Menstruation in a muttuthurai: Why young women in these Tamil Nadu villages dread getting their period every month

Imagine being asked to move into an isolated room where every other woman in your village is forced to stay for the length of their period. That's what it feels like for women in these villages
A young woman on her way to muttuthurai in Koovalapuram (Pic: Ishwarya K)
A young woman on her way to muttuthurai in Koovalapuram (Pic: Ishwarya K)

A 13-year-old girl sat on the rough ground. She had a roof above her head but this wasn't home. In fact, the place that she had to live in for the next thirty days was a little further away from all the other houses in the tiny village of Koovalapuram, just a shade over 50 kilometres away from Madurai. Dressed in a bright orange cotton frock and with her frizzy hair tied in a ponytail, she was understandably in no mood to smile or greet us.

Let's call her Shanthi*. A day before I met Shanthi, she had experienced menstruation for the very first time. How she ended up in that village is a story that will possibly haunt her for a long time. On learning that she had 'come of age' (as it is colloquially referred to), her parents immediately bundled up and came to Koovalapuram — her father's ancestral village.

Then came the big shocker. As soon as she arrived, she was not allowed inside the houses of any of her relatives but was directed to a dingy room on the outskirts of the village. She was then told that she would have to spend the next 30 days there and keep her interaction with people to a bare minimum. Food would be served to her in separate vessels that she had to wash herself. On day 30, she would be asked to take a shower and return home.

The muttuthurai in Koovalapuram where Shanthi stays (Pic: Parvathi Benu)

Bewildered, much? Well, that's just the way things are done here. "She had to be brought here. That is the custom. The girl was crying all night, but she will get used to it," Mylammal, a 70-year-old from the village says nonchalantly. Almost on cue, Arsini, her youngest grandchild who was seated on her lap all this while quickly moved over and jumped to the mattress and moved towards the window nearby.

Koovalapuram is one of the five villages in the outskirts of Madurai (close to Virudhanagar and Sivakasi) that still follows the muttuthurai system — an age-old custom that mandates menstruators to live inside a hut in isolation, without any interaction with the people in the village. Each village has a muttuthurai each and often, all the menstruating women spend their entire cycle there. "Prior to my menopause, I spent five days every month there. In fact, I delivered two of my children there. I do not understand why it is a big deal for everyone," Mylammal says with a frown. In the earlier days, women gave birth to their children in these rooms. However, these days, they are made to spend 30 days there, upon returning to the village after childbirth — baby and all.

A sign board that says Koovalapuram (Pic: Parvathi Benu)

Anatomy of an average muttuthurai
The muttuthurai outside which we met Shanthi, was only a few metres away from Mylammal's house. A really unpleasant smell, strongly reminiscent of an amalgamation of cow dung, human urine and sweat, hung in the air as we walked towards it. It was a dingy room with an asbestos roof and a single window for minimal ventilation. A well-worn cloth string swayed outside, held down where a woman's damp petticoat hung. Outside the room was a plastic pot and a broom, ostensibly to clean the room after each use. Any woman — even if they are not menstruating at that point in time — who enters the muttuthurai is instructed to take a shower before going back home.

The entrance of the first muttuthurai where a woman had kept her utensils and had left her footwear (Pic: Ishwarya K)

While the village had only one mutthuthurai for the entire female population till very recently, a few years ago, each household that has a menstruating woman collected Rs 1,000 each to build a new room next to the old muttuthurai. The new room is spacious and has a shelf for women to keep their belongings on. Right next to it is a neem tree, from which sacks are hung. The sacks contain the clothes, utensils and other essentials that each woman uses during her menstruation cycle.

The Gods must be crazy
A lot of people will wonder: Why? Yes, it is 2021. Yes, the internet exists. But in places like Koovalapuram, some ties just run too deep. "Our Swami (God) Muththirular told our ancestors that this system has to be followed, otherwise, something disastrous will happen to the village," says Paapa, another longtime village resident. The villagers have also erected a shrine to worship him right at the entrance to the village. Paapa has no clue as to what this disaster could or may be. However, she holds her faith close to her heart and carries on with the tradition.

