About the Author
September 9, 2021
Ankita Gupta is pursuing PhD. as a menstrual researcher working on Menstrual Taboos and the Politics of Language, in the Department of Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies in the University of Delhi, and is an ICSSR Doctoral Fellow. She completed her MPhil. in Comparative Indian Literature from the same department with the research topic: “Ancient Taboos and Modern Narratives: The Politics of Menstrual Discourse”. She has also done B.Ed. in English subject teaching from University of Delhi and has published various papers. She is Editor and sub-editor of two books titled “Breaking the Silence on Muddupalani: Relocating Radhika Santawanam in Contemporary Studies” and “Telugu Writings in English: New Perspectives” respectively. Her areas of interest are gender studies, film studies, cultural and comparative studies.
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Why is there a need to talk about menstruation?
It has been noticed that only in the last 2-3 years, menstruation has come as a topic of main events to mainstream media and has started to reach in the conscience of people that menstruation is something that needs to be talked about. In popular culture, it has come through the means of a movie like Padman which starred a commercial hero like Akshay Kumar, and therefore it gained a lot of attention and attraction from the masses. However, it’s not true that Padman was the only movie that started talking about menstruation and the issues related to hygiene, health, and poverty of women in the Indian culture. Many movies have attempted to talk about this before but they have mostly gone unnoticed because they were not necessarily made for the masses. So, to begin, How the process of making menstruation a less taboo ridden subject in our society can be done through various measures?
First, we need to talk about what menstruation actually is and how has it become a taboo in our country. So, for those who don’t understand the technical term menstruation, the very simple term used in India for menstruation is ‘Period’ or in many Indian languages, terms like ‘Mahawari’, ‘Mahina’, ‘Masik Dharm’, ‘Rajas Dharm’ are used in daily conversation in different parts of India.
What is menstruation?
Menstruation is when the body of a woman does not receive a sperm, the egg that has attached itself to the womb lining starts to shed because it has not received the process of zygote formation therefore the entire lining sheds out of the female body in the form of mucus and blood. This is a very basic understanding of what menstruation is and it happens to every woman, every healthy woman and it’s not unusual or extraordinary, it’s just like a simple process of the biology of the female body just like going to the washroom or any other kind of discharge from the body that is not necessary anymore. So why is there this kind of Taboo ridden behaviour towards only menstruation?
What is a taboo?
Taboo is an act of restricting or prohibiting certain people, events, or things from our culture in the name of them either being sacred or being evil. So, for example why menstruation became a taboo is that in ancient times when this started happening, people did not have a lot of medical knowledge about the inner happenings of an individual’s body. The recurrent flow of blood from a female body was a question mark for people in general because they did not understand why it was happening and it was so necessary for the process of reproduction. Later on, they thought that the female body is probably producing blood without injury and that’s something that was not comprehensible to the normal human. Being so, they thought for it to be as some form of evil that is coming out of the body and it needs to be shunned or needs to be prohibited. That is how menstruation became a source of taboo and the female body’s fecundity or removal of these fluids from her body became a source of fear for the general public because they did not understand why this is happening to her. So the kind of ways in which the taboo or the stigma associated to the menstrual body or the period of the female is propagated in the culture is through many myths and many stereotypes about the female body and these have kept on piling up over years and the kind of things that women are prohibited to do during this time has caused so much taboo or so much stigma around it that people fear talking about it, people fear acknowledging its presence. In many cultures, women’s bodies are dealt with as if something to be afraid of, and I’m not necessarily talking about very primitive cultures because this has been coming out very recently in many instances that the kind of stigmatization that female body and say specifically the process of menstruation has been receiving in Indian culture is very much present in large parts of our country.
Last year two news articles shed a lot of light on the fact that menstruation is still being dealt as something that is troublesome and that the woman needs to be kept away from certain things so that it doesn’t either impurify the things around her or doesn’t cause trouble amongst people.
The first instance was a case from Uttarakhand, where on the way to the school there was a temple in one of the districts in Uttarakhand and the women were restricted to go through that path because if she is on her period and it’s a very common belief in not just India and many parts of the world, that God is sacred therefore the impure blood of the female coming in contact with God is very unholy and therefore treated as a taboo.
