I vividly recall the moment I held a blood clot in my hand for the first time that had come out of my vagina. I was confused and a little scared, unsure of what to do or who to talk to. I suspected it could be related to my period, but I was too ashamed to discuss it with my mom. She found out about it during my second period, possibly by seeing a blood stain on my pants.
Growing up, the phrase "Bahira Sare (move outside)" was a regular part of my vocabulary. My mom would use the phrase at least once a month and ask for food and water, which my siblings and I would fetch without hesitation. We sensed that our mother was going through something that we didn't quite understand, but we never questioned her requests. It wasn't until I got my period that I fully understood the significance of "Bahira Sare" and also the cultural restrictions that came with it. In the Hindu Nepalese culture I grew up in, it is customary for girls to not see their father's face during their menarche so they are usually sent away to stay with the neighbors or with relatives. To uphold the tradition, my mom initially planned to send me to stay with my aunts during this time.Since I had school nearby, it was decided that my dad would stay with my aunts instead. But I wonder what all of this meant since neither my mom nor my dad knew the actual first time I menstruated. In addition, my family shortened the customary period of seclusion after menarche from twenty-one days to only seven days to accommodate my dad’s work schedule, demonstrating that traditions can be adjusted to suit one's needs.
With them finding out about my menstruation, I felt like I had been pushed into a whole new world of confusing rules and restrictions. Suddenly I was handed a secret codebook that only half made sense. The already familiar phrase "Bahira Sare" became new with all the restrictions attached. I had to use it every month to let my family know that I was menstruating. It was important for them to know so that they could avoid touching me unknowingly and so that they could also help me follow the restrictions. Still, I was very hesitant to say the phrase every time. I must have perceived that, by saying it, I am letting my family know I am bleeding, and that I am making known an intimate personal event a family affair. I find myself embarrassed. The rules surrounding my period only added to this shame and confusion. I wasn't allowed to touch my father or brothers, and they couldn't touch anything that I had touched. I couldn't use any utensils, groceries, or anything else that my family would later use. Going near places of worship was strictly forbidden, and I would get scolded if I mistakenly mentioned Bhagwan's name while menstruating.
All of a sudden, my period had turned me into some kind of an untouchable and I had no idea why exactly.
For years, I asked my mom why we are forced to follow the menstrual restrictions, but she never had any clear answers for me. Despite all the fuss every month, I would sometimes forget that I was menstruating and do things that were not allowed. I didn't care much for the traditional norms and when I learned about the biological aspect of menstruation in school, I felt validated in my questioning. I found it was a natural process that happened to every woman, and there was nothing to be ashamed of. Before I began to see menstruation in a different light, I continued to have arguments about menstrual restrictions with my mom.
One day, I was having my usual debate with her about why we weren't allowed to touch boys during that time of the month. My 60-year-old aunt happened to be with us. I was expecting my mom to give me the usual "because we just can't" response, but instead, she turned around and asked my aunt the very same question. My aunt was unable to provide a satisfactory answer and simply stated that it was considered a sin. I was more surprised to learn that my mother was also curious and was questioning the traditions. It made me wonder why she was still following them so strictly if she didn't strongly believe in them. Later, my sisters came to visit us and I accidentally touched some food that they brought. My mom immediately scolded me in front of them, saying "This behavior is unacceptable to others and they would find it disgusting." The idea of how social norms affect women and why they follow these norms despite not fully and strongly believing in them has been lingering in my mind for quite some time. And with that phrase by my mom, I realized that she was somehow afraid of being judged by her community if she did not conform to traditional expectations. This was when I started to see the restrictions from a different perspective. Instead of arguing with my mom, I simply considered my menstrual periods a break from my daily chores. I thought I could use those three days to rest – albeit still with restless confusion and uneasiness I felt about the subject. But, only when my younger sister began to have menstruation, I would have my bouts of questioning and arguments resumed again.
"Hey don't touch me!"
My 13-year-old sister warned our brother who approached us in the middle of a conversation. I asked my sister why my brother couldn't touch her, and she replied that she was on her period and it would be a sin to touch and to be touched by men during that period. It shocked me to see that even at her young age, she was reinforcing the cultural norms. I added and asked whether she knew why it was considered a sin but she had no idea and simply replied that our mother had instructed us to follow all the restrictions. That conversation once more woke up my curiosity and agitation around the subject of menstrual practices in Nepalese communities.