The shrine of Muththirular (Pic: Ishwarya K)

Govindanallur is a village in Tamil Nadu's Virudhunagar district. However, it is only five kilometres away from Koovalapuram. The demographics and landscape of both villages are not very different. Govindanallur is one of the five villages in the vicinity that follow the muttuthurai system religiously. While Koovalapuram's muttuthurai was located behind the houses, Govindanallur's is situated on the right-hand side of the main road and is one of the first buildings that one sees when they enter Govindanallur.

The muttuthurai in Govindanallur (Pic: Parvathi Benu)

In this village too, the custom is linked to an old legend, which warns that the women who do not stay in muttuthurais while menstruating will not bear children. When you're faced with scare tactics like that, you'll fall in line pretty quickly. "I have been following this since I was in school," says a 27-year-old Ruthra. "When we were studying and got our period, we would go to school from there and our mothers will serve us food there. Sometimes, women staying there will cook together for all the residents," she says. Unlike in Koovalapuram, Govindanallur's muttuthurai was constructed by the village panchayat using their own funds. And they did this nearly 30 years ago. While one cannot go far as to call it well maintained, the room is bigger, has proper electric plug points, a concrete roof and a well-functioning toilet behind it. In fact, right in front of it is a tap that functions. The residents clean the room and the restroom while using them, the women tell us.

Water, water nowhere!
The monsoon has been the talk of the town in Tamil Nadu in recent times, but the reality in most agrarian societies is that there has never been a time when there has been enough, let alone too much, rain. Like in hundreds of other villages, the rains have been uncertain over the past few years in Koovalapuram, and Maylammal, like most villagers, has given up cultivating anything on their lands. "Handpump-la kooda thanni varaathu (There is no water coming in the handpump too)," she says dourly.

The restroom outside the muttuthurai that is not functional. The women go to the fields to relieve themselves (Pic: Parvathi Benu)

Understandably, water will always be a point of contention here. A few metres away from the second muttuthurai in Koovalapuram stands a small cement building, which is supposed to be the toilet for the menstruators. Right outside the toilet is a hand pump, which is non-functional. "Women only use this toilet for emergency purposes at night. Otherwise, they go to the fields behind (the room) to relieve themselves," says Maylammal. As we glance at Shanthi, seated a little distance away from us, we noticed that she had her eyes affixed on the fields.

While Shanthi has managed to take an indefinite break from school, owing to her period, this isn't the case for all women here. A lot of them went to schools, colleges and work while staying in the muttuthutrai. Selvakani, an organic farmer who hails from Koovalapuram says that sometimes as many as eight or nine women lived together in that tiny room. Mylammal says that even the pandemic did not change this arrangement. Social distancing be damned.

As a result, a lot of the younger women students had their studies disrupted when the pandemic hit. Forced to attend online classes because of the pandemic, many of them had to miss swathes of classes every time they were confined to the muttuthurai. "A lot of them have laptops that they got through government schemes. But since the muttuthurai has no charging point or proper network, often they were forced to attend classes sitting outside their homes, even when it rained," says Selvakani, who has been actively voicing his displeasure against the system. He also fears the safety of the people who live in these rooms. "I don't think that the younger women are too keen to practise this system. But they are left with no choice," he says.

The interior of the second muttuthurai, where a student had left her books and bags (Pics: Ishwarys K)

A semblance of resistance
Stella Grace belongs to a village nearby where the muttuthurai system is not practised. The 31-year-old married a man who hails from Govindanallur, 17 years back when she was a mere 14 years of age. "My son is taller than I am," she laughs. She is a daily wage labourer employed under the central government's MNREGA scheme. Even though she lives with her husband and son in Govindanallur, every month, the day she gets her periods, she packs her bags to go to her parent's home. "Living there is torturous," she says. "I had to spend 30 days there after coming back here with my son right after he was born. After that, every single month when I am due to start my period, I go to my parents' house for five days and come back home after my cycle is over. My husband is a driver in Chennai. If he is home, he cooks for our son. Otherwise, I take him along with me," she says.

