Menstrual taboos in India: Why shake or break them?
Women’s menstruation is perceived differently in different parts of the world. In 19th century France, women were barred from wine making, mushroom picking, silkworm tending or sugar refining during menstrual cycles. Women in most places are, till date, barred from attending and participating in religious ceremonies, if they are menstruating. This likelihood is much higher if the ‘holy’ places are in care of men.
There was recent news in India where the Sabarimala temple head saying said that machines were needed to be invented in order to ascertain whether a woman is menstruating or not, until then they should be completely barred from entering temples. In response to this the #happytobleed campaign took the internet by storm.
The way we understand and interpret purity and impurity governs our understanding of this culture, particularly since cultural definitions are male set. Freudian psychologist Bruno Betlehem has termed this culture as ‘vaginal envy’ of men, where they turn women’s capacity of child bearing to their handicap, by restricting their mobility and the choices that they can have. Social scientist Shiley Lindenbaum, through the findings of her research, stated that control on women through menstruation was more like a ‘cultural whip’ to protect land and resources, which could become endangered by further population increase.
Come what may, my problem is that it’s always the women who are being expected to confine themselves or align their behavior as per an expected norm. Even in modern day sanitary health advertisements, women’s blood is shown in blue ink, while on the other hand stores where one buys sanitary napkins wrap I t in multiple layers, which clearly indicates how reluctant we are towards talking about or even seeing anything even remotely associated with menstruation. Especially in rural India, it is more of a problem, as there are hardly any shops that keep sanitary napkins and even if they do, women live in the culture of shame where they aren’t used to buying such stuff. As a result they use the same piece of cloth over and again, which leads to bacterial infections and other serious health problems over time. The same culture also perpetuates a culture of silence due to which there is hardly any awareness amongst people about menstrual health.
In many parts of India, menarche, the onstart of menstrual cycle of girls is celebrated as a mark of initiation into womanhood. While keeping women away from pickles and farms is related to the fact that women’s sweat is toxic (it secretes menotoxin), that retards the growth of yeast, which may be harmful to flowers/ organically preserved foods; it is important that media portrayals extend more towards reality. What’s even more important is that uncomfortable silences are broken, and we open ourselves to more dialogue, especially with the younger population in school. Sensitizing both men and women can help, but there is a vast mass to cover. And that is why we need the more the educated and aware population to come forward on platforms most accessible to them. Through these platforms, they can reach out to a large number of people and spread an understanding that is more tolerant and accepting of this natural process and allows women to access spaces more freely, without much hesitation.