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Bloody Hell: How Religion In India Punishes Women For Menstruating

This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

In India, there’s a powerful factor that overarchingly defines the collective experience of those who bleed, because it is deeply rooted in culture, class, and caste — and that is religion. Religion has always played a key role in the temporary displacement of menstruators from places of worship and kitchens, barring them from keeping fasts, and banishing them to verandahs, outhouses, and rudimentary ‘menstrual huts.’

These humiliating practices, based in superstition that period blood is impure, are often willingly enforced by upper caste gatekeepers of religious patriarchy, that sometimes also includes women, perpetuating a toxic cycle of othering.

Period And Prayer

Just how deep this prejudice runs through Indian society was revealed recently by the results of a survey conducted by Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) and Youth Ki Awaaz on ‘menstruators’ behaviours, attitudes and practices during periods.’ The survey found that 49.2% or nearly half of the 11161 respondents believed that praying is something that should not be practiced when one is on their periods. The survey also found that at 49%, students made up the majority of the respondents.

The data related to praying is especially alarming, not only because beliefs, if held by the majority, tend to dangerously pass for the rule of law, but also because a large section of India’s educated young population thinks personal religious practices and periods are interlinked. As routinely happens in conversations of these kinds, women are bracketed together to homogenise the period experience, when in reality, the bodily rights of a large section Savarna women, controlled in the religious context by ritualistic practices obsessed with purity, and their temporary othering, do not compare with Dalit women’s who are still treated as outsiders in any mainstream conversations on period leave, poverty or worship.

When Religion Shuts You Out: The Story Of Brahmanical Patriarchy & Caste

Journalist Arpita Chakrabarty, a Hindu by religion, remembers her harrowing experience after she lost her mother. “Recently, during my mother’s funeral rites, I was asked again and again by my aunts and cousins if I was on my menstruation. The priest too hinted on the same thing, indirectly. I was not bleeding, but if I were, I would have lost the right to perform funeral rites, thanks to my period,” she says.

An older woman giving a gift to a young girl at her coming of age ceremony
Ceremony of Tuloni Biya. Credits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYm0Ff-PKSU

Padmini Baruah, a half Assamese graduate student of the Fletcher School in the US, raised in Assam, also remembers “bizzare” early menstruation memories. “When I first began menstruating, I was subject to a set of practices that can only be described as outright bizarre. I was segregated for three days and not allowed to come in contact with the male members of my family. I was not allowed to eat anything except sprouts. On the fourth day, I was dressed as a bride and ritually ‘married’ to a banana plant.

There was an elaborate reception and I received presents from the guests. I was 13 at the time, and this was traumatising at several levels,” says Baruah.

Nikaytaa (identifies herself by first name) was around 17 when her menstrual cycle started. “…Once my period started, I was not allowed to enter the Pooja room. If either my sister or I were on our period, we would be allowed inside the Pooja Ghar but were not to touch the main thaali with the prasad, flowers etc. I was to learn later that we were allowed in the Pooja ghar to prevent my dad and brother from knowing we were menstruating,” she said.

Her experience was worse at her grandmother’s house, where she was not allowed to visit the kitchen during her cycle, keep her plate in the sink, or get a glass of water for herself. “Women are the gate-keepers of Brahmanical patriarchy,” she says.

The mental exhaustion of remembering the do’s and don’ts paled in comparison to the exhaustion caused by the menstrual cycle itself. It took me some time to realise that such practices of upper-caste Brahminical households are actually oppressive. They are designed to limit the sexual freedom of Hindu women by making them feel guilty of their own sexuality and biological processes,” she says.

Within Hinduism, restrictions can transcend across caste hierarchies. Sunita Devi, a Dalit reporter from Uttar Pradesh, speaks about her experience, “When I was 10 or 15 years old, I have personally witnessed Dalit women on their periods in many homes not allowed to cook or climb onto the platform of the local wells to draw water or visit places of worship,” she says. “I didn’t have my mother growing up (who had passed away) so I had no choice but to cook for everyone and my periods weren’t that much of an issue. But Dalit women have always worked in fields during their periods. Though restrictions are gradually easing with time,” she says.