I became interested in understanding how young Nepalese girls perceive menstruation and how those perceptions would shape future generations' attitudes. My serious concern and interest in this topic were ignited and I reflected on the strict enforcement of cultural practices in a different light. It wasn't just about tradition - there was something more to it than that. There had to be! Luckily, I got a chance to explore the subject during my studies for my community development diploma degree at the Institute of Human Rights and Democratic Governance.
With the context in mind, I set out to explore the practices and beliefs surrounding menstruation in the Nepalese community, seeking to understand the complex interplay of migration, tradition, and cultural identity that shape these attitudes in contemporary times.
Among the study that sheds light on the migration of the Nepalese community to Burma, I came across the study by KC and Kharel (2018) identifies two primary reasons behind the mobility of the community. Primarily, many Nepalese individuals were recruited as part of the Gurkha battalion to fight against the Japanese occupation of Burma during the Second World War. Secondly, a significant number of Nepalese people migrated independently to Myanmar to seek better opportunities and a brighter future for themselves and their families. The study suggests that economic opportunities, cultural affinities, and historical ties may have been among the reasons why Nepalese individuals migrated to Burma in search of a better life. For example, some Nepalese individuals may have had family or social connections in Burma while others may have been drawn to Burma's burgeoning agriculture and trade sectors that facilitated their migration.
Additionally, the authors note that Nepalese and Burmese cultures share many similarities, such as language, religion, and food, which may have made it easier for Nepalese individuals to adapt to life in Burma. As a result of this migration, the Nepalese community has established a strong presence in various regions across Myanmar. Many Nepalese migrated to hill stations in Burma, such as the Shan State, due to the familiarity with the terrain and the climate is similar to that of Nepal. According to Gurung (2020), there are between 300,000 and 500,000 people of Nepali origin in Myanmar. Many of them have retained their cultural identity, while others have assimilated into the Burmese society. For my thesis on menstrual beliefs and practices among diasporic Nepalese women, I selected three different locations from Shan State where Nepalese presence is well documented by Thakur (1969) and KC and Kharel (2018). I specifically included Yangon, the fourth location for my study, as I have been living in the city for almost 15 years and I am well-versed with the Nepalese presence in the area. This allowed for a comparison of the three hill stations with the most cosmopolitan city in the country. In addition to quantitative questionnaires, I made sure to conduct personal interviews with the women I surveyed to reflect on how each woman feels and deals with the menstrual restrictions.
As I embarked on my research journey, a mixture of nervousness and curiosity came rushing to me again just as when I first went through the experiences of the menstrual restrictions. I was eager to learn more from the women I met –
Did they also feel agitated and ashamed like I did? Did they question these practices like I did?! Or how many of them follow the practices without a question? and how many women follow these norms even if they don't fully believe in them like my mom does? And perhaps most importantly, why do they continue to follow these norms despite any doubts or reservations they may have?
With a questionnaire in hand, I arrived at my first destination, Taunggyi, where I sought to understand the cultural origins of menstrual practices from the perspective of local women. Taunggyi, a city in northeast Shan State of Myanmar, embraced by undulating hills and a blend of traditional and modern structures, was an ideal location for me to explore due to its significant Nepalese population. I was curious to understand how traditions and beliefs have influenced women's approach to menstruation, and Taunggyi provided the perfect opportunity to gain insights into this aspect. After having individual conversations with many women, I gathered a group of women for a discussion on cultural understanding of traditional practices.
As we delved into the discussion, I posed the question that I had asked countless times before: "Why does our culture restrict us from touching men when we're on our period?" The typical answer was given by one woman who said, "Menstrual blood is considered impure. If a man comes in contact with it, he can become contaminated and be harmed." However, the conversation took an interesting turn when another woman added, "It could be because our ancestors wanted to protect women from forced intercourse. In some cases, women may not be able to say no to sex, even if they are in severe abdominal pain during their period. By restricting women from contact with men during this time, they eliminate any chance of forced intercourse." This brought up a heated discussion on the topic as it highlighted the importance of understanding the origins of practices.
