I believe at least some of us will agree to the fact that the menstrual cycle is a natural process intrinsically linked with a woman’s body. Still many of us follow restrictions during our menstrual cycles, whether it’s in our homes, our relatives’ homes or at any religious event. The freedom of women continues to be in the hands of dominant patriarchal discourse.
Very few cultures across the world have acknowledged that menstruation is a natural phenomenon. With the evolution of these cultures, there has not been any significant change in people’s attitudes towards menstruation. Therefore, what remains are haunting questions like what effects do these taboos have on the overall development of women? Are menstruation taboos the cause of leading menstrual health problems in India?
In her research paper, Janet Chawla writes, “According to historian N.N.Bhattacharyya, different areas of India have had notions of the menstruating goddess. In Punjab, it was believed that Mother Earth (‘Dharti Ma’) ‘slept’ for a week each month. In some parts of the Deccan after the ‘navaratra’ goddess temples were closed from the tenth to the full moon day while she rests and refreshes herself. In Malabar region, Mother Earth was believed to rest during the hot weather until she got the first shower of rain. Still today in the Kamakhya temple of Assam and in parts of Orissa the rituals of the menstruation of the goddess are celebrated during the monsoon season.”
In many cultures, the menstrual cycle was seen as a gift and when a girl would menstruate for the first time, it would be celebrated in public. But this again is a problematic view as the menstrual cycle was seen as a boon for reproduction. Even when people celebrated it, they had a reductionist view that a woman’s ultimate goal in life is reproduction.
As Chawla’s paper demonstrates, such dominant patriarchal notions regarding women’s bodies have religious origins. A large majority of women consider their bodies as impure/unclean during the time of menstruation. They are prohibited from going into temples, mosques, and gurudwaras and they are not supposed to touch any holy book. They cannot touch utensils or even pickles.
As Elizabeth M. Whelan demonstrates, even in Judeo-Christian history, the menstrual taboo has been an important reason for excluding women from the position of authority.
Now let’s look at the effects of this whole silence around menstruation on the physical and mental well-being of girls. Swapna Mazumdar, writing in The Tribune, says, “Talking about menstruation has been a taboo even among planners. It received the attention of the Ministry of Health only in 2011. Close to 70% per cent of Indian women risk getting severe infection, at times causing death, due to poverty, ignorance and shame attached to their menstruation cycle”.
The silence and shame around the menstrual cycle has caused severe problems for girls. In a survey conducted in 2011, it was revealed that in north India, over 30% of the girls interviewed dropped out of school after they start menstruating. Reproductive tract infections (RTI) were 70% more common among women who were unable to maintain hygiene during their menstrual cycle. This kind of cultural neglect of menstrual hygiene is reflected in policies as well because a larger number of adolescent girls (between 12-18 years of age) miss five days of school due to lack of toilets for girls.
Dr Rani Bang in her book “Putting Women First: Women And Health In Rural Community” notes that women in rural communities have very little knowledge about menstrual health. She says, “Cultural perceptions such as colour of the menstrual blood govern their perception of what is normal and abnormal. They resist using sanitary napkin because it is difficult to dispose them off. They fear it might fall into the hands of someone who can use Jadu tona (black magic) against them.” Therefore, education and counselling is a major requirement regarding menstruation, especially in rural areas
Also, the disposal of sanitary napkins causes is very dangerous for the environment. If we are concerned about the huge dumping sites and the ever growing non-degradable waste, then we should dig deeper. There should not be any compulsion for the use of sanitary napkins. Use of cloth is fine if it is used with proper hygiene. The uncleanliness of the cloth is directly linked with the taboo associated with it as women are unable to dry it properly in the sun, as the taboos associated with it make it necessary to hide it. Therefore, there is a strong need of spaces for girls where they feel comfortable about their periods. Menstruation friendly school campuses are a must. Working women in their workplace also suffer from menstrual taboos.
With the emergence of health issues due to poor menstrual hygiene, several organisations, individuals and entrepreneurs have come up with newer, innovative and sustainable solutions. Sinu Joseph, creator of Mythri, an innovative animated video to spread awareness on menstrual hygiene for adolescent girls says, “Pretending it never happened, doesn’t make it go away. When we don’t talk about it, we miss the signs that need attention. What is perfectly normal becomes a big deal and women quietly acquire low self-esteem for what is natural.”
Sinu Joseph and her colleague Vaijayanthi K have taken sessions in thousands of schools in rural Karnataka about menstrual hygiene and based on this experience, they have come up with an animated movie called “Mythri” imparting awareness about menstrual hygiene.
Azadi is an organisation working on demystifying menstruation. Azadi started a national initiative called ‘Bejhijhak’(without hesitation), to break the culture of silence around menstruation. Bejhijhak seeks to create a unified platform to break myths, taboos about menstruation and identify gaps that have created such a culture.
Social media and information technology have also contributed in opening up spaces for dialoguing over menstrual taboos and in spreading awareness and sensitivity about the scale of the issue. Menstrupedia, launched in 2012, is an online portal that focuses on busting menstrual myths and providing correct information. Co-founder of the portal, Aditi Gupta, has created comic books based on her own experience of facing stigma while growing up, to guide girls about growing up and menstruation.
Taboo around menstruation has started to be seen as a threat to health and many people are willing to break this silence. In the exploration of the origins and basis of menstrual taboo, we have looked at the perception of menstrual cycle in different cultures and religions. The root of almost every perception seems to be patriarchy. Therefore, the origin of the taboo certainly seems to be the discrimination that women have had to face from primitive times. There is an institutionalised basis for these taboos to exercise control and authority over women.