While the menstruating women are isolated and relieved from household chores, they are not exempted from agricultural work.
In rural Tamil Nadu’s Naicker Theru of Ariyagoundampatti village, a 13-year-old girl, experiencing her first day of menstruation, sat on the steps of a designated ‘rest house’ – a place meant for isolating menstruating girls and women. The ‘rest house’ had a dusty, cobweb-ridden room, a dilapidated bathroom and a water tank filled with algae. The room which could hardly accommodate three people, often had eight women and girls crammed in. These ‘rest houses’ are called muttuveedu or muttutharai.
The ‘rest house’ was originally intended to serve as a community hall, inaugurated in 2007 by former Adi Dravidar welfare minister A Tamizharasi, but had eventually transformed into a sequestering room for menstruating women.
To some, the practice of ‘resting’ with co-menstruators and not having to do house chores may seem empowering. But while the women are isolated and relieved from household chores, they are not exempted from agricultural work.
Most villages in Tamil Nadu largely depend on rainfed cultivation for livelihood. Rainfed cultivation, unlike irrigated agriculture, requires hard labour. Both men and women have to equally toil to grow and harvest crops in the drier parts of the state. Regardless of menstruation, the women must go to the field every day.
The News Minute visited several villages in three districts of Tamil Nadu – Namakkal, Madurai, and Virudhunagar – to probe the prevalence of muttuveedu. In most cases, muttuveedu was a single-doored, clay tile-roofed room at the centre of a village, which made it known who was on their period.
Rajakambalam Naickers and their ‘secret’
In July, a female vlogger became the cause of huge social media outrage as she glorified the practice of menstrual segregation. She posted a video on her social media account showing a menstruating woman sitting on the road while her mother-in-law brought her food on a banana leaf. The woman was on the first day of her period and was not allowed to rest at home. Instead, she had to isolate outside the house or stay at the muttuveedu. The video was later taken down, but it shed light on the prevalence of menstrual segregation in parts of Tamil Nadu.
The street featured in the viral YouTube video was located at Naicker Theru or street in Rasipuram taluk of Namakkal district. The residents of the area did not appreciate the media presence in their village, fearing more attention on their “secret”.
The Rajakambalam Naicker community, a land-owning, agrarian community, is categorised as the Most Backward Class in Tamil Nadu. The practice of sequestering women in a separate house or space is common among the sub-castes of Naickers including Thotti, Irakula, and Kambalathu Naickers.
The residents of Naickar Theru told TNM that menstrual sequestering is a common practice in Naicker communities. Residents of the area said that other villages too practised segregation, but were reluctant to name them. “It is a part of our tradition. If we do not follow it, it would bring bad luck to our family members,” said a woman from the village. “The girls from poor family backgrounds, who cannot afford to take rest in their houses go there. Not every woman goes there during their period,” the residents claimed. However, menstruating women who stay back in their homes are banished to the veranda.
Meanwhile, 300 km away from Namakkal, the Kambalathu Naickers in Kariapatti village of Virudhunagar district have done away with the practice. “It was common 30 years ago. But our generation went abroad to study and pursued different careers outside our towns where these practices were not followed. Now this tradition has almost vanished from our area,” a person from Kambalathu Naicker community at Kariapatti told TNM. However, many women in five other villages of the district told TNM they have been unable to give up the practice.
Tamizhselvi, a Kambalathu Naicker woman, who is also All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam panchayat president, recalled that menstrual segregation was prevalent in her village till 2000. “The sequestering home was right in front of my house. The village residents would build a hut in a designated area for young girls who hit puberty. They would be accompanied by their grandmothers or aunts for one week. Later, it was made mandatory for menstruating women to stay sequestered in that house. Many villages in Rajapalayam, where Rajakambala Naickers live, still follow this practice. They usually do not talk about this to outsiders. They keep it as a secret.”
