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That Time Of The Month: Menstrual Taboos That Still Haunt Every Woman

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By Pratichi Mahapatra:

“I was 11 when my grandmother told me that I could not enter the kitchen during my periods. I wondered why, given it was already quite disgusting to be conscious about blood oozing out of your body all the time, and apparently, without a visible wound. Later on, I once asked my mother about the logic behind such prohibitions. Interestingly, while she accepted that there is no valid ground for refusing women the right to perform their daily activities, she declined to resist this social diktat, as she ‘preferred’ to maintain the status quo.”

This is a very common scenario which we all are familiar with. Menstruation taboo i.e. the stigma attached to a menstruating woman is ubiquitous in all societies, till today. While the menarche i.e. the onset of periods of a girl is celebrated in our culture, the very process of it is considered to be impure. In fact, almost all the major religions of the world have similar prescriptions for women during ‘those days’. While Jewish law forbids any physical contact between males and females during the days of menstruation including “passing objects between each other, sharing a bed, sitting together on the same cushion or couch…smelling her perfume, gazing upon her clothing or listening to her song,” Christian women (mainly the Russian Orthodox sect) are denied the right to attend Church services and are often obliged to accommodate in a separate hut during periods. Although, a menstruating woman is not believed to be contagiously unclean in Islam, she is considered to be sufficiently impure for not taking part in religious functions. Moreover, the woman has to undergo a complete ‘ritual washing’ to be reckoned as ‘pure’ again. The concept of ritual washing is obligatory in Hinduism as well. In fact, menstruation is often considered to be a ‘curse’ in Hinduism. It is prescribed that a woman who is menstruating, should have a separate accommodation, separate utensils and kitchen and should not enter any place of worship. (Source)

The question is, while motherhood has been celebrated in almost all the civilizations of the world, why a process, which is intrinsically linked to the process of reproduction, has time and again made us ill at ease? If talking from the perspective of religion, blood is generally considered to be impure, hence rendering the entire process bereft of any sanctity. As a result, many women have come to believe that menstruation blood is actually polluted, which the body needs to get rid of, ending up in believing that her body is actually impure during the process. But scientifically, it is nothing more than the renewal of the walls of the uterus, (commonly known as the womb) akin to the process of cell renewal that the body is continuously undergoing. It is, in fact, precisely the process by which the body prepares itself every month for pregnancy.

Hence, it goes without saying that it is the lack of proper scientific knowledge that leads people to believe in such baseless practices. In this context, again, it would be naïve to assume that it is only the poorly educated sections of our society who are the easy victims of such a degrading practice. Instead, such social stigma is there, regardless of class, caste and education. For instance, on my visit to a friend’s place, I was completely taken aback when my friend informed me that they ‘believed’ that if any member of the household was having her periods, pickles kept for drying, will eventually rot! My inability to understand the connection between menstruation and rotting pickles and subsequent attempts of reasoning with her was in vain as she denied entertaining any scepticism on her long held conviction. Ironically, she was then doing her Masters in Science in one of the esteemed universities of the country!

Hence, the problem lies in the lack of awareness about the basic reproductive process of a woman’s body, intricacy of which is provided only after a student opts for specialized study. Moreover, sex education, in general, is believed to be impinging on the faith and culture of the country. Again, the issue is much more complicated than is apparent. This entire belief system and practice is enmeshed in shame and silence. From the prohibition of ‘such’ discussions in public, especially in front of men, to commercial advertisements of sanitary napkins where blue ink is used to represent blood, to the wrapping up of a packet of menstruation pads either in newspaper or black polythene bag while purchasing, underline how we have not only accepted this superstition but also endorsed it.

So, what needs to be done? First and foremost, one has to realize that one does not have to be a feminist to talk about ‘it’. And in this 21st century of ‘postmodern’ connections and scientific advancement, is it not imperative enough that the society should get rid of such redundant practices? I am not advocating, as some feminist scholars have, that, a woman needs to taste her own menstrual blood to be free from this patriarchal imposition [1]! Instead, it is just sufficient enough to create awareness amongst people, especially through education system. Making documentaries and radio programmes can be instrumental in reaching out to the wider public. In this regard, Sphere Origin’s television drama series titled Balika Vadhu had been bold enough to showcase the plight of a child bride when she had to face the discriminatory practice of seclusion of menstruating women for the first time. Even, Whispers’ #TouchThePickle campaign is a refreshingly innovative step in this regard. I, however, wonder whether the campaign would have been more effective if P&G had first started with the brand name itself, breaking the ‘whispers’ and ‘silence’ once and for all.