As we continued our discussion, another question emerged: "Why are women restricted from entering the kitchen, touching any utensils, and even dining with the family during their period?" A woman shared her perspective, "Back then, there were no menstrual products available to women, so they might not have had anything to stop their blood. If a menstruating woman were to enter the kitchen, she might accidentally spill her blood on the ground, making it dirty to see all the blood on the kitchen floor." One woman in the group suggested that this tradition also could have originated from our ancestors' concern for women's well-being. By not allowing women to engage in household tasks, our ancestors may have wanted to provide them with a chance to rest and recover during their cycle. Another woman added that over time, people had misunderstood the tradition and began to see women as impure. This led to a cultural belief that menstruating women were dirty or unclean, while those who did not menstruate, including both men and women, were considered pure. Another woman in the group had more to add about the cultural practice of restricting women from dining with their families during their period. "If we consider a woman impure, we obviously would not want her to touch anything," she explained. "Additionally, in many cases, we might offer cooked food to Bhagawan, and we don't want to serve impurity to the deity. This practice has only rooted in considering women as unclean and their menstrual blood as impure." As I listened to these women, I realized that while some of these practices may have originated from a desire to protect women, they had become ingrained into harmful attitudes that perpetuated discrimination against women.
As our conversation moved on to the topic of how women are affected by menstrual taboos, a woman shared a heart-wrenching personal story of attending a village puja while on her period. She revealed that she only realized she had started her period after arriving at the puja. Feeling afraid of contaminating anything or being judged by others, she isolated herself in a room and didn't come out. However, she looked outside often as she was curious about the ceremony and the people. The next morning, the situation took a turn for the worse when the cow that was meant to be worshiped in the ceremony died. Shockingly, people started blaming her, saying that her mere presence as a menstruating woman caused it. She was devastated by this unjust accusation, which served as a stark reminder of the deeply ingrained cultural perceptions of menstruation and the psychological harm it can cause to women. The cultural belief that menstruating women are impure and should be kept separate is an example of internalized misogyny or the beliefs and attitudes that women may hold about their gender that is rooted in societal messages that devalue and diminish women. It was disheartening to hear how these practices were steeped in such harmful beliefs about women and their bodies, leading to unjust blame for things beyond their control.
The group fell silent as a woman exclaimed,
"Recently, a mother in our community passed away, and her 13-year-old daughter wasn't allowed to touch her dead body. Do you know why? Because she was menstruating."
It was heartbreaking to hear how a young girl was denied the chance to say goodbye to her mother because of these beliefs. The women in the group shook their heads in disbelief and one spoke up, "It's unfair and unjust. How can they deny a daughter the chance to touch her mother for the last time? Who gave them the authority to do that?" As the conversation continued, the women discussed how such strict menstrual norms were often enforced by other women in the community, rather than men. "It's like we're policing ourselves," one woman said with a sigh. "Men don't care about these things, but we women are the ones who are making life difficult for ourselves and for other women." This reminded me of my personal experience where my mother was the one enforcing the cultural norms on me, while my father didn't seem to care much about them. It made me wonder about the role of women in perpetuating these practices and how we can work towards breaking the cycle by increasing awareness and education on feminist issues and supporting women's empowerment. By recognizing and challenging internalized misogyny like these and supporting one another, we should be able to work towards a future where all women are treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their menstrual status.
After speaking with around 60 individuals in Taunggyi to understand the cultural origins of menstrual practices, I had come to assume that traditional norms were more prevalent among older generations and that women from the same household would share similar perspectives. However, my assumption was challenged during my visit to Pyin Oo Lwin, where I had the chance to observe a significant diversity of views even within a single household. Pyin Oo Lwin is a town located in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar and is known to be a military-based town. Its origin dates back to the early 19th century when the British brought the Gurkha battalion to Myanmar (Weng, 2014). The Gurkhas are an ethnic group from Nepal, and their settlement in Pyin Oo Lwin has made it a significant hub of Nepalese culture in Myanmar. In Pyin Oo Lwin, I had the opportunity to meet three women from a single household who had vastly different experiences and perspectives on menstrual beliefs and practices. This experience made me realize that there could be various other factors at play.
