This paper seeks to explore the basic foundations of menstrual taboos in different cultures and religions and how menstrual taboos have affected women’s physical and mental wellbeing and also how such kinds of taboos restricts their progress. The paper will discuss about the different views different religions and cultures have about menstrual cycle. A section of the paper will talk about some new age interesting interventions regarding menstrual taboo and menstrual health and society’s response to them. In the conclusion section the reasons behind these taboos will be put forth along with brief of possible interventions at personal level and at community level.
In today’s time most of us will agree to the fact that menstrual cycle is a natural process intrinsically linked with a woman’s body. Still most of us follow the same restriction during our menstrual cycle in our homes, our relative’s homes or at any religious event. The freedom of will of a woman are continued to be in the hands of dominant patriarchal discourse. There are many different cultures around the world but very few of them have actually acknowledged that menstruation is a natural phenomenon. With the evolution of these cultures there has not been any significant change in people’s attitude towards menstruation. Therefore what remains are haunting questions like what makes people think that menstrual blood is impure and a menstruating woman is polluting? What constitutes as a female identity? What affects are these taboos causing to the overall development of women? are menstruation taboos the cause of leading menstrual health problems in India? Therefore with empirical evidences the paper will provide an account on how these views affects female’s basic relationships with her environment, her own body which in turn make it inevitable for women to lag behind.
Socio-religious accounts of menstrual cycle:
“Traditional cultural constructions of the female body and the meanings of menstruation within Indian symbolic systems are meanings which undoubtedly have shaped Indian women’s (and men’s) experiences of female bodily processes.” (Chawla Janet, Mythic Origins of Menstrual Taboo in Rig Veda)
In a diverse country like India there are several cultures. Every culture has different meaning associated with menstruation but one perception is common in most of them that of impurity of menstrual blood. Evidences suggest that these perceptions have shaped the experience of male and female of their bodies.
According to historian N N Bhattacharyya, different areas of India have had notions of the menstruating goddess. In Punjab it was believed that Mother Earth (‘Dharti Ma’) ‘slept’ for a week each month. In some parts of the Deccan after the ‘navaratra’ goddess temples were closed from the trend) to the full moon day while she rests and refreshes herself. In the Malabar region, Mother Earth was believed to rest during the hot weather until she got the first showerofrain|3]. Still today in the Kamakhya temple of Assam and in parts, of Orissa the rituals of the menstruation of the goddess are celebrated during the monsoon season.
(Chawla Janet, Mythic Origins of Menstrual Taboo in Rig Veda)
As written above in many cultures the menstrual cycle was seen as a gift and when a girl gets her first period, they celebrated it in public in many parts of southern India. But this again is a problematic view as menstrual cycle was seen as boon for reproduction. When they celebrated it they have shown a reductionist approach where a woman’s life’s ultimate goal is to reproduce.
“Sindur applied in the part of the married woman’s hair symbolises the sacredness of her fertile potential (when exercised within the confines of patriarchal marriage!) these ancient religious ideas and symbols are definitely linked to the blood of menstruation.” (Chawla Janet, Mythic Origins of Menstrual Taboo in Rig Veda)
Such dominant patriarchal notions regarding women’s bodies are also originated from religions. The writer of the paper “Mythic Origins of Menstrual Taboo in Rig Veda” during her interview with several women found out that almost every women told about their bodies considered impure/unclean during the time of menstruation. They are prohibited from going into mandir, masjid or Gurudwara and they cannot touch any holy book. They cannot touch utensils or even pickles. The writer says that “Defining women’s bodily processes as polluting and antithetical to religious practice is not unique to Hinduism. It is also a part of the Judeo-Christian -Islamic tradition.”
Throughout the Judeo-Christian history the menstrual taboo has been the main cause of excluding women from the position of authority.
“By far the most important regulation of the marital relationship of Orthodox Jews revolves around the practice of niddah-literally, a separation-which includes the proscription of sexual intercourse during what is termed the wife’s “unclean” period.” (Elizabeth M. Whelan, Attitudes toward Menstruation)
These types of taboos are really dangerous in a sense that in the orthodox Jews culture the enforcement of Niddah is not only related to menstrual blood but also to any type of vaginal bleeding. Therefore even if a woman is bleeding due to any side effect of something she will have to go through ritual cleanliness procedure and also her suffering would be avoided.
“Two specific restrictions are placed on the menstruating Muslim woman. First, because she is considered a threat to holiness, a menstruating woman may not visit any shrine or mosque and is forbidden to pray or fast in the month of Ramadan. Second, she is forbidden sexual intercourse for at least seven full days after the flow begins and is considered “unclean” until she completes a ritual washing (Westermarck, 1926).”
