It is not unknown that different cultures view the same phenomena through varied lenses. Similarly, beliefs and rituals surrounding various biological phenomena hold contrasting views across societies and communities. Very frequently, the most controversial and debated rituals are based on women and their bodies, their actions, their course of life and almost all that they do; everything is somehow morphed into superstition and then that superstition into a ritual, especially if we talk about menstruation
The tradition surrounding menstruation that prompted me to write this article today was my Assamese roommate’s fond memories of her Tuloni Biya, a celebration on the occasion of her first period where she was believably made to get ‘married’ and welcomed into the world as a woman.
Why Menstruation Has Been An Everlasting Debate In The Country
One of the most common biological phenomena has to be menstruation. A menstruator goes through a plethora of hormonal changes during the cycle which correspond to physical development and results in adolescence in the final stage. We will not explore the gender aspect of menstruation and comment on how a majority of the population is left behind because it does not fit into the societal parameters of being someone who goes through the biological process; that is the topic for another day. Today is about the women who menstruate and are also recipients of the judgement of the biases of our society.
In most parts of our country, periods have been stigmatised and treated much like a social taboo. The rituals that are involved with this five-day-long cycle generally ostracise women and treat them as separate from the rest of the people residing in space. Not being able to enter the hearth or use bedding are some commonly found practices used to marginalise menstruating women.
These practices might have had very different intentions initially but were later warped according to caste and gender conventions and proved to be problematic henceforth.
What Is Tuloni Biya
Tuloni Biya is a major life event that is celebrated with as much vigour and sincerity as other mainstream events in the northeastern state of Assam. My roommate, Panchoy Baruah, a resident of Golaghat, remembers hers as a grand celebration where she felt like the most important person in the gathering. “It is such a happy and vivid memory of my childhood.”, claimed Panchoy. It was the day when she got married at thirteen! She had new clothes, new jewellery, a scrumptious feast, dozens of guests and most importantly for her, a gala time over the span of three days.
Tuloni Biya, a rather uncommon celebration of menstruation, does diametrically the opposite of what the rest of our nation does. It does not make menstruation a hush-hush topic; it announces the arrival of it. In the ritual, the groom’s side is makeshift and a young banana plant is treated as the groom. The girl is adorned with vermillion by her mother and is presented with a ‘child’ symbolising her ability to procreate.
On the surface, this practice looks glamorous and progressive just because it is better than the rest. Dissecting it would portray the underlying connotations of this massive facade that is just as problematic as the rest, if not more.
The symbolic marriage and the baby are just the social sanction that the little girl has come of age now and can be used for procreation. The reductionism of the individuality of young girls to just being an extension of a man and a medium to give birth to his offspring is what kills the subconscious belief that they are much more than what they are told to be. It reinforces the belief that young girls are a commodity, a burden to their parents and society at large. The ritual declares to the whole village that a little girl is ready to serve as the patriarchal society deems fit for her.
Tuloni Biya is not the only problematic practice around menstruation. Other rituals are evident examples of ostracization and marginalisation. They openly preach the stigma attached to bleeding women and often isolate them forcefully. In my opinion, that is a better way of propagating problematic perceptions since they are clearly visible. People do not have to look at them critically to say that they are problematic.
The problem lies in these coveted rituals, like Tuloni Biya, that try to pose as progressive. They are vicious cycles that not only make the problem imperceptible but also change the whole face of it. They are flag bearers of patriarchy and misogyny but have also been able to ploy themselves as respectful. Stereotyping women as birth givers and wives is as old as time and stale misogyny in the 21st century is definitely overdone.
Patriarchy has able-handedly seeped deep enough into our daily lives and getting rid of it completely is difficult. The first step is to identify these problems and be catalytic in revolutionising the everyday lives of thousands of young girls. But it is about time that we stop compartmentalising the roles of women and try to impose them on them through every possible outlet.
Authored by Debarati Mitra, a student of Sociology Honours and the University of Delhi.
Views expressed by the author are their own.
Suggested reading: What Is Free Bleeding? Gen Z Movement Challenges Menstrual Norms