Open Journal Systems

The following is a part of an essay series for the Volume 41 Symposium, Are You There Law? It's Me, Menstruation. Preregister for the Symposium here.

Unclean

Yadurshini Raveendran

Growing up in urban Sri Lanka, a girl’s first period was considered a celebration, feted publicly in a grandiose fashion often symbolizing the family’s social status. As a private person, the idea of publicizing this very private affair was uncomfortable and embarrassing. What was more startling was the huge lifestyle and societal changes that were now a part of my life. I was now told to limit my seating, interactions with people, and even clothing because I was considered ‘unclean’. This concept perplexed me because for the first three days of my period, I was considered ‘dirty’. If I sat on the sofa, my mum would follow behind with a wet cloth to wipe the non-existent ‘dirt’ away. I was not allowed to touch my own clothes, and if I accidentally made contact with anything around the house, my mum would wipe it down until on the third day I took a shower and ‘washed away’ the dirt. I couldn’t understand this “uncleanliness” that my mother spoke of. As a practicing Hindu, perhaps more perplexing was my banishment from going to the temple. If menstruation was natural then why was I prohibited from a place of worship and unable to honor the goddesses that supposedly created me?

It’s been 6 years since I left home and almost a decade since my first period, and yet - despite the education and social mobility that I have attained - I find myself in a cultural conundrum. Every month on the third day of my period, like clockwork, I take a shower, strip my bed and wipe the entire house down. Logically, I know it’s a flawed ritual built on centuries of misogyny and patriarchal ideology, yet I continue to struggle internally to break free of the grip that these taboos hold on me. I find that these rituals give me a foothold into my cultural identity. Subconsciously, I think I fear letting go of these rituals. I’m afraid that letting go would be synonymous with letting go of my identity as a Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu woman in my current, ever-changing environment. As an immigrant to the U.S., stability is a treacherous fiend that you constantly seek. Yet, as your accent slips away, and you get used to doing things differently, you question whether you’re losing a little bit of your roots at the same time. My monthly period gives me a semblance of normalcy. Paradoxically, despite the pain and discomfort, I find comfort in the routine of having my period, and the long, drawn-out process of cleaning myself and my home. This ritual helps me feel more grounded, it reinforces that despite perpetual change, I am still the same woman I’ve always been. Regardless of the tensions of going through this patriarchal cleansing ritual and the huge amount of effort it entails, if I choose to ignore it, I am left with a sense of deep discomfort. I continue to learn and unpack these tensions, and hope to one day see my period as natural and not ‘unclean’.