So a woman passing from the front of the temple should not be allowed to do so when she is on her period therefore a lot of girls used to miss their school on those 3-5 days when she was having a period because the people around her were forcing her to not take it as a natural process of the body. They felt that during this course she is going to pollute the temple area or if she goes in the vicinity of the temple it’s going to cost some sort of harm. This is not just one example; another example was the issue of the Sabarimala temple that was very much in focus all over our country and was a part of the news for a very long time where lord Aiyappa’s temple was prevented from the entry of menstruating women particularly.
This wasn’t talked about explicitly that this is meant specifically for menstruating women but there was an age limit that women from the age of 10 to 50 cannot enter the temple particularly because it is implicit in the fact that these women are reproductively active and Aiyappa is a God who is a celibate god and reproductively active woman is a form of provocation or seduction. So, it was considered controversial for women to enter the temple but this is not true because when initially, the whole process of women not going to temples started to happen it was not because she was impure or something like that,
All these taboos that exist in our society, like the taboos that you shouldn’t eat certain things when you are on your period or not touch certain things. All of these have had an ancient rationale behind them. To cite a few examples, in the earlier times you didn’t have vehicles so it was very difficult to go to temples because they were situated on hills or higher platforms or a lot of distance away from where people resided so to go to the temple and worship, you were needed to travel hours and hours and that was an exhausting act of moving towards the temple. So, to prevent the women from causing her pain because she is already experiencing cramps due of menstruation, people suggested that she should not go to the temple but over the years it became a norm, that she shall not go to the temple when menstruating because she will make it dirty.
In our culture, this is a paradox because in one of the very prominent examples that you see in the beliefs that we have in our Indian culture is the goddess Tamakhya who’s temple is present in Assam. The temple there worships the goddess of sexuality and reproduction and the object of worship is the yoni or the vagina of the goddess. Three days are dedicated to shutting the temple because they believe that in those three days the woman goddess needs rest as she is menstruating but the fact of the matter is that even though the people touch the goddess’ yoni and the blood symbolic water dripping out of her yoni that is said to be coloured in the form of a vermilion or something of that sort, whereas that is revered, women in the Assamese community are very taboo ridden when it comes to their actual menstruation.
At the time of their menarche, most of the women have to go through a very big ordeal. They are not allowed to eat things, they are not allowed to be a part of their family or community, they are segregated and put in seclusion, they are supposed to be on fasting and so many other things, and to top it all, in the Kamaikyu temple itself, the priests, if you go and talk to them if a woman is menstruating, she is not allowed to enter the temple which is a paradox because the temple itself is symbolic of a goddess which is revered for her menstruation and her yoni and women during their menstruation cannot enter the temple.
These are just a few examples that I have cited to explain the kind of lack of rationale that exists behind the beliefs that are there in our culture. And it’s not just a part of our culture, many cultures believe that, and what I feel is one of the biggest reasons behind this kind of a taboo-ridden identification of a natural process is the role of religion.
Religion plays a very important role in our culture. So, our culture, I cannot say that Indian culture is primarily Hindu culture and I will put the blame on the Hindu culture for propagating menstruation as a taboo, NO. We have literary texts from Hindu culture such as the Jaraksamitha, the Manusmriti, the Rigveda which talks about how menstruation is a punishment on women because INDRA sinned, he killed the Brahmins, and to take the blame, some of his punishment was meted out to women in the form of menstruation. The bleeding and pain, and cramps, all of that they had to bear it because they are considered lesser beings.
You have a similar connotation when you look at the bible. The older versions of the bible and especially the Leviticus section of the bible talks about how harmful it is to touch a woman during menstruation, or even look at her or participate in any sexual activity with a woman during menstruation because touching a menstruating woman is evil, it will cause you harm and it might lead to death.
This is not just true of Christianity. There are instances in the Quran where they talk about how the female body is impure, it’s a source of sin during menstruation. And then you have Buddhism which is so to say a more evolved religion in our country and so many other negative aspects of the orthodox Hindu culture that were there were negated by Buddhism and their philosophies. However, when it comes to the female monks or the bhikkhunis who are part of this religion, they are not allowed to sit on furniture when they are menstruating because they feel that the women will impurify it in some form.
This is also found in Jainism. In fact, one of the sects in Jainism that is Digambara, they believe that a woman can never achieve moksha because she can never truly get rid of her clothes. So, the Digambar community believes in giving up everything and not even wearing clothes to cover their modesty.
