Cover image

Illustration by Tom Abi Samra

Untouchable: Ostracizing Menstruating Women in Nepal

Menstrual exclusion in Nepal is governed by archaic, patriarchal and misogynistic norms and defended by superficial justifications.

Nov 25, 2018

The horrors of the first-term examinations had crept in. Engrossed in our textbooks, my friend Saruja and I spent nearly an hour on the phone, preparing for our exam and trying to cram in whatever we could at the last minute. But the next day Saruja was nowhere to be found.
After spending eight hours anxiously wondering what could have gone wrong with her, I called her as soon as I reached home. “I can’t come to school for seven days,” she said. “They said I have “na chhune” now.”
In Nepal, menstruation is commonly known as “mens”, pronounced as “means,” or in colloquial Nepali, “na chhune,” which literally translates to “untouchable.”
Saruja spent her nights crying in a makeshift bed prepared especially for her in a corner of the house. She was restricted from performing any kind of religious activities or partaking in any social traditions. She was forbidden to enter the kitchen or even touch any food items. She was not allowed to cook, interact with the male members of the family and was confined to one room of the house. She had an entirely different set of utensils that were too ‘impure’ to be taken inside the kitchen. Additionally, the fact that she got her period was announced to the entire extended family, friends and acquaintances without her consent. She wasn’t even allowed to go to school for four days, despite it being examination season.
Saruja is not alone. About 89 percent of menstruating women in Nepal experience some form of restriction or exclusion. One extreme form of menstrual seclusion practice is known as Chhaupadi Pratha. Practiced mostly in the far and mid-western regions of Nepal, Chhaupadi is a common tradition of banishing menstruating women to cow sheds or huts for four to seven days where they suffer in isolation. Denied social contact, access to clean sources of water and nutritious food, these women are often at high risk of illness, sexual violence and animal attacks while in the 'chhau’ or menstrual hut. Gauri Kumari Bayak lost her life due to smoke inhalation from the fire she had lit to keep herself warm, and Tulashi Shahi died of a snake bite. Lalsara Bika died due to cold and Basanti Bohara claims that a group of boys tried to rape her. These are just a few examples.
In 2017, a number of deaths as a result of the practice of Chhaupadi caught media attention, which led to a law that encouraged women to destroy their chhau, giving them hope that they shall no longer be exiled during menstruation. However, there is considerable evidence that menstruating women are still being exiled as they are accused of inducing misfortunes in society.
These practices are governed by archaic, patriarchal and misogynistic norms and defended by superficial justifications.
A common justification for menstrual exclusion is sanitation. In the absence of proper sanitary products, hygiene would be compromised during menstruation. While this may have been the rationale behind menstrual exclusion centuries ago, it fails to justify it in today’s context where menstrual hygiene products are becoming increasingly accessible.
The other justification provided for exclusion is that women are physically weak while menstruating, and therefore need a break. But it is not really a break. Had it been so, Saruja would have been given the agency to choose for herself. She would have had the option to go to school. This break is instead imposed on women — it is a kind of exile. An exile in their own homes. The notion of providing a break to women by demanding they restrict their mobility is hypocritical. How can they claim that menstrual exclusion is a break for women if they demand more of women while they are menstruating?
Referring to a woman as a “na chhune” implies that she is inferior to men just because she menstruates. When a woman isn’t allowed to cook for herself, her agency is taken away. When she is restricted from touching any food or drink in the house, she internalizes the notion that her touch is inherently sinful. Forbidding a 12-year-old from going to school when she gets her first period is prioritizing her confinement over her education.
The mere four days subtly corrode her life.
Our society, comprised of 81.3 percent Hindus, practices menstrual exclusion on the basis of religion. The Manusmriti: The Laws of Manu or treatises of Hinduism states that, “A Kandala, a village pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating woman, and a eunuch must not look at the Brahmanas while they eat.” It further portrays menstrual exclusion as a practice to preserve men’s strength, wisdom, energy, sight and vitality. It says that men must not converse with menstruating women, else they shall perish.
This is nothing more than the patriarchy sugar-coated as sanitary and cultural. It is saddening how even educated households, like Saruja’s, refrain from acknowledging the repercussions of menstrual exclusion.
Aakriti Ghimire is a contributing writer. Email her at
gazelle logo