“Oh, she’s here just to enquire about our ‘guesthouse’," Rani tells Lavanya, her ‘roommate’ there. Both seem relieved to know the purpose of our visit.
Panic had swept the streets of Koovalapuram village in T. Kallupatti block of Madurai district when we first made enquiries about the guesthouse, on a visit there in early January. Men, speaking in hushed tones, pointed us towards two women – both young mothers – sitting on a porch at a distance.
“It’s on the other side, let’s go,” the women say, leading us to a corner of the village almost half a kilometre away. The two isolated rooms, the so-called ‘guesthouse’, appear to be abandoned when we reach. Intriguingly, a neem tree between the two small structures is laden with sacks suspended from its branches.
The ‘guests’ at the guesthouse are menstruating women. They are not here by invitation or by choice, however. They are forced to spend time here by the rigidly enforced community norms of this village of 3,000 inhabitants, roughly 50 kilometres from Madurai city. The two women we encounter at the guesthouse, Rani and Lavanya (not their real names), will have to stay here for up to five days. However, girls attaining puberty are confined here for a whole month, as are women following a delivery, along with their newborn babies.
“We keep our sacks with us in the room,” explains Rani. The sacks contain the separate vessels that women must use during menstruation. No food is cooked here. Food from home, often cooked by neighbours, is delivered to the women in these utensils. To avoid physical contact, they are suspended in sacks on the neem tree. There are different sets of vessels for each ‘guest’ – even if they are from the same family. But there are only two rooms and they must be shared.
In Koovalapuram, women in Rani and Lavanya’s situation have no option when menstruating other than staying in these rooms – the first of which was constructed around two decades ago using funds pooled together by people in the village. Both women are 23 and married. Lavanya has two children and Rani has one; the husbands of both are agricultural labourers.
“Right now, there’s just the two of us, but sometimes there are eight or nine women here, and the place gets crowded,” says Lavanya. Since that happens frequently, village elders benevolently promised a second room and a youth welfare organisation raised funds and constructed it in October 2019.
Though there are only the two of them at present, Rani and Lavanya are occupying the new room because it is bigger, airier and brighter. Ironically, in this humble space defined by regressive convention, sits a laptop that Lavanya got from the state government when she was in school. “How else do we kill time, sitting here? We listen to songs or watch movies on my laptop. I will take it back when I go home,” she says.
The ‘guesthouse’ is a euphemism for muttuthurai, a space meant for ‘polluted’ women. “We refer to it as a guesthouse in front of our kids, so they do not understand what it's really for,” Rani explains. “It is a matter of shame, being in the muttuthurai – especially when there are temple festivals or public functions, and we have relatives from outside the village who are unfamiliar with the practice.” Koovalapuram is one of five villages in Madurai district where women must live in isolation when they menstruate. The other villages that follow the practice are Pudupatti, Govindanallur, Saptur Alagapuri and Chinnaiahpuram.
The isolation can lead to stigma. Tongues wag in the village if young, unmarried women are not in the guesthouse at the appointed time. “They don’t understand how my menstrual cycle works, but if I do not go into muttuthurai every 30 days, people say I shouldn’t be sent to school,” says 14-year-old Class 9 student Bhanu (not her real name).
“I am not surprised,” says Saalai Selvam, a Puducherry-based feminist writer vocal on the taboos surrounding menstruation.“The world constantly tries to put a woman down, to treat her as a second-class citizen. These taboos in the name of culture are just another opportunity to deny her basic rights. As feminist Gloria Steinem asked in her landmark essay ['If Men Could Menstruate'], wouldn’t things be entirely different if men were menstruating?”
Many of the women I met in Koovalapuram and Saptur Alagapuri reinforced Selvam’s point – that culture camouflages discrimination. Both Rani and Lavanya were forced to disrupt their studies after Class 12 and were promptly married off. “I had complications during my delivery and had to undergo a caesarean. I have had irregular periods since the delivery, but if there is any delay in going to muttuthurai, people ask if I am already pregnant again. They just do not understand my problem,” Rani says.