Advocate Selvi, a state-level organiser of Manithi, an independent organisation against gender-based violence in Tamil Nadu, said superstitions are rampant, and there are more social restrictions for women of Rajakambala Naicker community. “In the villages where I work, women are still not allowed to wear blouses in their clan temples during poojas. Up until a decade ago, family planning was restricted simply because it was against the teachings of their clan’s deities. Whenever we try to implement something for their welfare, they would reject it saying that it is not aligned with their community’s traditions. From stopping girls getting an education, to restricting boys from travelling further, they even stopped the bus services in one village where I worked,” Selvi said.
Women in most of the villages TNM visited used the stock response of culture and tradition to justify menstrual sequestering. Priya, a resident of Naickar Theru, said the practice of sequestering women during their menstrual period was “not forced”. “We voluntarily go to that house. The video that went viral typecasted us and called this practice outdated and unnecessary. But we are doing it for the welfare of our families.”
Another village resident, Vasantha said: “It is just our tradition and we want to keep it alive forever. Bringing this to the media would be an insult to our women who strongly believe in culture and tradition.”
On feeding the menstruating women on the road, Vasantha said that eating just outside the house is very common in villages and that people “who knew the customs of villages would never make it an issue”. Asked about whether she would ask her son to sit and eat on the open road, she said her son did not have “menstrual problems”.
Speaking to TNM, folklorist AK Perumal said the Telugu-speaking communities in Tamil Nadu had been practicing muttuveedu for many centuries. In the legends of Madurai Veeran, a Tamil folk deity, the practice of muttuveedu is mentioned as prevalent in the 1600s. Perumal said that as per legends, Madurai Veeran was appointed as a guard to the place, where Bommi, the daughter of chieftain Bommanna Nayakan, was sequestering. It was there that Madurai Veeran fell in love with Bommi.
Perumal also pointed out that menstrual segregation was not only practised among the Naicker communities, but many privileged communities in Tamil Nadu also consider women “impure” during their menstruation. “The only difference being that instead of muttuveedu, the seclusion happens inside their houses.”
Dalit villages that follow muttuveedu practice
TNM visited five Dalit villages in Virudhunagar and Madurai, on the foothills of Watrap Hills, and found that menstrual segregation was practised among the communities residing there.
A 35-year-old muttuveedu located at the centre of Pottalpacheri village in Madurai district has weeds growing inside, and around it. An inscription on the building’s inauguration block calls the construction a “Pengal Nala Viduthi”, which translates to women’s care centre, that was built through crowdfunding.
Shanmugathai, 45, a resident of Pottalpacheri, said that because the muttuveedu is defunct, menstruating women are forced to sleep outside. “Now, we have to sleep outside our houses. See, I sleep next to the iron stove,” she said, pointing to an iron stove that is fixed outside her house in the open. She said that her neighbour sleeps inside the goat shed during menstruation.
When TNM asked about her meals during menstruation, she said that either her husband or sons cook for the family. “Usually, daughters would cook for their mothers. But I have two sons. My son, who is an engineering graduate, cooks for me.”
Over the last decade, Koovalapuram and its neighbouring villages – Chinnayapuram Pottalpacheri, K Pudupatti, Saptur Alagiri, and Govindanallur – have been in the news for sequestering menstruating women for five days, and new mothers and newborns for 30 days at muttuveedu. Women from these villages, like the Naicker women, also reiterate that they are “not forced” to go to the rest house, but simply “follow their traditions”.
Muttuveedu is an undeclared norm in the five villages TNM visited, with women who married into these communities also expected to follow the practice. “I went blank after they asked me to stay inside the muttuveedu, when I got my first period after my marriage. It was shocking and very new. As an outsider to this village, it was quite difficult to understand the practice but now, I’m quite okay with that,” said a resident of Koovalapuram village in Madurai district.
Mangalam, 48, of K Pudupatti boasts that her two daughters-in-law from Kerala use muttuveedu without questioning the practice. Notably, in these villages, women from the Pallar community – categorised as Scheduled Caste in the state – strictly follow the practice. Social pressure and superstition have conditioned women from over 300 households to accept this centuries-old practice to stay inside the asphalt-sheet-covered sequestering rooms in their respective villages.
