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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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