Tag Archives: Gwen Bellinger

Family Feud: The Indian Mother-in-law



A post by writer Gwen Bellinger, an American woman living in India. The story is based on the experiences of friends she’s made there.  Gwen took the photos, but is not identifying the women in order to preserve their privacy, quite important in the Indian culture.

Raveena desperately did not want to get caught. Each evening, after her son returned home from playing cricket with the neighborhood children, the two of them would take a walk. They frequently stopped in the market to share a Coke, and then she’d indulge in not just one, but two plates of pani puri, a popular Indian street snack. Although the entire affair cost less than $1 USD, she warned her son not to mention their evening snack to his grandmother, lest she get upset at Raveena’s frivolous spending on herself and on the boy. The last thing Raveena needed was more criticism from her mother-in-law.


After her arranged marriage, Raveena did as most new Indian brides do: she left her parents and moved into an apartment in Jaipur, fully furnished with husband and mother-in-law. The harassment began immediately. When relatives visited, Raveena acted as their servant while the mother-in-law blatantly ignored her. When Raveena’s husband said he wasn’t hungry, her mother-in-law criticized her for not insisting he eat anyway. Any problems Raveena’s children had in school? Her fault.

The ‘”Indian mother-in-law” is a phenomenon prevalent in soap operas, films, and talk shows. Stereotypically, she openly criticizes her daughter-in-law while coddling her own children. She’s typically seen as over-involved with enormously high expectations. The United States has its own equivalent of the mother-in-law phenomenon. Anyone who watched the television 1996 series Everybody Loves Raymond is familiar with Marie’s ruthless attacks of Deborah’s cooking. Articles like 8 Ways to Deal with Your In-Laws this Holiday Season decorate my Facebook.



Traditionally after marriage, the bride becomes part of the groom’s family and moves into their house. It’s not uncommon for a bride to cry on her wedding day because her family physically leaves her with the groom and his relatives, symbolizing that she is a part of a new family. Before 1990, most middle class homes did not have a phone. Calling was expensive, so Raveena only spoke to her family a few times a year. One woman I know only spoke to her family once in five years, the day her son was born. While this kind of isolation is less common today, it was very real for Raveena’s generation.

While I’ve read horror stories from rural, conservative villages of in-laws treating their daughter-in-law as a servant, changing her first name, even beating her or killing her, the familial problems of the urban class appear to be mostly passive aggressive. The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law gossip and bad-mouth each other. The mother-in-law criticizes the daughter-in-law’s cooking. She is overbearing about how to raise the children. The daughter-in-law comes off as ungrateful. Some people credit this to a competition between the women over the man. One of my friends rationalized that it was the society her grandmother grew up in, and she didn’t want to change her ways.



Of course, the cycle can be broken. Some young brides I know love their mother-in-law. Raveena? She gets along great with her daughter-in-law, and they’ve become fast friends. She and Priya quickly bonded over how much Raveena’s mother-in-law dislikes both of them. Priya doesn’t live in Jaipur with Raveena. She and her husband work together and have their own apartment in Delhi. The couple visits Priya’s family weekly.


India is still a patriarchal society, yet the sub-continent appears to be changing overnight. The rise of feminism in India is apparent in major cities. Women are no longer the keepers of the house. They are in universities and becoming lawyers, doctors, and politicians. People are moving abroad. Cheap calls and internet mean families remain digitally connected. As women move out of the “domestic sphere” and begin to take on traditionally male roles, it will be curious to see how the relationships between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-laws morph in the years to come. Clearly, as Priya found of Raveena, not all Indian mothers-in-law are to feared.



Gwen Bellinger is a freelance writer and editor originally hailing from North Carolina. She moved to Chandigarh, India in August 2015 to work with the Haryana government on a one-year education implementation project. You can follow her travels and adventures abroad at www.gwengetsglobal.com or visit her official website at www.gwendolynbellinger.com.



Periods in India: Rural Taboos and Education




A post by education consultant and writer Gwen Bellinger:

In early September, 2015, I found myself standing in front of a group of adolescent girls while my colleague held up colorful pamphlets about menstruation and sanitation. I tried to read the room to determine if the girls felt embarrassed, bored, scared…At the time, I knew taboos against menstruating existed in India but, even after living here nearly a year, the subtleties and complexities of the issues are something beyond anything I can truly grasp as an outsider.

