Talking and laughing about a good friend’s ma-in-law’s horror at her attempting to cook in basi kapor (stale clothes), I have to wonder again at the huge and constant double standards of this culture I belong to.
What is basi kapor then? Literally, it means stale clothes, the clothes you have slept in. But, hold on, why does this apply only to women, and only to married ones? And how does sleeping in some clothes make them so totally unsuitable for anything the next morning? So much so that the first thing you have to do is change out of them before you contemplate tackling your household chores and duties? Why can you not step into the kitchen, or the place of worship, in these stale clothes? It is when you begin to think about these questions that the truth strikes you. They are not the clothes you have slept in, they are the clothes you have had sex in, or put on after sex.
Given the overpowering, all exclusive emphasis that Indian culture places on getting and staying married, serving “every need” of your lord and master, and on being a mother (that is giving birth to offspring, preferably numerous, preferably male), it is quite amazing how much we denigrate, hate, abuse, and hide everything that has anything to do with these aims.
Be fertile the culture tells you. Being unable to produce children is the biggest sin a woman can commit. The baanjh, or barren woman, is the most inauspicious creature in this culture, excluded from all good/auspicious occasions and rituals for fear of her infertility blasting everything her shadow touches. Whether she is infertile or not is decided merely by the fact of her not having any visible kids, regardless of whether her husband is impotent, or infertile, or simply not interested (because a man cannot be at fault after all). And no…this is not some middle ages, long-outgrown-in-the-modern-world syndrome that I am talking about.
This mentality is so ingrained that when my partner and I chose to wait four whole years before reproducing, we got numerous enquiries, and offers of help and medication for me, not just from extended family and nosy neighbours but from almost strangers. I have friends in similar situations whose husbands get random colleagues coming up to them, people who they hardly even speak to more than once a year, to recommend some gynaecological magic worker they know.
As for women (with supportive partners, of course) choosing to be childless! OH MY GOD! Every stranger, every chat contact, every relative, friend, family member, (none of whose business it is) will argue and persuade and try to convince her and her partner that a woman is incomplete unless she is a mother, that every woman dreams of being a mother (how would you know what she dreams, asshole?), that it is every woman’s greatest joy/pleasure/duty/desire to bear children. They will be called selfish, weird, unnatural, and so many other things.
And this is ONLY if she has a supportive partner, because without one, she has no choice in the matter. Her body, her womb, and the choice to use those as an incubator, are not hers at all, and pregnancy and childbirth will be forced on her by her husband, in-laws, and society at large. If this is how much our society wants each woman to breed, why do we feel such disgust, shame, anger, at everything that makes women breeders? Why is everything leading up to and contributing to fertility and pregnancy such a hush hush, hide hide, ugh, dirty, nasty?
From the day she first starts to menstruate, the girl feels the brunt of this shame. In milder form, she cannot let anyone become aware that she is bleeding. Not even her father or brother. Personal products (not surprisingly called SANITARY products) must be bought shamefully, in hushed voices, and wrapped in newspapers so no one, familiar or stranger, can know what it is. Staining is a matter of life or death, not because it ruins a good dress, but because people will KNOW that you are now bleeding, at this time. She cannot call it period, or menstruation. It must be euphemized as “shorir kharap” (being unwell), chums, that time, those days, or anything that does not directly reference the actual process or name.
The undergarments, that touch the sanitary products, even when washed and clean, cannot be hung out to dry in any place where they touch a growing or fertile plant. If they do so, the plant will supposedly stop fruiting/blooming. (Let me get this straight, the mere touch, at second hand, of something which is a sign that I am fertile/fruitful, will kill the fertility of something else? What kind of sense does that make?). a girl/woman who is having her period must not step into the kitchen or the place of worship in her home, because she is impure. How the evidence of her greatest power, that of bearing life, can make her impure, I have no idea. She cannot enter a temple. Even goddesses are not exempt! For HER menstrual period, the Ambubachi, the goddess Kamakhya has to endure days of no worship. Why? Because goddess or not, if she is bleeding, she is too impure to give or receive worship.
And these are the milder forms. In more severe forms, the first period, the onset of a girl’s menstruation is marked by a huge feast, for which she is dressed up like a bride and paraded around the village/neighbourhood (to display to prospective grooms and their families that she is now of breeding age and hence marriageable), and then confined to a “menstrual room” for the rest of the duration. I remember how shocked I was the first time a classmate of mine – in Chennai – first told me of her experience. This menstrual room, or menstrual house is a fact of life in many states and communities. All the menstruating women of the house/village are sent there for the duration of their period. These houses are badly constructed, and most often lacking basic amenities like running water, sanitation, and even decent bedding.
The same double standards, unhealthy attitudes, and woman shaming occur in anything to do with sex or sexuality. A girl is supposed to not exist from the waist down until she is married. After she is married, her body is merely the vessal of “service” to her husband, her lord and master. She cannot and must not have any desires or libido, and must actively dislike all sexual activity while willingly submitting to her husband every time he wants some, never enjoying it, but considering it her duty, and a stepping stone towards fulfilling her ultimate duty – the production of offspring.
And this is exactly where the concept of basi kapor comes in. Having sex with her husband makes a woman and her clothes impure. It does not do the same to the man…of course… for men are built for sex and have no control over themselves (the excuses given to rapists all the time). For the woman however, it becomes essential that she change those “sex” clothes, and bathe, before she participates in something as important as cooking or worship.
So, a woman can and should menstruate… because she has to have kids, but to menstruate is a sin, is dirty, is shameful, and a fact that must be hidden from everyone (presumably not the husband, because he has to know when to schedule his baby making activities, and god forbid an Indian male should wade the red tide. Come to think of it…that’s a good thing too, or she would have to bear the brunt of cleaning up, probably hearing scathing judgmental things while doing so.)
Being repeatedly pregnant in her effort to produce as many male heirs as she possibly can is her sacred duty, as is pleasing her husband in bed (like a prostitute as some of our scriptures and our marriage rituals famously quote), but she can not only not enjoy the act, she must be shamed for allowing it to happen (beaten and raped if she doesn’t allow it though). She must feel so unclean, impure, and ashamed that she must clean herself immediately upon rising, before she can do anything auspicious.
And then we wonder why women have such a bad time here, why we are such a rape culture, almost celebrating rape rather than condemning it, and considering marital rape to be nonexistent (obviously…since she is NEVER supposed to want it, so how can doing it when she does not want be a crime???) and why most Indian men grow up to be such misogynists, sexists, and chauvinists. It is a miracle that ALL of them don’t!