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Illustration by Quim Paredes

That’s What She Said: Perpetuating Patriarchy in the Name of Culture

It is time we stop hiding behind the guise of culture and tradition to justify archaic patriarchal beliefs that oppress women and teach us to be ashamed of our own bodies.

Sep 28, 2019

According to the Lunar calendar, Rishi Panchami, celebrated on the fifth day in the month of Bhadra is one of the most auspicious days for Hindus. The festival is dedicated to the Sapta Rishis — seven sages, who are believed to have devoted their lives to the betterment of humankind. As part of the festivities, Hindu women pray to these rishis and show them their devotion by fasting all day.
I was thirteen years old when I took part in my first Rishi Panchami puja (prayer ceremony) — when I got my first period. “Not everyone is lucky enough to be a part of such a holy ritual,” my grandmother told me. “So, now it’s your responsibility to honor the rishis and be more careful about your actions and behavior.”
I remember being extremely excited to join my female relatives in dressing up in beautiful red sarees and kurtas and breaking our day long fast together. Every year I would look forward to celebrating this festival as an occasion to bond with my female relatives. However, it wasn’t until a couple of years later, when I asked my grandmother what the story behind the festival was, that I realized it was a celebration that shamed women and their bodies.
According to the legend behind Rishi Panchami, one night, several ants covered the body of a young widowed Brahmin girl. Out of concern and astonishment, her parents called a rishi (sage) to mend the situation. The rishi then told her parents that, in her previous life, she had entered the kitchen while menstruating, contaminating it with her impure touch. She would have to carry out various purification rituals on the day of Rishi Panchami to ask the Sapta Rishis (sages) for forgiveness for committing such a grave sin.
Over the festival, therefore, women carry out a number of rituals, including bathing and brushing their teeth with specific purifying herbs and drinking butter to purify their souls. These rituals — that I thought were harmless ways for us to stay more connected to our ancestors — were actually us collectively begging for forgiveness for our menstrual cycles, one of our most natural bodily processes.
According to a review by the Maverick Collective in 2015, 89 percent of menstruating women in Nepal face some form of restriction or exclusion, be it from entering a temple and worshipping, to going into a kitchen or touching a male member of the family. In remote western areas, in fact, menstruating women are even exiled from their houses through a practice called Chhaupadi Pratha, despite it being criminalized in 2017.
Since a young age we are taught that we should ostracize ourselves during this time and that it is our responsibility to protect everyone around us from our corrupt touches. Girls, especially in remote areas, refrain from talking about the struggles that come with menstruation— the inaccessibility of hygiene products, the forced leave from school, the health and sanitation issues — out of fear of going against their culture.
Bajura, a district in the far-western region of the country, where the Chhaupadi is still prevalent, had one of the lowest female enrolment rates in the country in 2018. Furthermore, adolescent girls in the region missed around 4-5 days of school each month during menstruation. Evidently, the stigma surrounding menstruation has damaging effects on the advancement of young girls.
Age-old traditions like Rishi Panchami are so deeply rooted in our culture that women are told not to question them. Even if they do, most still feel a sense of obligation, or are even [forced] (, to follow them. Despite knowing what the festival symbolizes and its implications, my relatives continue to celebrate and take part in the rituals every year — unless, of course, they are on their periods.
A festival like Rishi Panchami essentially transforms a natural phenomenon into a dehumanizing source of shame and guilt. Continuing to celebrate such a festival only perpetuates the taboo surrounding menstruation and its toxic manifestations in various aspects of our lives, from always having to hide our sanitary products to using euphemisms to hide our feelings of shame when discussing our periods.
It is time we stop hiding behind the guise of culture and tradition to justify archaic patriarchal beliefs that oppress women and teach us to be ashamed of our own bodies.
Aasna Sijapati is a columnist and News Editor. Email her at
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