Other than these there are several other cultural reasons that were believed as causes for menstruation and began the taboo. As William E. Phipps writes in his paper “The menstrual taboo in the Judeo-Christian tradition” that “Ancient peoples had a number of reasons for regarding menstruation as dangerous. First, it was associated with reproduction; so, along with seminal discharge, it was regarded as potent and mysterious. Second, the flow of menses (from the Latin mensis, meaning “moon”) approximately coincided with the lunar cycle; so causal links were made with fearsome cosmic energies. Third, pathological anxieties were triggered by menstruation.”
In this way there have been several justifications for treating menstrual blood as impure and women as untouchable. In different culture and different religions there have been different reasons for this but the phenomenon of exclusion has been common everywhere except in Sikhism where Guru Nanak had completely rejected discrimination against women because of menstruation. He said we all are equal in the eyes of God and menstruation is natural to a woman therefore women will be allowed to pray during their menstruation. But these words of Guru Nanak are being unheard in today’s world where even Gurudwaras are excluding women just as temples and Masjids.
Implications on development of women- physical and mental health issues:
Now let’s look at effects of this whole silence around menstruation on the physical and mental wellbeing of girls.
“Talking about menstruation has been a taboo even among planners. It received the attention of the Ministry of Health only in 2011. Close to 70 per cent of Indian women risk getting severe infection, at times causing death, due to poverty, ignorance and shame attached to their menstruation cycle” (Majumdar Swapana, breaking the cycle of silence and shame, The Tribune)
The silence of shame around menstrual cycle has caused severe problems for girls. In north India over 30% of girls drop out of school after they start menstruating. Reproductive tract infections (RTI) are 70 per cent more common among women who are unable to maintain hygiene during their menstrual cycle. This kind of cultural neglect of menstrual hygiene has reflected in the policy as well because Girls between the age group of 12 and 18, who continue education, miss five days of school every month during their menstrual cycle because schools don’t have separate toilets for girls according to the 2011 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), by Pratham, a NGO working on education
“It is the culture of silence and ignorance around the issue of menstruation that is behind unsafe menstrual hygiene practices,” says Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj, the Delhibased social enterprise addressing menstrual hygiene.
There should not be any compulsion for the use of sanitary napkin. Use of cloth is fine unless and until it is used with proper hygiene. The Indian Council of Medical Research survey on risk factors associated with cervical cancer revealed that the risk associated with the use of unclean cloth was 2.5fold higher as compared to the use of clean cloth or use of sanitary napkins. The uncleanliness of the cloth is directly linked with the taboo associated with it as women are able to dry it properly in the sun, it needs to be hidden. Therefore there is strong need of such space for girls where they feel comfortable about their periods. At least menstruation friendly school campuses are must. Not only girls, women in their workplace also suffer due to the menstrual taboo. Productivity levels of working women drop during their periods, with 31 per cent women missing 2.2 days of work on an average, revealed the AC Neilsen survey.
Now what’s really sad in this is that women have started considering themselves as impure or unclean. In a study by Anne E. Clarke and Diane N. Ruble they found that “even Pre-menarche girls and young boys have a reasonably well-defined and mostly negative set of attitudes and expectations. Most believed that menstruation is accompanied by physical discomforts, increased emotionality, and a disruption of activities and social interactions” Seventy per cent of mothers consider menses dirty and polluting and pass on their biases to their children. Menstruating women and girls are still not allowed into kitchens, puja rooms and temples, nor are they allowed to touch utensils. Dr. Rani Bang in her book “Putting women first: women and health in rural community” notes that women in rural community have very little knowledge about menstrual health and have weird perceptions about it. She says, “Cultural perceptions such as colour of the menstrual blood govern their perception of what is normal and abnormal. They resist using sanitary napkin because it is difficult to dispose of them. They fear it might fall into the hands of someone who can use Jadu tona (black magic) against them.” therefore education and counselling is a major requirement regarding menstruation especially in rural areas.
Though most of us promote use of sanitary napkin, there are multiple issues associated with it such as the issue of access and affordability. 88 per cent of menstruating women can either not access or afford them. A large number of women still use sand and ash to cloak their menses. The other issue with the sanitary napkins is the threat to environment as they are non-biodegradable. “What is equally worrying is the serious threat to environment from the non-biodegradable sanitary napkins. In rural India, in particular, they choke water channels and drainage systems” (Rai Usha, The Hindu, Girls must have their say)
According to WASH United, working to end global sanitation crisis by providing toilets, 432 million non-biodegradable sanitary napkins are used each month across India and the widespread advertising and media campaigns will increase this number in the coming years. “Kotex came out with an ad campaign in 2010 making fun of the genre- to which Kotex readily acknowledged contributing. Ads used to include a strange blue liquid representing menstrual blood. But honestly could you go only so far, as none of the television networks would allow the word ‘Vagina’ to be used.”( Norsigian, J. (2011). Our Bodies, Ourselves. Simon and Schuster.)