“The girls miss school when they are menstruating,” my work colleague told me. An intern in the Haryana Government, she works with “beti bachao beti padhao, a new initiative launched by the Prime Minister to generate awareness of gender inequality while empowering and educating the young girls of the nation. “Sometimes they miss entire weeks of school or exams because they think they are unclean.”

According to an article in The Times of India from 2011, 30% of girls in Northern India drop out of school once they start menstruating.[1] This article explains that 70% of women can’t afford sanitary napkins and 88% are using alternatives such as cloth, ashes, and husk sand.[2]

Sinu Joseph, a menstrual hygiene educator, claims these widely cited statistics have been created using bad data and that reusable clothes do not necessarily need to be replaced by sanitary napkins.[3] In fairness, reusable clothes can be a hygienic alternative, with the proper education, which many women lack. Since women are ashamed to allow the cloths to dry in the sun, many times the cloths never properly dry or become disinfected. According to an article in BBC, 70% of reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene.[4]

Women of rural India, realistically speaking, can’t afford sanitary napkins. My same colleague who works with this issue told me the story of an NGO that began distributing sanitary napkins to girls in villages. After a few years, the funding stopped flowing in, but the periods did not. The girls were then deprived of the sanitary napkins they had become accustomed to. While a few dollars to someone in the US does not seem like much of an economic burden, to a rural farmer who can make as little as $1.30 USD/day[5], purchasing sanitary napkins isn’t a priority. And the issue with reusable clothes is that not every village woman has been fortunate enough to receive education in feminine hygiene. This is exactly what my colleague was attempting to do during our school visits. Unfortunately, she said the girls remained largely disinterested.

Recently, a South Indian man named Arunachalam Muruganantham is being applauded for inventing a cost-effective sanitary napkin. After asking his wife why she resorted to an unsanitary rag each month (which she hid secretly from her husband due to the taboo), she replied that purchasing sanitary napkins would cut into their monthly milk budget. He spent over four years researching how to create a cost-effective product and lost his family, money, and the support of his community in the process. Not only did he succeed in his quest, creating a sanitary napkin which can sell for 2.5 rupees each (nearly $0.27), he also is employing millions of women and girls around the country to make them. It’s a touching story, I highly encourage everyone to read about it here or watch the Ted talk below.



Unfortunately, the taboo still negatively impacts millions of women in India. In villages across the country, young girls receive very little information about what is happening to their bodies. The subject is so taboo, they feel as though they cannot ask questions. Sometimes women are forbidden from entering the kitchen while menstruating, even to simply have a drink of water. Some believe a menstruating woman will spoil the food. They must eat separately from the rest of the family and cannot enter the ‘Puja’ room, a room for prayer.[6]

In some parts of rural Maharashtra, women are even banished to outside of the village to live in a gaokor, a special hut for menstruating women. These huts have no kitchen since women are “too impure” to cook, meaning they must rely on family members to bring them food. One NGO visited 223 gaokors and found that 98% lack a proper bed, electricity, and another amenities.[7] Wild animals are common around the remotely located gaokors, putting the safety of the women at risk. Women are unable to play or work, and simply must sit and talk to kill time, unless they must spend their five days in the gaokor alone.

The conditions of menstruating women in India vary greatly. By no means does everyone in India believe menstruating women are unclean or practice shunning women. In the rural areas, some beliefs are extreme, such as those who shun women to the gaokors. In other circumstances, some simply a lack of education, which can create unhygienic practices or unhealthy body-image issues. Of course, as in any society, and especially India, the divide between rural and urban populations, or between those denied proper education and those who have received one, can be staggering.

Urban Life

I live in a decently “progressive” city in India. It’s wealthy and many of the residents are very well educated. The majority are interested in Western culture, some have family living in the US, others simply really like to watch ‘Friends.’ Everyone I spend my free time with is young and well aware of the world around them. One of my American friends feels comfortable talking casually about her period with her male Indian roommates and no one bats an eye at the topic. It’s a different world than that of the rural schoolhouse I visited with my colleague. While still facing discrimination, urban women are in a better position to speak out than their rural counterparts. Better educated at home and in school, these women understand the science of menstruation and are able to recognize misogyny in the patriarchal society. These are the women who are changing social norms and crushing taboos in India.


