The room was emptying and I was walking around, picking up leftover cups of coffee, straightening chairs, and just tidying up. Two of my friends were still dallying as they left, and were giggling over how people must say ‘S _ X’ in hushed tones, recounting how one of them works in an old age home, and while sitting with women of about 80, they all were talking about their marriages and how they hated ‘sex’, again in the hushed tone, but that it had to be endured to make babies! These two were in splits thinking of other instances, like going to buy condoms and trying to say the word in hushed tones, as if it were a prayer. I chipped in, mentioning how in India, all my childhood, and even now, if you go to your neighbourhood corner store and ask for sanitary napkins, how the package is always wrapped in brown paper bags, so no one can see what you bought, while everything else is just tossed into the clear plastic bag.
In my opinion, the menstrual stigma which is perpetuated by these practices keeps young women embarrassed, hiding sanitary pads and tampons underneath other objects in purses, sometimes even being so ashamed at leaving a used pad in someone else’s bin that they carry back a used pad in their purses. It is this stigma that keeps women from pretending they even bleed when they claim menstrual cramps are just indigestion and in my own case, when once, as a teenager, my skirt got stained in school while having a particularly heavy period, I pretended I had a boil that had burst and stained my clothes.
Also consider the aisles of feminine hygiene products, the packages of deodorised products, as if to say the natural smell of women is distasteful. There are no rows of male hygiene products, no semen changing or altering products, why then are there feminine washes, douches, deodorised liners and more that keep on enforcing that what comes out of a woman — breast milk, sweat, vaginal discharge, and blood — is dirty, to be masked, or changed?
Perhaps some ancient taboos around menstruation stem from most major religions; consider “go apart from women during the monthly course, do not approach them until they are clean,” Quran 2:222, or the Bible — “…in her menstrual impurity; she is unclean… whoever touches…shall be unclean and shall wash his clothes and bathe in water and be unclean until evening,” Leviticus 15. Zoroaster had menstruating women punished for approaching either fire or water. St. Jerome wrote, “Nothing is so unclean as a woman in her periods, what she touches she causes to become unclean.”
From the 8th to the 11th Centuries, many church laws denied any menstruating woman access to church buildings. As late as 1684, it was still ordered that women in their ‘fluxes’ must remain outside the church door. Pliny defined menstruation as “a fatal poison, corrupting and decomposing, depriving seeds of their fecundity, destroying insects and blasting garden flowers and grasses, causing fruits to fall from branches, dulling razors.” Janet Chawla, a Delhi based anthropologist and feminist scholar working around indigenous faiths and the cultures around traditional midwives and women’s bodies, wryly wonders, I don’t think Pliny actually observed, or did experiments on these phenomena! And of course, we all know of Hinduism and the prevention of menstruating women in temples and inner sanctums.
Indeed, even the first Latin encyclopaedia (73 AD) states – “Contact with menstrual blood turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.” This, of course, corroborates what we were told as young women, if you touch the pickle while you have a period, the pickle will go off and get fungus.
But perhaps if we go further back to when women were worshipped in ancient Pagan cultures, or even in our own Tantra. Consider the following image taken from a 12th-century yogini temple in Orissa, which shows people praying under a yoni (as a vagina is called in Sanskrit), or an icon of the vagina, we can see that there was no stigma around menstruation then, in fact, it was considered a glorious thing. Downward pointing triangles are often depictions of vaginas, and in the image, you can clearly see the clitoris in the middle.
Blood was considered sacred, bleeding a sign of fertility. There was nothing dirty about it in ancient temples, but as Gita Thadani mentions in her book, “Moebius Trip: Digressions from India’s Highways”, there has been a suppression and a distortion of this female centred glory, where original Sanskrit texts were translated incorrectly on purpose, changing the feminine to masculine. Yoni Tantra which is a classic part of Tantra literature says: “If one should worship the yoni, bowing thrice with a flower, all karmas are destroyed and nothing in the three worlds becomes unattainable… One should always smear a line of menstrual blood or sandal paste (on the forehead) …” Imagine Brahmin priests who are currently banning women from entering temples worshipping them, smearing their bodily fluids on their foreheads. The image makes me smile!
In 2015, a marathon runner in London, Kiran Gandhi decided to run the race without a tampon, sanitary pad or any protection. She says in her blog, she ran with blood streaming down her legs for all the women who don’t have access to sanitary pads, etc., and for sisters who despite cramping and pain, pretend like it does not exist. She ran and blogged and spoke about it to empower other women to own their bodies, to speak honestly about their own periods, and to love themselves despite any of these things, considered unattractive by the modern, patriarchal world, and to create a world that is more inclusive and loving of women’s bodies, with all their miracles and messiness. However, her race and her words caused a lot of furore and she said, there is a long way to go in fighting menstrual stigma. This is still true today.
The body is sacred. All ancient texts say this. When people get married, they vow to worship each other with their bodies. Blood is sacred, being used in ancient initiation ceremonies, and more. The wisdom of the body always wins, the body always is in charge, whatever the mind tries to do. It’s time to come home to the innate wisdom and tune into the body. It is time to stop hiding your period, your blood. Claim it as your birthright. There was never a better time than now.