According to our culture, it would be inappropriate for women to give up their modesty, for one reason that they are women but for also the reason that they menstruate, it would be a dreadful sight for people to see women bleeding on roads and women’s bodies in view of the patriarchal eyes.
So, to say that religion alone has worked in order to create these stigmas would be less than true because patriarchy also has a very important role to play in that. Most of these religious texts and most of the early ancient medieval literature was coming from male authors so their misunderstanding of the female body for a long time until science qualified that if somebody menstruates it’s a normal thing and if a woman does not menstruate, something is wrong with her body. Menstruation itself is not the wrong thing, the absence of menstruation is something that signifies a disease or disorder in the body. However, what happened is because the representation of the female body and the processes of the female body were happening only through male writers and men who did not have that much personal experience or they never spoke to women in their lives about this experience have misinterpreted this in many forms.
I would like to address how we can move forward and how we can take small measures to make changes in this long process of stigmatization that has been associated with menstruation.
The first thing that we need to personally do is as family members, we need to be more aware. I find it that fathers or brothers are never taught to talk to their daughters or even their wives or their mothers about this process. So from a very young age, if a mother instils this kind of open discussion amongst her children in the family discourse and the parents take the responsibility of talking about this, you know, at the very small level, maybe start from just before adolescence so that there is a better understanding and there is that removal of stigma and fear from the brains or even, misinformation that is there that people gather from, their friends and Internet and different sources, that they’re actually getting the same myths, the same stereotypes over and over and over again.
The parents have to play a big role in bringing it in the conscience of their children, that this is something very normal. If you have a woman in your life or a menstruator in your life, it is important that you know and understand this process and if in some time of need, you may be able to help them. So, this is one of the first steps. But how do you go about this in places where the parents themselves are not equipped to talk about these things because they are dealing with so much problems?
If you look at the rural population of India, which is the heart of India, maximum population is older population or in the poverty ridden areas of India, people are still struggling for even food and other basic necessities. How for them can this become a topic of discussion when they cannot even go beyond discussing the next meal and where it will come from? So how we can as individuals help in this process is by approaching “aanganvaadis”, by approaching NGOs, by approaching these social workers who work in these communities and they have ties in these communities and help them, or facilitate them to talk about the real facts associated with menstruation, to make them aware that, all the taboos associated with touch, worship, seclusion, the fear that menstruating woman is dirty and all of that needs to be done away with and how we can empower the upcoming younger generation to be able to talk about and understand and, apply it in their own lives. It’s very difficult because these women are still the most hard struck by menstrual poverty.
What is menstrual poverty?
Menstrual poverty is basically the lack of knowledge and resources and products that help in bringing about a proper hygienic maintenance of a menstruating body. So the kind of stigma that exists in our country with respect to menstruation itself is so high that either women do not have access to menstrual products and a lot of them are using old rags from their own households and they wash it and then they hide it under other clothes that are drying.
So these clothes never actually receive proper sunlight and they are never properly disinfected, so to say, and they keep reusing the same clothes over and over because they have no resources, they have no awareness, and there is so much stigma that, ‘oh, my God, my neighbour should not come to know that I’m menstruating. My neighbour should not know or see that I’m using cloths that I’m washing after menstruating.’ So, this sort of, shame that is associated with it needs to be done with it.
How can that come about? Our media is so shy in talking about it. The advertisements that talk about menstruation are so shy to talk about it that they never use a demonstration of period, I mean, until recently we find rarely any advertisements using these terms openly. So, they’ll say things like “un dino mein”(in those days), “us samay mein”(at that time), “aurto ki in takleefo k samay mein”(during the troubled times for women), “mahilao k takleefo k samay mein”. What are these problems? Why are people not talking about it? So, the taboo is not just on the process, the taboo is also so ingrained in us that we don’t even want to utter the words that are associated with the process. So first of all, the media coverage, the representation of menstrual products on television, the symbolic representation of the menstrual blood in the blue colour liquid that they’re showing on television is problematic . Not just that, you don’t have a lot of news reports which talk about issues of Menstruators, and I use the term menstruators, because earlier we were only considering that the society comprises of two genders, that is the male and the female, depending on the physical anatomy
but over a period of time, we have come to realize that gender is a large spectrum. You have trans women and trans men. So trans women are actually people who are anatomically male but feel like women and trans males are anatomically females but feel like males. So what happens is when a trans woman feels like the female but is not able to menstruate, she feels left out amongst her other female friends whereas a trans male who feels like a male but cannot get rid of the bodily process of menstruation in the body, that also causes a lot of damage to the mental health. So all these things are very, very interrelated.
