Not Only Religion, India’s Cultural Norms Too Are A Barrier When It Comes To Menstruation

Period Paath logoEditor’s Note: This article is a part of #Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC, to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management among menstruating persons in India. Join the conversation to take action and demand change! The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.

Religious texts and sayings are often blamed for propagating myths and taboos about menstruation. The argument does hold substance. The Bible refers to the impurity of monthly periods, the Quran regards menstruation as harmful, and a literal translation of Manusmriti insinuates that to preserve a man’s strength and wisdom, menstrual exclusion is a must.

Where religious beliefs are of paramount importance, people often resort to follow everything sacred, rather than try and question the status quo.

Similarities Across Religions Are Aplenty When It Comes To Menstruation

Despite the differences seen amongst religions concerning their beliefs, customs and values, what is striking to see is that a majority of them have similar taboos when it comes to menstruation in India.

For representation only

The isolation of women in some form during their menstruating days remains constant. In Hinduism, it is practised by banishing women to huts outside their homes when they’re menstruating. Similarly, Halakha, which is the Jewish code of law, prohibits any form of physical contact between men and women.

Another recurring theme cutting across religious lines is the practice of “purification” of women once their menstrual cycle ends, signalling that a woman on her period is impure. Women practising Islam are required to perform ghusl or ritual cleansing before resuming religious duties after menstruation. The same goes for Judaism, wherein women have to immerse themselves in Mikvah or a ritual bath, seven days after their period ends.

Several other taboos exist as a commonality across religions, varying from restraining sexual intercourse to exclusion from religious rituals.

Not All Religions View Menstruation Negatively

However, as always, there are exceptions to the rule. Many religions view periods in a positive light as well. Guru Nanak openly criticized those who attributed menstruating women as polluted and impure, preaching that the only impurity is that of the mind. Similarly, the Buddhist point of view looks at menstruation as “a natural physical excretion that women have to go through on a monthly basis, nothing more or less.” (Bhartiya, 2013)

While it is true that religion, in some ways set the foundation that makes menstruation a taboo, there are other factors in play as well that propagate these regressive myths.

How Culture And Religion Coincide To Foster Menstruation Taboos

To say that religion alone is responsible for poor menstrual hygiene management in India would be incorrect. Several other factors are responsible as well. Indian politics is as guilty of not making menstruation a core issue. You’ll rarely see any politician talking about menstruation, nor will you see any debate in the Parliament regarding menstrual hygiene. The last time it was discussed in the Parliament was way back in January 2018. When your country’s leaders aren’t ready to talk about it, how can you accept that the general public will?

For representation only

Similarly, there are cultural factors at play, as well. Years of conditioning and patriarchal upbringing has normalized the fact that it is okay to treat women as an inferior race. We see it happening all around us. From pay inequalities to lack of representation to the portrayal of women in mainstream cinema, there are thousands of subliminal signals that are ingrained in the fabric of our day to day lives that feed into those predispositions.

Any form of deeply rooted prejudice against women is a form of misogyny, and when this bias gains a religious backing, there’s no stopping it. What this results in a society that feels sheltered by its religious norms, creating a halo effect wherein it ignores the concept of equality as long as the checkbox of religious piousness is ticked.

Even in present times, the incendiary statements made by self-styled godmen reinforce the societal evils when it comes to menstruation.

Recently, 68 girls were pressured to remove their undergarments in a hostel in Bhuj to check if they’re menstruating. Swami Krushnaswarup Dasji, the leader of the sect that ran college in Bhuj, had the following to say on menstruation. Statements by such self-proclaimed messengers of gods create the perception that all myths, taboos and religious beliefs regarding menstruation still prevalent in our society have religious backing.

Therefore there is an urgent need to address such taboos against menstruation both at the religious and cultural level. One way to do this is to understand the beliefs and their origins of such myths. A comprehensive understanding will help change-makers to develop a useful counterpoint in a language that people can understand. Another way to bring change could be by bringing progressive community leaders to the forefront. Since people tend to follow what these leaders say, there statements debunking such myths can go a long way in bringing positive change.

Only when we understand the relationship between religious beliefs and societal conditioning and how it crosses over to impact menstrual hygiene practices in our country, we can truly combat it.

The author is a part of the current batch of the #PeriodParGyan Writer’s Training Program

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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