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To Be Or Not To Be ‘Pure’: The Dichotomy Of Menstrual Purity

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The first time she bled on wood shavings and ashes, she cried out for her Maa’s soothing. But soothing found no place as she lay writhing in pain in the small Gaokar on the outskirts of her community. The red of her legs painted the confluence of shame and indignity on the canvas of the mud floors. Whilst her mother’s words croon in her mind, “You’re impure.”

The wine is sour, flowers wilt, seeds dry out, bee colonies die, even the mirror becomes dull, and ivory loses its gloss.” -Pliny the Elder

This quote by the roman author who lived over 2000 years ago, in his book; Naturalis Historia, depicts that menstrual taboos are not a thing of the present. These have continued across generations and over thousands of years. Even today, all across different regions of the world, the biological process of menstruation is associated with impurity.

Representational image

In the past, there have been many instances that continually reinforce and reiterate the existence of menstrual taboos and religious norms. For example, the heated controversy against the admission of women who were of menstruating age in the Sabrimala temple in Southern India.

Furthermore, there was another incident where an institution forced young women to strip to authenticate that they were indeed not menstruating. These institutions of education are to be revered. Still, their students are subjugated to religious norms, being barred from common areas and places of worship on the grounds of their questionable purity.

How Is Caste Related To Menstruation?

Besides the ridiculous perceptions of purity, impurity and societal taboos that have been perpetuated over a long period, there also exist caste-based taboos. Menstruation and caste are intertwined as well.

For instance, in several upper-caste households, women who are menstruating are not allowed to carry out or perform certain activities. They are also required to follow a set of rigid rules and procedures based on the concepts of caste purity and religion and have no scientific background.

Many women are not allowed to go into the kitchen or touch the food or utensils, and enter places of worship. Many may not be permitted to use the same utensils as the rest of the family members or contact or touch the male members of the family. They might not be allowed even to take a bath. In many places, they are entirely secluded and isolated from the rest of the community. The list of these societal standards thus goes on and on and on.

Menstrual Purity

But even in the process of menstruation, one shall not dilute the caste system, which takes precedence within Indian society. Thus, even menstrual purity is perceived with double standards, presenting a surreal dichotomy.

While upper caste women are subjected to numerous restrictions, women from oppressed castes and communities are subjected to the same limitations only in upper-caste households and not their own. Many a time, these taboos are waved off behind the farce of hygiene or culture and traditions.

But, one has to understand that this class and caste segregation and ideas of purity are nothing but suppression of the marginalised. Or intended to patriarchal practices and control individuals by forcing them into a cycle of never-ending shame.

Double Standards Within Notions Of Purity And Pollution

“A tradition that is followed even today in Andhra Pradesh is that the upper-caste girl’s clothes worn on the day of attaining puberty, clothes with blood stains are mandatorily offered to chakali women. This ritual relieves the upper-castes from the pollution caused by the first menstruation of the girls, thus directing the pollution to chakali women. These chakali women are considered as receivers of the pollution in order to protect the purity of the upper-caste households. Untouchables and lower castes are an essential part of the society for the upper-castes to uphold their purity.” – Why the Debates on Menstrual Taboo are One-sided? by T. Sowjanya, 2017.

Conversations around menstrual purity are also distorted. In Indian society, which is highly casteist, it seeps even in this arena. It is usually upper-caste, Brahmin women who are considered to be impure or dirty during menstruation as their status as a member of a higher caste entitles them to enjoy the privilege of being pure. Thus, during monthly cycles when they are deemed impure, they have to follow a plethora of restrictions to uphold caste purity.

On the other hand, according to Brahmanical thought, oppressed castes don’t enjoy any such privileges of purity. Therefore, periods considered impurities or something that can pollute the upper caste’s purity is shameful for upper-caste menstruators. But aren’t shameful for Dalit menstruators.

This is because of the twisted belief that oppressed caste women or Dalit women aren’t pure in the first place, so when they are menstruating, they cannot be considered impure. While, on the other hand, upper-caste women who are epitomised as the symbol of female purity are turned and transformed into manifestations of indignity, shame and impurity during their monthly cycles.

Besides the fact that the concept of menstrual purity finds assertion in cultural taboos and is entirely denounced by science, one has to keep in mind that Brahmanical ideas too influence this.

While talking about menstrual purity, one cannot ignore the impact that caste plays in solidifying these social rituals and systems. The need is not just to break barriers of taboos through education but also to terminate the notions of caste purity.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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
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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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