Now, a new term has come up in the last few decades in other parts of the world and is gaining momentum in India in the Indian context as well, which is known as menstrual activism. So, we talk about social activism. Activism is basically being active, taking agency and bringing about a change. So, our main purpose right now is to not only do away with the stigma or the social and cultural problems that are surrounding menstruation, which are hampering people from thinking outside of those restrictions and prohibitions imposed on them by religion or, years and years of social conditioning.
We also need to look at the fact that a large part of our country is not even getting the basic product or the basic health hygiene needs met because until very recently, menstrual pads were considered a luxury product and they had taxes and people could not afford it. So, people have tried to come up with, you know, more accessible options like cloth pads and silicone cups that last longer, that are biodegradable and things like that but probably these are issues that need to be addressed later on.
The first thing that we need to do is educate, spread awareness and start talking about it, talking about it with parents, talking about it with friends, talking about it in an educational space. There is a big debate in India when it comes to adolescents’ educations or sex education. So sex education is not just about the act of sex, it’s about reproductive rights and the role of the reproductive organs in our body and the know-how of how to handle and take care of any productive organs.
How do you know what happens if the teachers who are addressing chapters on reproduction in school simply say that, oh, read this on your own and we will move forward. They’re so shy they need to have workshops, where teachers are sensitized enough that they themselves break free from the stigma that has been imposed on them and they understand that for the students, a teacher, is a very important part of their lives. She’s a very big influence in their life, so are the parents. The first Role Actually comes from the education system and the family system. These two things are very important to break free the religious system or the patriarchal system that has enforced us to believe that menstruation is evil or unholy or impure or all these things.
I would say that it’s not always negative as there are some parts of our country where menstruation is actually considered something to be very positive for example in the state of Orissa there is a festival known as Rajaparbha. Raja means menstruation, Rajas basically i.e. the blood flow in Sanskrit and Parbha means day. Rajaparbha is celebrated as the days of menstruation there. Women come together in sisterhood and they play games, they enjoy and rejoice the fact that they have this beautiful natural process happening in the body that eventually leads to new generations, birth of children is caused only because menstruation occurs. The same blood that goes out of the body when a female does not conceive a child is the same blood that nourishes the womb, the zygote, the child in the woman’s uterus when actually pregnancy or conception takes place. So how is it that the same blood that nourishes the very child in the womb is so auspicious because it’s forming a baby and bringing new life into the world but when the same blood, because it is not being used when the baby is not produced needs to be thought of as something evil or dirty.
So much so, that in Maharashtra we have cases where women workers have been asked to remove their uterus because the sugarcane farm managers believe that the kind of rest a woman needs during her menstruation hampers her productivity and reduces the production of their company and therefore they have forced a large number of women to get their uterus removed so that they do not have recurrent menstruation and they continue with the work without any break. So, I mean, the problems are endless and it’s a cycle because we are not talking about it in public, we are not talking about it in the private spheres so where are we talking about it?
Then you come out with these cases and you feel sad that had somebody talked to them about it, it wouldn’t have happened like that, or had they had little bit knowledge about it or awareness about this then such things could be prevented but the families are scared to talk about it, parents are scared to talk about it, teachers are scared to talk about it.
It’s not even anything that you will ever find on the front page of a newspaper or a Major Media Magazine or even on television as a news. These are small left-over backstories that are rarely covered and I have just given few instances of how ugly our culture has made this process’s understanding in the social sphere and how important and urgent it is for us to do something about it. So, I hope that this helps start that conversation in your circles. I have not claimed that this will bring about the necessary change but have simply stated facts or things that are already there and we know that they are there in our society and some of us also acknowledge the fact that they need to be addressed and they need to be changed, but either we are hesitant or we don’t have the agency or we don’t know where to begin.
So, maybe this is something to think about in the coming times and take a step forward and do something about it.