Dalit rights activist, Beena Pallikal, however points out that the restrictions could be a result of a section of Dalit Hindu homes adopting Savarna religious practices over time. “This is not culturally part of Dalit practices…. the purity and pollution aspect is definitely propagated by the dominant caste society.” Pallikal says her colleagues working in Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh confirm that from not touching bottles of pickle, wearing new clothes during periods to not being allowed to cook, some of these practices are very much part of Dalit Hindu homes as well.

When Religion Mixes With Sanctions of Society

There are, of course, exceptions that bypass cultural taboos through empathy and education but even in those, fear of social sanction plays a significant role. Srestha (who agrees to be identified only by her first name), says she has had a much better experience negotiating periods at her home than many, given that her parents are healthcare professionals, but would desist participating in prayer outside for fear of what ‘others’ may say.

My mom never forbade me to go near the thakur ghor (puja room) while I was on my periods. She never really explicitly prohibited me from attending pujas when I was menstruating. She was more scared of what other people might think of it, and so I never participated in pushpanjali (common Durga puja ritual).” she said.

If women gate-keep Hindu rituals at home, many also open up the space for others. “One day during a pooja that the family was partaking in, my aunt handed me over the aarti thaali – I hesitated and mouthed ‘chums’ which she brushed off and thrust the thali in my hands anyway… That changed my relationship with not just the elder women in my family but with the existence of God or lack thereof,” says writer and producer Sejal Pandey.

Politics & Religion: When Greater Good Transcends Personal Rights

One issue that rocked the period debate in 2018 was the entry of menstrual age women into the ancient Sabarimala temple, home to the presiding deity of Lord Ayyappa, in Pathanamthitta District of Kerala. It split public opinion on women’s bodily autonomy and their right to pray during periods. Actor turned politician Khushbu Sundar says she believes in the cause of women’s rights, but maintains that on a sensitive subject like Sabarimala, religious harmony should not be disturbed.

Sabarimala Temple

You can pray to God anywhere. Why disturb the harmony of those who do not want this to happen? We can definitely withhold ourselves. Nobody is saying don’t pray, just don’t come to the worship places. I don’t think there is anything wrong in understanding this,” she says.

You can’t change the mindset of people overnight.” But what happens if a majority of people’s beliefs start deciding the rights of a few?

A woman has all the right to live her life the way she wants. I stand for basic fundamental rights of women. But what is it we are gaining (by going to a temple during periods)? This is something we can stay away from. We are not losing anything. Going to a temple will not show empowerment. There is a lot more to women,” she says.

Beyond Hinduism: The Story Of Other Religions

While the restrictions may vary in form, other religions too have their fair share of menstrual taboos, though the restrictions may vary across cultures and religions.

Pallikal, who comes from a Christian background, says she’s never seen any space held off from menstruating women in churches.

Even though Sikhism does not have a religiously mandated concept of ‘impurity’ and therefore doesn’t place restrictions on menstruating women, often cultural biases can colour religious practices, poet and activist Harnidh Kaur points out.

Sikhism doesn’t have any restrictions on menstruating women. In fact, multiple verses in the Guru Granth Sahib reiterate the dignity of women, especially during the cycle,” says Kaur. “Of course, culture and religion can often end up being at crosshairs. Culturally, many Sikh communities may try to push restrictions on women, but it’s not a religiously mandated concept ofimpurity’- it’s something we’re trying to change everyday because all our sisters deserve the dignity and honour our religion promises them,” she says.

Similarly, Islam places restrictions on menstruating women when it comes to praying or fasting, but not beyond. Rana Safvi, a historian, says, “In Islam, women on their periods can’t pray or fast. They are also not allowed entry into mosques. But restrictions are only limited to religion, not kitchens or social and domestic responsibilities. It’s more like they are excused from praying. They have to make up for fasts later.”

Beyond cultural enforcement, the relationship of many menstruators with religion is a deeply complex structure of agency, education, capitulation to religious policing for fear of safety, body politics of control, and unquestioning faith. It’s why many educated menstruators pass on prejudices and taboos to their daughters. It’s why gates of religious places of worship are vigorously guarded against so called defilement by period blood, the very thing that gives life.

Women are to consider themselves as tools of reproduction, in service of the family patriarch. Their sexuality is something to be utilized exclusively by men, as per their convenience. The nitty-gritties of women’s biology is something even the Gods won’t recognise, leave alone accept,” Niyaktaa says.

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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.

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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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