It is Raja Festival, Let’s Talk about Periods

It is Raja Festival, Let’s Talk about Periods

It was mid-June and the year was 1992. It was raining. I remember my cousins and I, in this beautiful village in Balasore district, were almost teary eyed for not being able to go out and play on the swing or for that matter kabaddi. For once the rain seemed cruel for spoiling all our plans for the Raja Festival. So badly did we want to play in the rain that we refused to wear new clothes or enjoy the traditional delicacies—podapitha, manda, and makara.

For me the Raja festival had always been about celebrating adolescent and young girls in my state of Odisha. The three day festival was all about attention and love showered on us; we were pampered and we didn’t have to do any household chores; there were new clothes, new ribbons, alta, swings, food, and the works. We even got to have 'paan' just like the grown ups!

A Unique Festival to Celebrate Menstruation and Female Productivity

Raja festival is celebrated in Odisha for three days from 14 to 16 June every year — day one is pahili raja, day two raja sankranti and day three basi raja. Though the festival is celebrated for three days, the fourth day also has its significance. It is the day of the Basumati Snana in which the mother earth is given a ceremonial bath. The term Raja comes from the word Rajaswala which means a menstruating woman.

According to popular belief, mother earth menstruates just like women do and during this period the menstruation of mother earth is celebrated. Menstruation symbolises fertility and creativity. The traditional knowledge on agriculture supports the belief that during this period the earth is most fertile and it is the best time for the germination of seeds. So, Raja festival marks the onset of sowing season after a long dry spell. Odisha is largely and agrarian society and so the Raja festival is a celebration to mark the change in the agriculture season.

Stigma Attached to Menstruation / Periods

Glorifying and celebrating periods as a symbol of creativity and womanhood, manifested through the Raja festival, has always been an integral part of culture in Odisha.

However, at the same time there has been a lot of stigma attached to menstruation. And what befuddled me is while it was ok to celebrate menstruating earth, it wasn’t even ok to treat women and girls as normal when they had their periods. It was after all just a bodily function. It was never openly discussed. In fact the festival, while can be credited with celebrating menstruating women/earth, it in its own subtle way reinforced and glorified the social norm of not allowing menstruating woman/girls to participate in household chores especially entering the kitchen.

I remember so many of my friends discontinuing studies after attaining puberty, something which I couldn’t understand the reason for. They were not supposed to go out, or leave their hair untied during periods. In some places, girls were not even allowed to eat non-vegetarian food contrary to the fact that girls need nutritious food during period.

These were discriminatory norms, which we never dared to challenge, despite it depriving us of our right to choose — whether it was mobility or marriage or career or following our dreams, and finally our life outcomes. It was only when I started working on womens’ rights issues that I began to understand these systemic discriminations and the social norms that normalise such discriminations and reinforce stigmas around a perfectly normal bodily function.

The society with its very strong, deep rooted patriarchal foundations has been obsessed with the virginity of girls. We as a society have never supported our girls to manage menstruation with dignity and take pride for the creativity it symbolises. It is time we break this taboo and celebrate Raja festival in its true spirit by accepting periods as a normal biological process and not discriminating girls / women for having them.

Youth Breaking the Taboo around Periods 

As part of our programme in Uttar Pradesh and Odisha, with the youth on challenging social norms, there is stress laid on normalising topics like periods and sexual reproductive health rights. For instance, in Kalahandi, young boys and girls are forging conversation on sexual reproductive health rights among many stakeholders. These conversations have helped in creating awareness on the issues of choice and consent in intimate relationship, child early and forced marriage, access to sexual reproductive health services offered by the government.

This has not only helped to build conversations but has also empowered young boys and girls to imbibe behavioural change in terms of promoting new norms such as not to discriminate girls for having periods, of giving equal opportunity of food consumption, education; and shedding the notion of impure blood or an impure person.

Openly talking about periods has imbibed a sense of dignity for menstruation which is no longer a taboo topic for these young boys and girls. They can openly talk about periods, can eat whatever they wish to, let their hair down (quite literally) and go to any part of the house including the kitchen.

I hope this initiative, coupled with the annual Raja festival, will help break the taboo around  periods completely in the years to come.


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