“The practice was there for many years even before my grandmother hit pubert. Back then, it was a hut with coconut fronds and bamboo. Later, when I started to menstruate, we demanded a solid structure with a roof and electricity. A structure with a roof and electricity is not capable of accommodating many women at a time now. So, we built a new one three years ago,” Paappa, 53, a resident of Koovalapuram told TNM.
The old construction she mentioned still exists, but in dilapidated condition. Behind it is a newly-constructed building with polythene sacks in which women keep their plates, tumblers, and all the necessary items, including a mirror as they frequent the muttuveedu every month. The door was left open to let fresh air in, while two women were taking rest on the empty floor.
When TNM asked about the toilet facilities, the women’s faces fell. “All of us use the nearby acacia grove for defecation, so it is normal for menstruating women too to use the same,” said Deepa, 23, a mother to a one-year-old girl, who added that the women have asked the panchayat to construct a toilet for them.
New mothers have to live in muttuveedu as well. “During our menstrual period, our husbands or in-laws prepare food for us and keep it here. During postpartum, if the kid’s father and grandparents want to see the kid, they come and take away the child with them for some time. Then they go back home and have a bath,” Deepa said.
Accepting that muttuveedu is not equipped to support women who have just given birth, Deepa said that now many women who go for caesarean deliveries or c-section spend their first month inside their houses and repaint them as a part of theettu kazhikkuradhu, a ritual to make an “impure” thing “pure”.
Muttuveedu and health issues
Muttuveedu in Tamil Nadu may have caused several health issues to menstruating women, but it remains under-documented since the practice is kept a secret.
Research has shown that menstrual sequestering has led to childlessness among Muthuvan tribes of Tamil Nadu. The study noted that in Muthuvan culture, menstruating women were considered impure and sequestered in a small hut called thinnaveedu, located in an isolated corner of the hamlet, with minimal space. It is often unhygienic and unkempt, with limited facilities for cooking. Women and girls said they feel scared during their time inside the huts because the Muthuvan settlements are located inside dense forests. “Because of the fear, they have started to consume oral contraceptive pills only to avoid thinnaiveedu,” the study noted, highlighting it as one of the main reasons for the decreased fertility among Muthuvan community women.
In Pandalur and Gudalur of Nilgiris, the Kaattunaikar tribes have dedicated huts called gudda for menstruating women. At least 63 Kaattunaikar settlements in Nilgiris have guddas. Besides, the Kattunaikar and Kota tribes also follow the practice of having separate houses for menstruating women in their villages. The Muthuvar tribes of the Anamalai Reserve also follow the practice of maintaining menstrual segregation huts called thinnaiveedu. This practice is also prevalent among the Badaga community in Nilgiris, and they call such houses Olegidy.
The practice of menstrual sequestering is not limited to Tamil Nadu alone. The Gond and Madiya tribes in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and Odisha still practice banishing women and girls during their menstruation, and their menstrual huts are called gaokors or kurma ghar, The Guardian reported in December 2015. In these areas, tribal women are often unprotected from the attacks of wild animals. The practice of sequestering menstruating women is also reportedly more common among the Hindus. Among the Nepali Hindus, a similar practice of chhaupadi is followed. After many reported deaths because of harsh weather, smoke inhalation, and wild animal attacks, the Nepal government announced In 2018 that forcing menstruating women into seclusion was a punishable offense, warranting three months in jail.
A Madurai-based gynaecologist Dr Kalpana said that the compulsion to be in the sequestering house for three to five days makes women ignore their health conditions, especially when they have irregular periods as they would go there and pretend that they are in their menstrual periods and risk not getting early-stage treatments for menstrual disorders. “The government should educate women against internalising such conditioned practices,” she observed.
Menstrual stigma is a topic that needs comprehensive intervention for discussions on menstrual period and menstrual dignity to be normalised, so women are not conditioned into believing that sequestering themselves during menstruation is their duty.