Why Should a Physiological Process Determine A Woman’s ‘Sanctity’?

With P.V. Sindhu encouraging girls to follow their dreams through Stayfree’s ‘Dream of Progress’ campaign and the entire television ad industry reverberating with the Olympics Silver Medalist’s words, “Sapne na periods ke liye nahi rukte (dreams don’t stop for periods),” the most burning issue of the times once again struck my mind, and that is none other than menstruation (and the taboos related to it). The challenges faced by adolescent girls in India due to menstruation restricts them from pursuing their ambitions and goals. Many mothers advise their daughters not to go to the temple during their menstrual days, with little knowledge to justify this “custom” with a convincing reason. They usually say, “You are not well today, so you can’t go anywhere.” The young girls generally do not understand the essence of their mother’s stated fact. They are not able to figure out how ‘offering prayers’ and ‘feeling unwell’ are interrelated. Besides, they are not at all ‘unwell’ – in fact, they are absolutely healthy.

But yes, this fact cannot be denied that their body has witnessed a drastic change, that has certainly given them the power, the strength to embrace ‘motherhood’ on one hand – but on the other hand it has made them ‘impure’ for the upcoming four or five days in the eyes of the society. And because of that, they cannot do any work for the next four or five days that is deemed sacred by society.

It is an irony of fate in Indian society that the physiological conditions of a woman determine her identity. It transfigures her from being a ‘Goddess’ to ‘untouchable’. And, this is the result of the same deep-seated conservative patriarchal mindset, according to which a ‘Man’ is the ‘Almighty’. He is the determinant of every thought of a woman, her ‘dreams’, her ‘desires’; He is the decision maker, the ‘Parmeshawara’. But in case of a woman, her ‘physical structure’ defines her existence, making her ‘impure’.

One of the most rampant taboos in India is the notion of impurity attached to the natural female body process of menstruation. I sometimes pity this thought of the so-called “civilized society”. Liquor is sold freely in markets here, but sanitary pads have to be sold in black bags. Why, even in the 21st century, is the biological reality of a woman a subject of shame for her? How can a physical change make her ‘impure’?

Even today, a girl hesitates to enter a temple during her periods. She is afraid that if she commits that ‘sin’ of entering into a ‘sacred’ place during ‘those days’, then that might surely bring a ‘curse’ or ‘misfortune’ for her and her family. She must be “purified” before she is allowed to return to her family and the day-to-day chores of her life.

Such taboos about menstruation, prevalent in many societies, impact girls’ and women’s emotional state, mentality, lifestyle, and most importantly, health. Large numbers of girls in less economically developed countries drop out of school when they begin menstruating. This includes over 23% of girls in India. At least 500 million girls and women globally lack enough facilities for managing their periods, according to a report from UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO). In rural India, one in five girls stop their schooling soon after they start menstruating, according to a research by Nielsen and Plan India, and of the 355 million menstruating girls and women in the country, just 12% use sanitary napkins.

In today’s world, if there’s nobody dying it’s not on anyone’s agenda,” says Venkatraman Chandra-Mouli, a WHO scientist who’s worked in adolescent health for the past 20 years. He clearly mentions that menstrual problems may not kill anyone, but, they are still an extremely important issue because they affect the perspective of girls towards themselves, ultimately affecting their confidence, and confidence is the key to everything.

Years ago, all these baseless rituals which people term as ‘rules and traditions’, were probably thought to be comforting to women during menstruation, as they used to do a lot of strenuous manual work. But they are being misunderstood today – they have been labelled as ‘rules’ and are imposed on women.

Who knows when this prohibition started?says Khevana Desai, an assistant professor of sociology at Mithibai College in Mumbai. “There is no logic to it. I think the patriarchy added the idea of impurity as a way of reinforcing their supremacy,” Desai says.

I’ve seen women shunned, being treated as untouchable, made to sleep on jute mats, not fed in the same plates,” Desai adds. Some traditions hold that if a menstruating woman’s shadow falls on certain plants, the leaves fall off. As she says, it’s clear that these beliefs hinder, rather than help women.

While people are taking the “Padman Challenge” on one hand, it still remains a topic of debate and discussion why a girl can share these things with her mother. Why is a fear persistent in her mind that her brother or father should not know what she is going through? Women jostle sanitary pads up their sleeves on their way to the bathroom and try to hide them from everyone – hide the fact that they are going through their ‘hard days’. They loathe talking about it and consider it as something to be ashamed of. No ‘barometer’ in this world can ever measure the amount of pressure that a woman undergoes while she menstruates. The ‘pressure’ to hide it from the world, the ‘pressure’ to keep her ‘physical change’ a ‘secret’.

In a 1978 satire for Ms. magazine, feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem answered the most asked question: “What would happen, for instance, if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?” “The answer is clear,” she wrote, “menstruation would become a desirable, fortunate, boast-worthy and masculine event: Men would vaunt about how long and how much.” Her answer categorically stated that whenever something is associated with men, then it becomes a matter of ‘pride and honour’, but it is associated with women, then it is a matter of ‘shame’ and needs to be kept hidden, and unfortunately, ‘menstruation’ suffers that misfortune of being connected to women.

We can not change nature, nor do we want to change, because we know our worth and are proud of it. We only want to change the thinking that considers a girl ‘impure’ as soon as she crosses the ‘threshold of adolescence’. Boys are always ‘holy’, but the girls become ‘unholy’. There is no need for a “Padman Challenge” here. Instead, it is necessary to establish a society where girls can freely speak without hesitation, where their ‘companions’ for ‘those days’ aren’t sold in black bags, where they can be ‘proud’ and not ‘ashamed’ of what they are. And it needs to start with the family, because the society will change only when the family changes, and the country will change only when the society changes.