[1]-The concept has been discussed in The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer.

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  1. TheSeeker

    Well, there was a reason why this superstition had arised in the olden days. Women in those times did not have proper sanitary facilities and as a result were literally ‘dirty’ during their periods. Therefore they were made to sit in a fixed chair, not visit holy places etc. so they would not contaminate them. So I suppose that this practice was introduced with good intentions. But yes, we do not need it anymore!

    1. angeela

      yes i agree with you but with the pass of time we are much aware of our cleanliness matter so now here it is the time to erase these kind of thing so that we can be able to build up our own confident !!

    2. Pratichi Mahapatra

      @angeela

      Thanks a lot for clarifying..!!

      Best.

    3. Aashi

      I had a conversation with my grandmother on this… Her reasoning for this got me thinking and I think it made a lot of sense. If you look back in the olden days… Activities like cooking and praying required a lot of effort. E.g. Bringing water from wells… Dusting and cleaning grains and spices… Etc… In poojas there was the element of massive preparation etc. During a girl’s cycle she experiences pain and weakness. This she was given a deprecate room where she could relax and be served instead of doing any serving. Unfortunately…this privilege came to be looked upon as a curse… Women may actually have been revered and treated as queens during this time as it was part of a beautiful process…and maybe.. Just maybe … It wasn’t much appreciated in our later years in our patriarchal society… Things got better for women in the effort and hygienic part of the process… But went wayyyy worse in every other way…

    4. TheSeeker

      Yep, that’s definitely another reason why. Your grandmother was right :D.

    5. Pratichi Mahapatra

      @the seeker

      umm..I doubt whether hygiene was actually the reason behind such practices. If it is about sanitation then of course, facilities were not advanced as compared to contemporary parameters. If that is so then again, possibility of being ‘dirty’ would not have been restricted to women alone. It would have then included the daily acts of hygiene in general, irrespective of gender. Nevertheless, this logic which you have suggested also cannot be ruled out. As we all know, tracing the origin of myths, legends or superstition is really difficult as over the years, fact and ‘fiction’ often get overlapped. That is why, it is better treat it as a ‘possibility’ than a fact.

      Apart from this, we are on the same page in the end.Thanks for providing a different viewpoint, none the less. 🙂

    6. TheSeeker

      I was just stating my opinion, it’s what I believe is true :). But people should start questioning the age-old beliefs instead of blindly accept them, as many of them are now of null and void in our modern times.

    7. Pratichi Mahapatra

      @the seeker

      umm..I doubt whether hygiene was actually the reason behind such practices. If it is about sanitation then of course, facilities were not advanced as compared to contemporary parameters. If that is so then again, possibility of being ‘dirty’ would not have been restricted to women alone. It would have then included the daily acts of hygiene in general, irrespective of gender. Nevertheless, this logic which you have suggested also cannot be ruled out. As we all know, tracing the origin of myths, legends or superstition is really difficult as over the years, fact and ‘fiction’ often get overlapped. That is why, it is better treat it as a ‘possibility’ than a fact.

      Apart from this, we are on the same page in the end.Thanks for providing a different viewpoint, none the less. 🙂

    8. Tanish

      What about children who haven’t been potty trained? They wear diapers and aren’t considered to be dirty. Before diapers, children didn’t have proper sanitation either. Not to mention the fact that a child poops/pees A LOT more than the amount of blood that comes from a women during her period. This is more of a issue regarding genders and sexism.

  2. Shoeb Uddin

    Must Watch …!!!
    Beautifull presentation about Menstruation…

  3. VC

    The problem is lack of understanding – which unfortunately plagues this article as well. In both Hindu and Muslim tradition a lady was kept away from the kitchen and worship to allow her to rest and recuperate when her body was preparing itself and she was tired. With extensive rituals and house work, this was when a lady got her month’s worth of r&r. This has somehow gotten translated into the lady being considered impure and untouchable. The problem is misinterpretation along with perception. We are not only shy of dialogue and discussion, we also seem to be clinically averse to any sort of questioning.

    1. shoeb

      Hey bro..

      There’s misunderstanding in other religion but not in Islam…
      In Quran it is clearly mentioned about menstruation…!!

      What is permissible and what is not..
      For clarification please watch the following video

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mY4n5G8bp_E

    2. Fem

      Which is exactly what VC is talking about.