My friend aside, not all women feel comfortable talking about menstruation in the urban environment. Sanitary pads are available in the markets, but they often appear quite large and bulky. I’ve seen tampons in the large supermarket in the mall, but I don’t believe there are any tampons with applicators in India. People buy and own these items, they talk about the subject in the classroom, but there are still issues with women feeling ashamed of the natural process of their bodies.

The biggest taboo I see for urban women with menstruation is the prevalent idea that menstruating women cannot enter the mundir, or Hindu temple, due to the impurity. Recently, an Indian temple chief said women should only be allowed to enter a temple once a machine can detect whether or not they are “pure” (not menstruating) or “impure” (menstruating).

Women quickly launched a social media campaign in protest. The #happytobleed campaign attracted thousands of followers and news agencies world-wide. Women posted photos of signs, often written on sanitary napkins, with the #happytobleed. Others tweeted the viral hashtag with uplifting words about the female body and the beauty of giving life.

After researching this campaign online, I began looking at other youtube videos and articles about menstruation and taboos in India. In one youtube video, the interviewer asks university-educated women on the street in Delhi about their experiences. Picking through the English and the small amount of Hindi I understand, the conversation didn’t seem that much different than the US. Some said people didn’t want to talk about menstruating because it’s “gross,” while one girl openly admitted that her boyfriend didn’t even mind having sex while she was menstruating (which, honestly, after living here for so long, I am surprised to hear her say. Pre-material sex is something that happens but is also not spoken about publicly).

Likewise, I asked one of my male friends here in Chandigarh his thoughts on the subject. He told me that women in rural areas can’t afford sanitary napkins and pointed me in the direction of Mr. Muruganantham’s invention. He said that everyone learns about it in school now. “We know it as part of biology,” he said casually. I kept pressing him about the taboo,  and he told me his ex-girlfriend didn’t want to enter a temple during her cycle. He encouraged her to enter, telling her the taboo is an archaic belief and that God doesn’t care if she is menstruating. As for everyone who cares: how will they ever come to know?

While I haven’t announced my period to any dinner parties yet, I am happy that women in India are standing up for their right to bleed, that uneducated men can see the importance in low-cost sanitary napkins, and that both sexes can and will cast aside old taboos and encourage women to do the same.


Gwen Bellinger currently works in Panchkula, India with the Department of Education to increase the quality of Indian schools. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling; trying to learn new languages; and pursuing her hobbies of reading, writing, photography, and videography. You can visit her travel blog at Gwengetsglobal.com

Gwen Bellinger




Photo1: http://www.theweek.in/features/society/women-launch-happy-to-bleed-campaign.html Reuters/New Delhi | November 25, 2015

Photo2: http://www.vocativ.com/254024/protesting-menstrual-taboos-with-maxi-pads/

By Tracy Clark-Flory Nov 23, 2015 at 5:52 PM ET

[1] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/70-cant-afford-sanitary-napkins-reveals-study/articleshow/7344998.cms

[2] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/70-cant-afford-sanitary-napkins-reveals-study/articleshow/7344998.cms

[3] http://swarajyamag.com/culture/why-india-doesnt-need-the-sanitary-napkin-revolution

[4] http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26260978

[5] https://data.gov.in/catalog/average-daily-wage-rate-rural-india

[6] https://sanitationupdates.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/we-dont-talk-about-it-at-all-the-taboo-of-menstruation-in-rural-maharashtra/

[7] From a quote by Dr Dilip Barsagade, the founder of local NGO Society of People’s Action in Rural Services and Health (Sparsh) in http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/dec/22/india-menstruation-periods-gaokor-women-isolated

The Ladies Room Door Art Series: Bathrooms in the Developing World


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A guest post by my friend Gwen Bellinger:

Two weeks after obtaining my master’s degree, I spontaneously found myself on a month-long backpacking trip across Indonesia with my friend from New Zealand. These bathroom doors feature “His and Her” small masks at Goa Gojah, from the Island of Bali, Indonesia.


The door below comes from Ngurah Rai International Airport on the Island of Bali.


After a month in Indonesia, a pit stop in Australia, and two weeks back in the United States to wait for a visa, I flew to India for a job working for the Haryana government project for government-run schools. You can read more about my work in India here.