Stella's dislike for the room is shared by many others too. However, a lot of them shy away from talking about it, fearing the older men. "A relative who has two daughters sold off their house and moved to another village. He did not want his children to go through this," says Ruthra. "There are no good schools nearby. So, most of the girls live in hostels to attend school and college. In fact, even when they are home for the holidays, they go back to hostels, as soon as they get their periods," she says.

The interiors of the mutthuthurai in Govindanallur (Pic: Parvathi Benu)

However, the lockdown made it all difficult for these women. Stella did not go home for months and the hostellers were all back home. "At that time, so many of us would live there together," she says. "Often, these girls will attend their online lectures from there. Some of them even wrote their exams. We have a good understanding among ourselves. During those times, the others sat outside or slept silently, making it easier for those children," she says.

A few months back, Ishwarya K, a master's student of the Madras Christian College had been to Koovalapuram, to conduct research for her master's project. "Unlike what I thought, people weren't ready to talk to me. They wanted to maintain it as their own little secret. The only ones who spoke to me are the helpless younger women, who were against the system," she recalls. In fact, Manickam Tagore, the MP who represents the area was utterly shocked when we spoke to him about this. However, he assured us that he will make enquiries into this and take necessary action.

How will change happen?
"This system will not go away until we educate people properly and create awareness that menstruation isn't something unusual, but is a normal bodily process, " says Renuka CK, Head of the Centre for Women's Development and Research, Chennai. "This is why sex education is important. If this generation is educated, they will ensure that the future generations are not troubled. These practices were developed to only discriminate against women," she says.

Bharti Kannan, the founder of Boondh, a social enterprise that creates awareness has put together a legal resource toolkit on menstrual discrimination. Before that, she talks to us about a survey that her organisation undertook in late 2020. "Around 1,500 people participated in this survey, which was conducted online. While no one spoke of banishment in menstrual huts, people did say that they had to face discrimination, owing to menstruation, predominantly in private places and places of religious worship. The menstrual hut practice is similar to a practice in Nepal, which is criminalised by law," she says.

Boondh's toolkit, Bharti believes, will make people aware of the legalities relating to this discrimination and she hopes that more petitions will be filed in this regard. The resource guide has partnered with an organisation to assist those who come up with reports of menstrual discrimination legally. At the same time, Bharti too knows that women who are forced to be in muttuthurais cannot have direct access to these resources. "This is why we will partner with local NGOs and government agencies to help us out. More than anyone, local administrators can help make a difference here in creating change," she says.

Have the courts had their say?
The conversation with Bharti also led us to look up the landmark Sabarimala judgment of the Supreme Court on September 28, 2018, that allowed women of all age groups to enter the age-old Hindu temple in Kerala. During the hearing, Justice DY Chandrachud noted that "The social exclusion of women, based on menstrual status, is a form of untouchability that is an anathema to constitutional values. Notions of “purity and pollution”, which stigmatise individuals, have no place in a constitutional order." Even though the judgement sparked off a litany of controversies, it made note of how women are discriminated against, based on a bodily process. "The Court must decline to grant constitutional legitimacy to practices that derogate from the dignity of women and to their entitlement to equal citizenship," it said.

Now, back to the Koovalapuram story. "For how long will this practise continue?" Before bidding adieu, we asked the older women. "This will not end and we will ensure that everyone in Koovalapuram practices this," says Paapa. Mylammal suddenly pointed at Arsini, who stood next to her. "A few years from now, she will start menstruating. We will ensure that she spends her days in muttuthurai too."

Unaware of everything around her, Arsini smiles, eating a bar of chocolate that I gave her an hour prior.

Sometimes, ignorance can indeed be bliss.

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