      “In Quran it is clearly mentioned about menstruation…!! What is permissible and what is not..”

      Why should anything be not permissible? So yes, both religion do it.

  4. Rahul

    Sikhism is the only culture that doesn’t differentiate a women on such basis. A women is given full respect whether if it is her menstrual phase or normal phase.
    We are proud of you sikhs. People do make jokes on them but I personally respect them a lot. They are the warriors, they are the protectors. We all should learn from the teachings of Sikhism

  5. usa facebook

    I always spent my half an hour to read this weblog’s content daily along
    with a mug of coffee.

  6. shoeb

    @Fem

    Hi there, For your kind info it is not permissible to have sex during menstruation, because there is increased chances transmission of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)…

    If you know a little of biology you’ll get it…

    1. Fem

      I know a lot of biology. But not the biology taught in religious books.

      Can you give me solid science backed evidence to the claim made by you?

    2. TheSeeker

      Well, for one, blood is a dangerous carrier of STDs, and many other diseases?

    3. Kartik Chaturvedi

      Well during the periods, the cervical canal opens to allow the shed cells of the utrine wall an opening to discharge. This opening may be susceptible to allowing bacteria and other harmful microorganisms an entry into the body. However it can be remedied by wearing a condom and washing properly.

      As far as the spread pf sexually transmitted diseases is concerned, well they can be spread during any sexual intercourse and has nothing to do wit the girl being in periods.
      .

    4. TheSeeker

      Safe sex is important during periods as there is an increased chance of STDS.

    5. Fem

      Ok I did a bit more research and I sort of agree with Kartik’s answer. (That’s because my research was all of 5 minutes and I don’t disprove or agree on anything with a 5 mins research). But it has opened my mind to this possibility.

      There are some facts and some of them are still being researched. But yes there are definitive chances to be exposed to higher risk of STD in sex during periods.

      This is one link which I found good – http://std.about.com/od/riskfactorsforstds/f/Does-Period-Sex-Increase-STD-Risk.htm

      However the fact remains that if there are higher chances of STD during periods, one is still not safe when not menstruating (in case of same partner). Its just a difference of degree.

    6. Kartik Chaturvedi

      @Fem, You are right, it is just a matter of degree.

    7. Jas

      Is it possible that the segregation, as part of old beliefs, can be ascribed to STDs? So you think they really knew about STDs or blood-borne-infections back then? Maybe we all ought to learn more Biology as well as History before we start crying foul (or acting omniscient).

      To learn more some of the reasons, kindly refer to Rita Banerjee’s, Sex and Power, Page 49

      Maybe you should also refer to the incidence of the South-Indian actress Jayamala, who was charged under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code, by the Kerala police for entering a temple while menstruating.

  7. NotACommunistBhakt

    The report mentions very little. I know what happens in JNU. I know how fierce DSU is. I know how muslim students in hostels demand for only muslim roommates. They keep additional illegal people in their rooms. Nobody knows who are these outsiders are. Wardens only check twice every year and even if you are caught keeping illegal occupiers, the fine is only Rs2000/- So, pay 4000/- every year and keep as people as you can accommodate for as long as possible. Some months ago, when the administration proposed to install CCTV cameras at strategic places(like, hostel entrance), the DSU was in forefront of a massive and violent protest and all other leftist parties(AISA, SFI, DSF etc) joined wholeheartedly. Their campaign against it was so massive, it was apparent that there is something wrong. What wrong? Clearly, they did not want any surveillance on who is going inside hostels. This raises the question: were they trying to hide whom they are bringing inside hostels? Are they terrorists?

    Also, there are many faculty members who are the masterminds and leaders of these separatist parties like DSU. They motivate, provide funds and protect these so called students. You see, the recent protest for “freedom of speech” and “freedom of dissent” has many teachers in fore front. Why? They are trying to stop arrest of Umar Khalid and his accomplices, cause their arrest and subsequent grilling will surely implicate many faculty members.

  8. Pratichi Mahapatra

    @notacommunistbhakt
    can you please care to explain how your comment is relevant to this topic of menstrual taboos? If you are that desperate to debate on the jnu issue, meet me on facebook then (I can see that you have searched from there only). The only condition is that you cannot remain anonymous. I am highly interested in engaging with a person who knows so much about our campus but was waiting for this ‘right’ opportunity to vent out his/her feelings!

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