What I couldn’t see in isolation

Some women embrace unjust practices in the name of tradition

When I first arrived at Pottal Pacheri, a village in Madurai district bordering the Watrap hills of Virudhunagar, the women who met me were curious. They had heard that negative news was being reported about a nearby village called Koovalapuram. The news reports were about a room specifically dedicated for women to use during their menstrual cycle. They had seen the reports on WhatsApp and social media, they said.

They asked me why I wanted to know about that one room alone. I told them that I was writing an elaborate article attempting to understand some traditional practices in Tamil Nadu. My answer seemed to mollify them and I was taken to see the room.

I knew, however, that the story was not going to be about women priding themselves on upholding an age-old practice. That was not why I was there. Sometimes, reporters are required to be restrained about their intent when they are chasing a story. Some element of deception is always necessary to get to the hidden truth.

It really wasn’t much of a room. Water was seeping through the roof. Parts of the wall that had chipped off lay on the floor along with soiled mats and animal waste. The women said they had to go to the nearest water tank to relieve themselves as there was no bathroom. Even if 10 women got their period at the same time, they had no choice but to adjust in a space that seemed barely enough to accommodate two. They said they were merely following tradition.

Then came the interesting part. Although to me, an outsider, the practice was blatantly discriminatory, the women I spoke to didn’t think so. They told me that it was an honour to be in the room during their period. They said being confined in that space enabled the birth and growth of healthy children in the village. They believed that if they did not go into the ‘period room’, the other women in the village would not be able to conceive.

One woman, Palaniammal, sought the construction of a ‘period room’ which was spacious, well-lit and with access to a bathroom. She assumed that this demand would form the crux of my article. She told me to tell everyone, particularly senior officers, that the women wanted better infrastructure. She also asked me to highlight how they uphold cultural values.

Instead, I went ahead and reported on how a discriminatory practice excludes women from having access to basic amenities. I wondered briefly later: was that angle not a betrayal of their trust? Was it right on my part to expose their experiences?

I also came across women who had escaped this set-up. Women who had married into these villages said that they travelled to their parents’ homes to avoid feeling isolated. One woman said that she and many others had sent their daughters to hostels so that they wouldn’t have to go through this practice. These women said that this practice filled them with a sense of shame. A natural phenomenon made them feel unwanted and alien. It also allowed the festering of unscientific beliefs — they believed that staying at home would affect child birth.

To end the taboo surrounding menstruation, I believed that the story had to be about discrimination, about the conditions in the room and the experiences of these women. This is why I chose to report the practice in these villages as a discriminatory one. But some women embrace discrimination in the name of tradition. They do have agency and perhaps an outsider is not best placed to judge their ways.

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