By Vasundhara Pande

(20/05/2020 20:00 IST)

“Social taboos are shy like virtue; once lost there is no remedy.”
-Gunnar Myrdal

One day while travelling in the metro I encountered two ladies who were trying to convey something to each other by exchanging non-verbal messages. I could make out that one of them was trying to ask for something from the other, while the latter opened her bag and indicated the former to look inside it. The former lady put her hand inside the bag and to my surprise took out a sanitary napkin.

It is a shame to know that in today’s society a woman feels ashamed to ask for a sanitary napkin directly from another woman. Today, a mere absorbent material is reduced to a social taboo!

India is a diverse country and so are the social taboos believed by people. A taboo is essentially a myth that is believed to be agreed upon by a society and doesn’t contain a scientific reason behind it. It means a ban resulting from social custom or emotional aversion.

Different cultures view menstruation (which has been reduced to a social taboo) from different perspective but majority of them zero down towards the fact that it makes a woman impure. Adolescent females are barred from entering religious places and kitchen areas inside their homes. And the worst must be brought to your attention, it is believed that if a female meets /looks at a man during her menstrual cycle she gets pregnant. What is the relevance of such a taboo in a scientifically progressive country like India? Indian society raises their women to be discrete in their sexuality and to only show that side of themselves to their husbands. This means women in India who celebrate their own bodies and sexuality are considered too unorthodox, essentially becoming a social taboo.

“Smoking is bad for your health, not character.” However, in India a woman with a cigarette in hand is judged and questioned merely because smoking is considered to be a masculine trait. One could consider a woman smoking to be a direct attack on Indian teachings and principles of “being a mother first.” Certain Indian rural households view women as a burden and in a bid to get rid of them find it ethical to marry their girl without her consent and the worse before she turns an adult. But if it results into an unhappy marriage then divorce is not the solution. It is none less than a stigma especially the female as the husband is seen as the whole sole protector of the wife and without him, she is nothing. Another stigma for women is sex before marriage, so initially a divorced woman is considered less pure than a woman who has never been married.

Let us imagine a situation where a woman completes her studies, gets a job, gets promoted, marries, has children, becomes the CEO… hard to imagine so much for a woman, isn’t it? This is what some misogynistic men of our society think which prevents women from taking high paid jobs and enjoy an illustrious career.

Social taboos don’t necessarily discriminate among genders. A good example is the LGBTQ+ WHO IN THE Indian society is considered to be a western myth and doesn’t apply to the east.

Meneka Guruswami and Arundhati Katju didn’t go against the odds and fought the homosexuality case, subsequently leading the Supreme Court to give a ruling against it to witness the absurd social taboos associated with bisexual individuals. According to the YouGov-Mint Millennial Survey conducted in January 2019 with an online poll of over 5-000 respondents across different age groups in 180 cities, only one-third of Chennai’s youth approves of same sex relationships. The survey shows that among India’s urban youth, those with stronger religious predispositions display more prejudice against homosexuality compared to their less- religious counterparts. Conclusively, India might have de-criminalized homosexuality but it is still a long way in destigmatizing it.

Do social taboos cause death? Well yes, they cause unnatural deaths- murders and suicides. A newly born baby girl is drowned in hot, boiling oil and looses a life she never experienced. Who are we to blame? Unquestionably, the narrow mindset of certain individuals who end up killing an infant just because the innocent turned out to be a girl. Now, this highlights a very ancient and baseless taboo of India according to which, women are inferior to men and as mentioned above they are the weaker sex.

Well, female infanticide was not enough to bear, female feticide, and another social evil is a result of social taboos in India. The unborn female child is killed in the mother’s womb without a second thought by some ruthless people who claim to be the flag bearers of a peaceful society.

Untouchability - discrimination among individuals on the basis of their caste is another dark picture of social taboos in India. Although now abolished, it was once the crudest manifestations of inequality which certainly didn’t deserve a place in an egalitarian Indian society. Untouchables were denied access to wells and other public places. They couldn’t sit with the upper caste and it was believed that if they touch a thing it becomes impure.

The biggest social taboo that takes hold of many individuals is the religious insanity. Often, the Muslim community is seen as inferior to other communities or the HINDUS. Based on a recent encounter with an uncle at the market, I was haunted to be warned by him not to accept food from delivery boys of the Muslim community because they mix contraceptive pills with the food. Indeed, “the biggest enemy of a human is his thinking.” However, his statement had a no empirical evidence and was just an opinion whose formation was stimulated by a WhatsApp forward. DISGUSTING! Communalism, communal disharmony and communal riots are the results of religious insanity. Resultantly, many innocent people lose their lives in the riots and their families lose them.

Dr Babu Paul, Finance secretary, Government of Kerala says, “I know many parents who say it is better to take up an engineering course rather than an undergraduate program in arts and humanities.”

Social taboos in the urban sector assumes a totally different picture. They cross the barriers of gender and target the ability of an individual. In other words, certain career options are avoided by some people just because they do not follow the family’s lineage of engaging in the traditional career. Moreover, certain professions are less paid or considered to be undignified which makes the Indian families more inclined to professions concerned with law, medicine or engineering. Families at times disregard their child’s career preference over what the society will think. Subsequently, the child feels pressurized and engages into a course or profession unwillingly and feels dissatisfied from his/her life. This develops suicidal tendencies in the child, thus destroying his life and his family.

Now imagine a teacher teaching in the class…you imagined a female, right? And now imagine a mechanical engineer…you imagined a male right? The taboo is in front of you! Today, professions are gender specific at times disregarding an individual’s ability

However, India has taken some concentrated efforts to tackle women related social taboos. Well, all these facts unequivocally support the fact that social taboos are not at all scientific. Entirely illogical, they are the means to divide the Indian society in the worst manner one can ever imagine

Earlier, the government had made changes in official documents, giving women equal status as a parent. In most official documents, father’s name was mandatory, making it difficult for children of single or divorced women. These rules have been eased now and father’s name is no longer mandatory in documents like passport. The NDA government has rolled out campaigns to tackle India’s bias for sons and rampant female feticide. Its campaigns and policy push with BETI BACHAO BETI PADHAO and #SelfieWithDaughter were fresh stabs at changing the status quo.

India’s judiciary gave a slew of progressive rulings that helped tackle a range of biases and challenges that women face in India. Last year, the Supreme Court declared that the Muslim practice of instant triple talaq was unconstitutional and struck it down. The judiciary’s progressive rulings have also reached places of worship. Many of them restrict women’s entry to the sanctum sanctorum. As activist Trupti Desai led the fight for women, courts ruled that women have equal rights, thus opening doors for them at Haji Ali and Shani Shingnapur temple. In February, the Supreme Court made it clear that all Hindu daughters, even those born before the enactment of the Hindu Succession Act 1956, will have equal right to ancestral property. This reaffirmed the 2005 amendment to the Hindu Succession Act.

Social media and Bollywood added to the progressive moves made by the government and judiciary. The global campaign #MeToo against sexual harassment at work found wide resonance in India and many women made public their experiences. The film Padman, meanwhile, tackled the social taboo around menstruation. Indian women face a range of cultural and religious restrictions during their period, and Akshay Kumar’s movie forced people to have a conversation about it and possibly a rethink. This time, the confluence of factors-social activism, political will and court judgement- have moved in the favor of India.

About Author.

Vasundhara Pande

Desk Editor


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