As I walked into the house, I was greeted by a woman in her 40s, who I assumed was the mother. She welcomed me warmly and invited me to sit down. I introduced myself and explained the purpose of my visit. She was more than happy to share her perspective with me. As we started talking, I noticed a certain zeal in her voice. She spoke about the importance of traditional practices related to menstruation, such as isolating oneself in a separate room during periods. She proudly declared that she strictly followed these practices and expected her daughter to do the same. She complained that her daughter sometimes disobeyed her and didn't comply with the practices as well as she should. She invited her daughter to join us as we continued our conversation. As I spoke to the daughter, a shy and confused 14-year-old girl, I noticed her hesitation to speak freely in front of her mother. To make her feel more comfortable, I took her outside for a separate conversation. It was distressing to learn that she had no prior knowledge of menstruation and felt trapped in following traditional practices. As I was about to leave, the grandmother, a woman in her 70s, requested to speak with me. I had a fascinating conversation with her where she expressed an open perspective on menstruation and the freedom for women to make their own choices. Her perspective was a stark contrast to that of the mother's and I was fascinated to learn more about her own experiences with traditional practices.
She had been through the practices herself, but she believed that women should have the freedom to choose what works best for them. She noted that she never enforced traditional norms on her daughter-in-law and was unhappy to see her granddaughter going through them. Additionally, I learned that the daughter-in-law's perspective was influenced by her mother, who had taught her that it was important to follow traditional practices to maintain social acceptance. Thus, she also understood her daughter-in-law's concerns about social acceptance if her granddaughter didn't comply. She, herself, had been married young and had started menstruating in her in-laws' house, but had followed the norms only for the sake of her mother-in-law. Interestingly, her husband, despite being a priest, never forced her to follow any restrictions, and she stopped following the practices once her mother-in-law passed away, unless in the presence of others as she was also afraid of being excluded from the community. I found it fascinating that her accepting perspective was not based on the rejection of traditional beliefs, but rather on the idea that women should have the freedom to choose their path. Her husband's support could be pivotal in shaping her accepting perspective. This experience showed me that an individual's perspective on menstrual beliefs can be shaped by personal experiences despite deeply ingrained traditional practices.
After completing my fieldwork in Pyin Oo Lwin, I set my sights on my next destination: Mogok Being one of the most Nepalese-populated cities in the country, the region provided the most significant sample size for my study and it was an enriching experience to observe and collect the women's stories. I was eager to explore the diverse experiences of local women and particularly deepen my understanding of why these practices continue to be followed, despite any doubts or reservations the women may have. I was captivated by the wide range of experiences among the women living there.
Some women spoke about how they embraced their periods as a natural part of their lives, while others clung to the traditional beliefs that had been ingrained in them since childhood. It was a fascinating glimpse into the complex interplay of culture and personal choice.
The region specially painted a clear picture of how the belief system of Nepalese women regarding menstruation as dirty and impure can contribute to the marginalization of women and limit their participation in certain activities or social events, especially in this modern age. As I explored the town, I discovered that the gemstone trade played a crucial role in the lives of women, providing economic opportunities and a means of social mobility. However, the cultural belief that women should not touch men or participate in certain activities during their menstrual period clashes with this work culture. In a work environment like the gemstone trade, which involves certain physical contact and proximity with male colleagues and clients in the crowded marketplace, the practice presents a significant challenge for women. While the women acknowledged the existence of these restrictions, they had to work in the gem market regardless, as it was the only way to earn a living. The women are forced to navigate a delicate balance between their cultural beliefs and the practical realities of their work. They have to weigh the potential consequences of violating these cultural practices against the need to earn a livelihood. It is clear that the gemstone trade is a vital aspect of the lives of women in Mogok, and it is equally evident that cultural practices and beliefs can present significant challenges to their participation in the economy. This dilemma truly spotlighted the complex interplay between culture, tradition, and economic necessity.
An opportunity to converse with a teenage girl from Laylang, a remote village in Mogok, also left a profound impact on me. While all the girls in that particular rural area displayed a positive attitude toward their beliefs and practices, this particular girl caught my attention as she disclosed her unconventional menstrual hygiene routine. She revealed that she used old cloth as her menstrual hygiene product, which was a unique practice in that entire place. I was intrigued by her choice and asked her why she used cloth instead of pads or any other hygiene product. To my surprise, she disclosed that her mother prohibited her from using pads as she believed pads were unhygienic and dangerous. I was struck by the powerful influence of cultural beliefs on individuals, even with access to education and modern knowledge as she also reported passing high school recently. This story highlighted that cultural practices are deeply entrenched and interwoven with individuals' beliefs and customs as well.
