There was food. There was music. There was a photo booth. Balloons, too. It was a party.
The occasion: menstruating women were cooking.
The period mahabhoj, or “period feast,” in Delhi, was an effort to counter stigma that menstruating women in India often face.
The feast stemmed from an incident in the state of Gujarat earlier this month, when female students from a college run by a Hindu sect were forced to strip and prove they weren’t menstruating to be able to enter the kitchen and temple on the college campus. Soon after, videos of a priest from the sect emerged, in which he said that women who cook while menstruating will be reborn as dogs.
Restrictions for menstruating women are ingrained in many facets of Indian society, and women and girls are often told they cannot enter temples or kitchens, or touch other people, while on their period because they are “impure” during this time. Last year, two women in southern India made history by entering Sabarimala, a renowned Hindu temple where women of menstruating age had not been allowed for centuries. India’s Supreme Court had earlier ruled that all women had the right to worship at Sabarimala, and the decision set off intense protests by religious conservatives.
Women who gathered in Delhi for the feast say it’s just the latest incident in which the dignity of menstruating women has been compromised.
Cooks were mobilized through WhatsApp groups and by Sunday, 25 menstruating women gathered to prepare for the feast.
Their message was clear: They refused to be bogged down by stigma, and no one could stop them from cooking.
“I am menstruating and I’m cooking, and I challenge everyone to come and eat my food,” said Kajal Kumari, 21, sporting an apron that said “I am a proud menstruating woman.”
The women said they learned about the event through word of mouth and felt it was worthwhile spending a Sunday afternoon doing what they had been doing all their lives — cooking and defying patriarchal norms as they went about daily routines.
“Will that guru cook for my fussy children if I don’t enter the kitchen for five days every month?” asked Neelam Jha, who came to participate in the feast from Dallupura village on the outskirts of Delhi.
For Jha and many other Indian women, stigma around menstruation is common — in their homes, public spaces and workplaces. When she visits her in-laws’ village, Jha said she is told to sit outside the house when she’s on her period. In other rural areas, women are told to stay out of their homes during the period, often without proper sanitation facilities.
Don’t enter temples, don’t touch drinking water — the list is endless, but it all implies that a menstruating woman is unclean.
“We felt it was important to respond to such statements because we didn’t want to solidify these myths and taboos any further,” said Rikita Narula of NGO Sachhi Saheli, which funded the feast.
In addition to social stigma, women and girls have to face structural challenges in managing their menstrual health. According to data released by the Indian government last year, there are 355 million menstruating women and girls in the country, and only 42 percent have access to sanitary napkins. A 2014 USAID-backed report found that nearly 23 million girls drop out of school annually due to lack of proper menstrual hygiene management facilities.
“My school didn’t have a toilet, so my mother refused to let me study after class 8,” said Pratima, who goes by her first name only. She came to the feast to cook and said she is ensuring her two daughters don’t encounter the same barriers. Her elder daughter is currently in college.
Soon, guests started trickling in to eat the food.
Guest Chitransh Saxena was not new to talking about periods. As the founder of Pad Bank, a Delhi-based NGO that educates young boys on menstrual health, he is aware of the awkward silence that can follow when he starts talking about menstruation.
“Creating awareness and freeing the issue of taboos, and bringing it out in the open is the only way to remove stigma from this natural body process,” he said. “Today, I’m here to support the women who have taken this bold step.”
But the women here know the fight against this stigma won’t end with the feast.