Rani, Lavanya and other women of Koovalapuram have no idea when this practice originated. But, says Lavanya, “Our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers were also similarly isolated. So we are no different.”
Chennai-based medical practitioner and Dravidian ideologue Dr. Ezhilan Naganathan offers a strange but seemingly rational explanation for the practice: “It originated when we were hunter-gatherers,” he believes.
“The Tamil term veetukku thooram [distant from home – a euphemism for menstruating women kept separate] was originally kaatukku thooram [distant from the forests]. Women retreated to a safe place since it was believed that the scent of blood [from menstruation, childbirth or puberty] would cause wild animals to hunt them down. The practice was later used to oppress women.”
Koovalapuram folklore is less rational. It is a promise, residents say, made in reverence to a siddhar (holy man), that is binding on this and the other four villages in the vicinity. “The siddhar lived and walked among us, he was a god and powerful,” says 60-year-old M. Muthu, chief executive of the temple in Koovalapuram dedicated to the siddhar – Thangamudi Samy. “We believe that our village and Pudupatti, Govindanallur, Saptur Alagapuri and Chinnaiahpuram were the wives of the siddhar. Any attempt to break the promise will lead to the destruction of these villages.”
But 70-year-old C. Rasu, who has lived most of his life in Koovalapuram, denies any discrimination. “This is a practice in reverence to the almighty. The women have been given all comforts including a solid roof over their heads, fans and a fairly decent space.”
Something that his sister Muthuroli, almost 90 years old, could not ‘enjoy’ in her time. “We had only thatched roofs over our heads. There was no electricity either. Today’s girls are better off, and still they complain. But we must follow this system,” she declares emphatically. “Otherwise, we will be brought to dust.”
Most women in the village have internalised this myth. One woman who attempted to conceal her menstruation on one occasion found herself repeatedly dreaming of snakes, which she interpreted as a sign that the gods were indeed angry that she had broken tradition and not gone to the muttuthurai.
Left unsaid in all these conversations is the fact that the ‘comforts’ of the guesthouse do not include toilets. “We go far into the fields to relieve ourselves or to change napkins,” says Bhanu. The girls going to school in the village have begun to use sanitary napkins (which are buried or burnt after use, or discarded beyond village limits), while the older women still use cloth that they wash and reuse.
There is a water tap out in the open for those in the muttuthurai – the rest of the village will not touch it. “Without washing our clothes and the blankets we take with us, we cannot step back into the main village,” explains Rani.
In nearby Saptur Alagapuri, a village of around 600 people in Sedappati block, women believe they will stop menstruating if they defy the practice. Karpagam (not her real name), 32, originally from Chennai, was intrigued by the practice of isolation. “But I understood it is culture, and I cannot defy it. Both my husband and I now work in Tiruppur and come here only on vacation.” She points to a small space beneath the stairs in her house which she says is her ‘place’ when menstruating.
The muttuthurai in Saptur Alagapuri is a small, ramshackle structure in an isolated spot, and women prefer to camp outside their homes on the streets when they are menstruating. “Unless it is raining,” says 41-year-old Latha (not her real name). Then, they move into the muttuthurai.
Ironically, in both Koovalapuram and Saptur Alagapuri, almost all households have toilets, built under state schemes around seven years ago. Younger residents use them, though older villagers, including women, prefer to use the fields. But the muttuthurai in both villages don’t have toilets.
“Even if we are walking towards the place after getting our periods, we cannot take the main road,” says Shalini (not her real name), a 20-year-old undergraduate in microbiology. “We have to take a circuitous, almost deserted route to reach the muttuthurai.” Shalini never discusses menstruation with other students at her college in Madurai, fearing she may ‘spill the secret’. "It is not something to be proud of, you know,” she says.
