reduce and hopefully eradicate the fear and superstitions surrounding this custom.

To end, I would strongly recommend the following links:

If nothing else, please watch the Ted Talk by Adipi Gupta on periods and the taboos surrounding it.

http://www.nomoretaboo.org/blog/chhaupadi article and documentaries

http://borgenproject.org/menstrual-hygiene-remains-challenge-Nepal/  : article

http://www.irinnews.org/report/93404/nepal-emerging-menstrual-quarantine : article

https://swordandflute.wordpress.com/2013/07/19/three-days-of-impurity-menstruation-and-inauspiciousness/  : It is a long article but I recommend it (along with the comment section).  A more balanced ‘grey’ view than in other articles (mostly written by ‘Westerners’) brought up on this page.   The author, Sarika Persaud (Hindu living in the US), has written many articles on Hinduism and customs on Word Press.  In this article, she makes an attempt to understand the origins of the practices surrounding menstruation in Hinduism.

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