A place believed to be religiously strong with a significant number of Nepalese people following Santana (Hinduism), I also seized the opportunity to speak with a highly regarded priest in Mogok. I aimed to gain a better understanding of the influence of religion on the perception of menstruation. The reason for my curiosity was a woman I met in Taunggyi, who shared her experience of how the words of a priest influenced her beliefs and actions regarding drinking milk during menstruation, which is traditionally not allowed. Many Nepalese see milk as a pure substance and it is believed that consuming milk during menstruation can contaminate the milk and lead to illness or bad luck. During my conversation with the priest, I asked him why women need to follow menstrual restrictions, to which he explained that in Vedas, menstrual blood is considered impure, and it is believed to be a form of throwing feminine disorders away. He elaborated that during menstruation, all the toxicity from a woman's body is released, making her unhygienic and potentially harmful to others. This is why women are not allowed to come closer to men during their menstrual cycle. The priest also explained that other restrictions, such as not allowing women to touch food or enter the kitchen, serve the same purpose - to prevent contamination of others.
Reflecting on the hour-long conversation with the priest, I realized that the Nepalese community in Myanmar follows the Hinduism belief that menstrual blood is impure, and the women who bleed it are considered impure as well. It was fascinating to learn how religion plays a significant role in perpetuating traditional taboos and shaping our beliefs and actions.
I had the opportunity to meet women who had a more modern outlook on menstruation, due to the city's cosmopolitan nature in Yangon, the final location of my study. However, even in this modern city, I could still see the lingering effects of traditional beliefs on menstrual practices. One woman, in particular, stood out to me. She had some of the most contemporary menstrual hygiene practices I've ever encountered through the journey. What struck me the most about this woman was her ability to maintain these practices without feeling restricted by the norms. She had developed a unique perspective on menstrual hygiene that prioritized personal health and comfort above all else. Despite her modern outlook on menstrual hygiene, this woman still had one traditional belief that she adhered to. She told me that during her period, she feels uneasy going near places of worship or touching any religious items. Although she strongly disagreed with almost all the cultural norms surrounding menstruation, this particular belief was deeply ingrained in her from a very young age. It made me realize that cultural perspectives can shape our perceptions in ways that we may not even be aware of. Even those with the most accepting perspectives on menstrual hygiene are still influenced by their cultural backgrounds.
This encounter somehow left me with a sense of hope for the future, knowing that women like her are paving the way for a more open and accepting society when it comes to menstrual practices. It also reminded me that breaking down the barriers of shame and stigma that have been built up over generations could take time.
The conversations with over 250 women from four different locations made me realize that there was so much more to menstrual practices and beliefs than I had initially thought. Each woman had her own unique story to tell, shaped by her cultural background, personal experiences, and beliefs. With each passing day, I gained a deeper understanding of the factors affecting women's perspectives. Throughout the journey, I had the opportunity to engage with two distinct groups of women: those who were compelled to follow menstrual restrictions and those who chose to adhere to them. The former group shared their experiences of being stigmatized due to their menstrual cycle from a young age and following strict rules to prevent the "contamination" of others. Their accounts were filled with pain and frustration, confirming that menstruation is a normalized stigma in our community, which is a prevalent problem for women. The repeated stories of women confirmed that Nepalese girls are conditioned to view menstruation as taboo, and discussing it openly is discouraged from a young age. They receive no information about bodily changes and menstruation even after menarche, leading to confusion and embarrassment.
As a Nepalese woman myself, I can relate to these feelings and beliefs since I internalized them at a young age. My research noted that 80% of women often use words like "Bahira Sare (move outside)" or "Chuna Baena (cannot touch)" to refer to their menstrual cycle. The language itself reflects the cultural belief that menstruation is impure or contaminated which contributes to the social stigma surrounding menstruation and reinforces the idea that women who are menstruating are not fit to participate in certain social activities or are somehow inferior. I believe the language surrounding menstruation has a significant impact on how girls and women view their bodies and their menstrual cycles.
The use of euphemisms and coded language to describe menstruation perpetuates the taboo around menstruation, making it harder for girls and women to understand and talk about their bodies and their experiences.