T. Selvakani, 43, an organic farmer in Saptur Alagapuri, has tried speaking to the villagers about the taboo. “We have started using smartphones and laptops, and still have our women isolated [during menstruation] in 2020?” he asks. Appeals to reason do not work, however. “Even a district collector must follow this rule here,” insists Latha. “Here, even nurses working in clinics and hospitals [and other educated and employed women] live outside when menstruating,” she says. “Even your wife should, it is a matter of faith,” she tells Selvakani.
Women have to stay in the guesthouse for up to five days. However, girls attaining puberty are confined here for a whole month, as are women following a delivery, along with their newborn babies
“You can find other such ‘guesthouses’ around the districts of Madurai and Theni. They have different temples to abide by, different reasons,” says Saalai Selvam. “We have tried our best to talk to people, but they don't listen because it is a matter of faith. It can be changed only by political will. But instead, those in power make promises to modernise the guesthouse, to provide more facilities when they come seeking votes.”
Selvam feels that instead, those in power can step in and do away with the guesthouses. “They say it is difficult because it is a matter of faith. But for how long can we allow this sort of untouchability to exist? Sure, there will be a backlash if the government takes a drastic step – but it has to [end] and, trust me, people will soon forget.”
Taboos around menstruation and period-shaming are not uncommon in Tamil Nadu. Fourteen-year-old S. Vijaya from Anaikkadu village in Pattukkottai block lost her life to this taboo in November 2018 when Cyclone Gaja hit Thanjavur district. The menstruating girl, who was having her first period, had been made to stay alone in a thatched hut close to home. (The rest of her family, in the main house, survived).
“The taboo exists across most of Tamil Nadu, only the degree varies,” says documentary filmmaker Geetha Ilangovan, whose 2012 documentary Maadhavidaai (Menses) covers the taboos around menstruation. The forms of isolation may be somewhat discreet in some urban areas, but remain prevalent. “I have heard a bureaucrat’s wife saying she did not allow her daughter inside the kitchen during those three days and it was the time meant for her ‘rest’. You can dress it up in different words, but ultimately it is about discrimination.”
Ilangovan also says that period-shaming is common across religions and socioeconomic backgrounds, only in different ways. “For my documentary, I spoke to a woman who had relocated to a city in America, yet continues to remain isolated during menstruation. She argued it was her personal choice. What is a personal choice for upper-class, upper-caste women like her becomes societal pressure for voiceless women who wield no power in a very rigid patriarchal set-up."
“One should also remember that this culture of purity actually belongs to the ‘upper' caste,” Ilangovan continues. Yet it affects all of society – Koovalapuram’s community is largely Dalit. The filmmaker says the “target audience for the documentary was men; we want them to understand the issue. Policymakers are almost always men. Unless we talk about this, unless there are conversations starting from home about this, I see no hope.”
Besides, “isolating women without proper water facilities can lead to lots of health hazards,” says Chennai-based gynaecologist Dr. Sharada Sakthirajan. “Keeping soaked pads on for long periods of time and the absence of clean water services can result in urinary and reproductive tract infections. These infections can impair the future fertility of women and cause long-term health hazards like chronic pelvic pain. Poor hygiene (reusing old cloth) and consequent infections are important risk factors for developing cervical cancer,” she says.
A 2018 report published in the International Journal of Community Medicine and Public Health says cervical cancer is the second most common cancer to affect women, especially in rural areas of Tamil Nadu.
Back in Koovalapuram, Bhanu has other priorities. “You cannot change this practice, however hard you try,” she tells me discreetly. “But if there is anything you can do for us, please get us toilets at the muttuthurai. It will make our lives easier.”
Cover illustration: Priyanka Borar is a new media artist experimenting with technology to discover new forms of meaning and expression. She designs experiences for learning and play, juggles with interactive media, and also feels at home with traditional pen and paper.
PARI and CounterMedia Trust's nationwide reporting project on adolescent girls and young women in rural India is part of a Population Foundation of India-supported initiative to explore the situation of these vital yet marginalised groups, through the voices and lived experience of ordinary people.