Anyone who has traveled outside of the Western world knows that bathroom “norms” take all kinds of shapes, sizes, (and smells) around the world. I’ve seen all sorts of bathrooms since arriving in India four months ago.

Some bathrooms are quite upscale and conventional according to Western norms such as this bathroom at Satva Restaurant and lounge in Chandigarh, India.


Or the bathrooms behind these painted doors at Pashtun, one of the oldest restaurants in the city.



Some bathrooms are decent but nothing special. I did appreciate the artistic playing cards for door markers on the one below. This was spotted at the Gymkhana Club in Panchkula, India


Other bathrooms have been just downright terrifying like this toilet in the Sector 8 Panchkula market. It was locked, but I did appreciate the little pencil drawing of a woman on the outside wall.


Here’s a good example of some of the things one needs to get used to in India: used pads on the ground of a very wet and dirty public restroom in Chandigarh. The next stall was streaked with blood.


The ladies rooms in Shiksha Sadan, the government office where I work in Panchkula, are perfectly sanitary although a bit sparse.


The deadbolt on the outside makes me quite nervous. My colleague is in fear she will be locked inside one night while working late.

Another She

There are things one must get used to, of course, including the necessity of sometimes using squat toilets (fortunately, the government offices have both these and Western toilets) and the absence of toilet paper in most establishments (unfortunately, none is provided in the government offices, but I have a few rolls stored in my desk).


In India, water is considered to be the most hygienic means of cleaning oneself after using the bathroom. From what I understand, you turn on the faucet to get fresh water from the tap and then wash yourself using your hand. The water runs into the bucket that you can use to “flush” the toilet by dumping it down the hole and cleaning the basin in the process. Often western toilets also have a little hose you can use to clean yourself off.

In this sense, there isn’t a problem with germs. Actually I think a lot of people think it is more hygienic to use water. However, I still haven’t figured out how you “dry” yourself after all this.

 In villages though, I could see a potential for problems if there isn’t running water and people are using one pot of water for cleaning. But I don’t have much experience with this and shouldn’t comment.

A quick google search produces a plethora of articles about cultural “anal cleaning” and theories for why water is preferred in India and the Middle East over the West. (One suggests that paper is used in Europe since Europe’s temperature often drops below freezing, meaning access to water wasn’t always possible as it is in India. Being a good Master’s student who hasn’t found any scholarly articles on the subject matter, I can’t endorse the idea with any certainty, though the hypothesis is certainly interesting!)

I rarely know when toilet paper is going to be provided. (It is at my gym, the mall, and most night clubs). An intelligent person would carry a pack of tissues with them everywhere, which I did when I lived in the Middle East last summer. However, I’ve gotten lazy here since I spend most of my time at work. That being said, I have been in a pinch a few times now. None of my Indian friends seem to believe in paper over water. I’ve had more than a few disappointing moments when going to friends’ houses and getting stuck the whole night with just a bucket of water and my sense of adventure.

Part of my job is to visit government schools mostly populated with the poorest kids in the state. It was only in 2011 that a national law established that all these schools must have separated bathrooms for girls and boys. Here is the bathroom of a secondary school in rural Ambala. (Note the sinks on the left.)

Girl's Toilet

This is the toilet for a school in Kundi (part of Panchkula). The school has about 300 children. There are two of these.


Here are some primary students in class.


These secondary students are taking a yoga class.

Yoga Class

In conclusion, the bathrooms in India are part of the experience. It would be easy to categorize them all as “less than sanitary” (many Westerners have). However, having traveled around the world and after living in a few developing countries, I think it’s more important to realize that our sense of cleanliness and hygiene is mostly a privilege, and in some cases, strictly cultural. Many people actually prefer the squat toilet and water, and perhaps find them more sanitary than our Western bathroom practices.

Gwendolyn Bellinger graduated in June ’15 from the University of Chicago, after studying Arabic, Islamic finance, and Gulf aviation. She currently works in Panchkula, India, on a project to increase the quality of public education in the state of Haryana. In her spare time, she enjoys gallivanting around the world with just a backpack; trying to learn new languages; and pursuing her hobbies of reading, writing, photography, and videography. Gwen is the daughter of my good friend and faithful blog reader, Susan Bellinger.

Check out Gwen’s fascinating travel blog, Gwen Goes Global.

Learn more about the work she is doing on the team website, Qip Haryana.