It also hinders their ability to seek help or support when needed. Therefore, promoting open and honest dialogue about menstruation could be a good start to challenge the negative cultural attitudes towards it. By using more positive and accurate language to describe menstruation and the menstrual cycle, we can help break down the stigma surrounding it and empower women to take control of their health and well-being.
From survey participants who strongly adhered to the cultural traditions and restrictions, I came across a common response: "Our ancestors have created and accepted the traditions so we must follow them." That particular response pointed out that the Nepalese perception of menstruation is deeply rooted in tradition and cultural beliefs that have been passed down for generations. However, I was left wondering about the origins of these practices and who the ancestors were that created these restrictions. While I was already aware of the practices rooted in Nepal from my literature review such as the social meaning of menstruation is impurity (Thapa & Aro, 2021), I was surprised to see how these norms had been preserved and continued to have such a strong influence on the community's beliefs and practices even after migrating to a different country. Despite significant Nepalese migration to Myanmar as early as 1824, these beliefs and practices remained largely unchanged and unaffected by the wider Myanmar community. It was fascinating to see how these practices, brought by migrated populations, have shaped the community's generational attitudes and beliefs. Reports from a portion of women towards strong disagreement in traditional practices such as avoiding places of worship during menstruation reflect a shift in attitudes toward menstrual beliefs.
However, it is notable that nearly all of the samples from the study reported that they do not touch religious items or go near places of worship during menstruation. Even if the women do not fully endorse the traditional beliefs, they are still associated with the practices. This suggests that while attitudes towards menstruation may be evolving, cultural norms and taboos surrounding menstruation continue to influence women's behavior and perceptions of their menstrual cycles. Even if women do not believe that menstruation is impure or contaminated, they may still feel uncomfortable or self-conscious during their period, particularly in the context of religious or cultural practices that reinforce negative attitudes towards menstruation.
It is also important to recognize that cultural practices can provide a sense of identity and community, and any attempt to change them must be done with sensitivity and respect for the community's beliefs and values. The stigma attached to menstruation in the Nepalese community is deeply ingrained in cultural beliefs and practices, leading to social exclusion, shame, and a lack of understanding about one's own body.
It is crucial to recognize that cultural practices are not always benign, and in the case of menstruation, they have a significant impact on women's health and well-being.
Despite the harm that cultural restrictions may bring, many women feel compelled to follow them out of respect for their cultural heritage. Therefore, any efforts to address these practices need to be grounded in an understanding of the cultural, social, and historical contexts that have shaped them. To conclude, a nuanced approach to traditional beliefs and practices and their impact on women's lives is crucial for the Nepalese community in Myanmar. It is important to balance the preservation of cultural heritage and identity with the need to protect women's rights and ensure their full participation in society. By promoting open dialogue, education, and practical solutions that empower women to manage their menstrual cycles safely and hygienically, we can begin to challenge the harmful cultural practices surrounding menstruation and create a more inclusive and equitable society for all.
Gurung, B. (2020, September 25). Emerging dynamics among Southeast Asia’s Nepali diaspora. New Mandala. Retrieved from https://www.newmandala.org/emerging-dynamics-among-southeast-asias-nepali-diaspora/
KC, G., & Kharel, P. (2018). Locating Nepalese Mobility: A Historical Reappraisal with Reference to North East India, Burma, and Tibet. Kathmandu School of Law Review, 6(2), 94.
Prakash Chandra Thakur, ‘Nepalese in Burma’, vol.12, no. 4, Vashuda, 1969, pp.7-11.
Thapa, S., Aro, AR. (2021). ‘Menstruation means impurity’: multilevel interventions are needed to break the menstrual taboo in Nepal. BMC Women’s Health. doi:10.1186/s12905-021-01231-6
Weng, L. (2014, May 20). The Forgotten Gurkhas of Burma. The Irrawaddy. Retrieved from https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/forgotten-gurkhas-burma.html
About the author
VK was born in Mogok, a city in northeast Shan State of Myanmar, with a sizable presence of the Nepalese community. At the age of eight, they moved to Yangon, the largest cosmopolitan city with very few visible presence of Nepalese cultural practices and traditions. They recently completed a diploma in Business Administration and in Community Development. Currently, they are planning to pursue a Bachelor Degree in Social Studies.