Menstruation and Childbirth: The Historical Roots of Purity and Impurity Rituals for Women in Nepal

The Hindu Legal Code, the Muluki Ain of 1854 (MA of 1854), was developed by the dictatorial ruler, Jang Bahadur Rana to fulfill his vision of creating a pure Hindu land. It embedded Hinduism, patriarchy and the caste system. For nearly 100 years, the MA of 1854 was enforced as the principal law of the land and it was used to classify people as ‘high’ or ‘low’ caste. According to Sharma (cited in Höfer 2004), the MA of 1854 was unique in that there was ‘…no other instance of caste validation accorded to a legal document of a state like this from anywhere else in the subcontinent’ (p. xvi).  The subcontinent referred to here is the Indian subcontinent, which, politically, usually includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The Hindu Legal Code, the Muluki Ain of 1854 (MA of 1854), was developed by the dictatorial ruler, Jang Bahadur Rana to fulfill his vision of creating a pure Hindu land. It embedded Hinduism, patriarchy and the caste system. For nearly 100 years, the MA of 1854 was enforced as the principal law of the land and it was used to classify people as ‘high’ or ‘low’ caste. The Hindu Legal Code, the Muluki Ain of 1854 (MA of 1854), was developed by the dictatorial ruler, Jang Bahadur Rana to fulfill his vision of creating a pure Hindu land. It embedded Hinduism, patriarchy and the caste system. For nearly 100 years, the MA of 1854 was enforced as the principal law of the land and it was used to classify people as ‘high’ or ‘low’ caste. According to Sharma (cited in Höfer 2004), the MA of 1854 was unique in that there was ‘…no other instance of caste validation accorded to a legal document of a state like this from anywhere else in the subcontinent’ (p. xvi).  The subcontinent referred to here is the Indian subcontinent, which, politically, usually includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

In Nepal’s caste system, each ethnic group is assigned a caste or jat. Each jat is then allotted a place in the caste hierarchy. According to Mary Cameron, a professor of anthropology, she describes caste (in relation to Nepal’s caste system) this way: ‘Caste is best understood as having two different aspects – one oriented toward the systematic classifying and ranking of people and the other constituting everyday transactions and relations [with and between people]’ (1998, p. 11). Specifically, Nepal’s caste system was created to distinguish the ‘Brahmins’ (high caste people) from the ‘untouchables’ (low caste people). There is an innumerable number of status positions (castes) possible in the hierarchy. However, according to András Höfer (2004, p. 12), a professor of Asian anthropology, who has analysed the Hindu legal code, ‘The status gradation within the hierarchy results from a series of oppositions, from a diversity of criteria, all of which can be related to a fundamental dichotomy pure/impure’. The caste system is enacted through a series of purity and impurity rituals between people, such as who can take water and rice from whom, who can have sexual relations with whom, and so on and so forth. This enactment occurs through terminology which was developed in Nepali* to define the concepts of purity and impurity, and the terms were embedded in the MA of 1854.

According to Höfer (2004), the MA of 1854 contains at least four terms for ‘pure’. They are saphá, pabitra, cokho and śuddha. Under the term ‘pabitra’, a place where a woman is menstruating is noted specifically to be ‘impure’. Although the MA of 1854 does not discuss bodily secretions in any detail, in Hindu law all bodily secretions such as faeces, urine, blood, fat, marrow, nails (cuttings), mucus, sweat, etc. are considered to be polluting (Höfer 2004). Note this Hindu law is derived from India. Hinduism is derived from Brahminism in India, but – to note – it is practiced differently in Nepal. The MA of 1854 also contains four terms for ‘impure’. They are jutho, withulo (bitulo), sutak and ásuac. These terms are particularly used to define temporary impurity related to childbirth and death. During these particular times, certain categories of people must be avoided for a specific number of days and compliance related to these rules is called ‘…sutak wārnu (bārnu)’ (Höfer 2004, p. 61) (The literal meaning of bārnu is ‘to demarcate’ or ‘to avoid’).  In the case of childbirth, the rule is called ‘asuac warnu’ (Höfer 2004, p. 61). Under the term ‘sutak’, a woman in confinement (pregnant/birthing/post-birth) is specifically noted to be ‘impure’. Some specific rules include that she must not be touched for 10 days (Höfer 2004). If she is – for such things as medical treatment – the person who touches her must undergo ablution and purifying rituals (Höfer 2004).

As noted, the MA of 1854 embedded purity and impurity rituals that affect women, particularly in their reproductive life years. As the MA of 1854 was enforced for over 100 years, these rituals were strongly embedded in Nepali culture and they became stigmatising traditions for women at menstruation and childbirth and an outcome is serious health consequences for women. For example, the seclusion of women to cowsheds, mud huts, and caves during menstruation, because they are considered to be ‘dirty’, has resulted in – as recently as 2019 – women dying in huts during the practice of such traditions.  Seclusion is also an opportunity for men to rape young girls and women. This increases violence against women, not only related to women but children.

As part of the work that Asha Nepal does with sexually abused and trafficked women, it also helps to educate and stop the practice of, for example, stigmatising traditions at menstruation because they contribute to additional layers of stigma for the women supported in their care. However, it is also part of a greater effort to stop these traditions being practiced at a societal level for Nepalese women because of the known harms they cause.

Read more in this article from the Kathmandu Post from 30-07-2019.

*Nepali language is also derived from Hinduism.

REFERENCES

Cameron, M 1998, On the edge of the auspicious: gender and caste in Nepal, Mandala Publications, Kathmandu.

Höfer, A. 2004, The caste hierarchy and the state in Nepal: a study of the Muluki Ain of 1854, Himal Books, Kathmandu.

*Originally published on Asha Nepal’s blog