Also the disposal of sanitary napkins causes severe danger to environment especially in rural areas. Disposal is often done outside a toilet — by carrying the menstrual waste home and either burning it or washing and disposing it in a community water source. Research conducted by PATH, an international non-profit that works on global health issues confirms that in Tamil Nadu too sanitary napkins are collected and then discarded through a water source, causing pollution and blockages. “Most informal waste incinerators burn at low temperatures and produce toxic ash and emissions. If plastic polymers are not burned above 800 degrees Celsius they release asphyxiates and irritant gases into the air. Long term exposure to these emissions or resulting ash may adversely impact the immune, nervous, endocrine and reproductive systems.” (Rai Usha, The Hindu, Girls must have their say)
Hence there are several issues regarding menstrual hygiene and there is a clear connection between lack of awareness about hygiene and taboo associated with menstruation. Here there is no difference between urban and rural women; the urban working modern women are also affected by the stigma. “A recent study by a sanitary towel manufacturer found that 75% of women living in cities still buy their pads wrapped in a brown bag or newspaper because of the shame associated with menstruation. They also almost never ask a male family member to buy sanitary towels or tampons.”
Delayed Responses: Some new age interventions
With the emergence of health issues due to poor menstrual hygiene several organisations, individuals and entrepreneurs have come up with newer, innovative and sustainable solutions. Sinu Joseph, creator of Mythri, an innovative animated video to spread awareness on menstrual hygiene for adolescent girls says, “Pretending it never happened, doesn’t make it go away. When we don’t talk about it, we miss the signs that need attention. What is perfectly
Normal becomes a big deal and women quietly acquire low self-esteem for what is natural.”
Sinu Joseph and her colleague Vaijayanthi.K took sessions in thousands of schools in rural Karnataka about menstrual hygiene and based on that they have come up with an animated movie called “Mythri” imparting awareness about menstrual hygiene. Mythri has been shared with the Health and education departments of Karnataka Government. It has reached to over 8000 adolescent girls through direct contact and 10000 girls through partner organisations.
In an interview Sinu said that during her sessions once one middle aged rural woman hesitantly asked her, “Madam is there any connection between menstrual cycle and childbirth?” Sinu was shocked that she had to start at that level. Menstrual health is a serious concern that we are facing today.
Azadi is a Lucknow based NGO working on demystifying menstruation. Dhirendra Pratap singh co-founder of Azadi says, “These misconceptions are passed on from mothers to daughters, causing an intergenerational cycle of poor hygiene practices. Fear and shame, coupled with inappropriate facilities for changing, washing, drying and disposal make it worse, leading to absence from school. There are 113 million Indian adolescents menstruating on any given day,” Azadi created a national initiative called Bejhijhak (without hesitation), to break the culture of silence around menstruation with the support of Wash united, Water Aid and Path. Bejhijhak seeks to create a unified platform to break myths, taboos about menstruation and identify gaps that have created such culture. The campaign received a big boost as it got Ashwini Ponappa, national badminton star as its brand ambassador but Ashwini says, “I identified with the cause since I, too, was shy of talking about the issue. Even while practising, I never asked for any quarter on those days because I was embarrassed to speak to my male coaches about it. But now I hope to reach out to all shy girls like me,” this very clearly brings to the fore that Menstruation is natural phenomenon and every girl experiences similar things about it irrespective of her being a star or a rural homemaker.
Social media and information technology also have contributed in opening up spaces for dialogue over menstrual taboo and in spreading awareness and sensitivity about the scale of the issue. Menstrupedia, launched in 2012, is an online portal that focuses on busting menstruation myths and providing correct information. Co-founder of the portal Aditi Gupta has created comic books based on her own experience of stigma during the years of growing up to guide the girls about growing up and menstruation. Online social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have been buzz creating platforms with campaigns like may #MENSTRAVEGANZA by WASH united and documentaries like The Beauty of Red by Menstrupedia and #touchthepickle by Whisper.
Among several efforts, Goonj is one organisation which is running campaigns to educate people about menstruation and the myths around it. The organisation also makes cheap sanitary towels from recycled cloths to help those 70% women who don’t have access to safe and hygienic pads.
Now one of the most innovative and interesting interventions has been done by a person known as ‘menstrual man’. Yes Arunachalam Muruganantham, a school dropout from southern India has developed a low-cost machine for producing cheap sanitary napkins. He thought to do something about menstrual hygiene when one fine day he saw his wife hiding her menstrual cloth. The cloth was in such a condition that Muruganantham said that he could not use it for even cleaning his scooter. When he asked her to use sanitary napkin she said they cannot afford it. That’s when he decided to do something about this issue. In the process he got abandoned from his village, his mother and wife left him. It took him four and a half years to come up with the machine. Today he has set up machines in BIMARU states of India. He says, “Imagine, I got patent rights to the only machine in the world to make low-cost sanitary napkins – a hot-cake product. Anyone with an MBA would immediately accumulate the maximum money. But I did not want to. Why? Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty – everything happens because of ignorance.”
May MENSTRAVEGANZA, a 28 day menstrual hygiene advocacy campaign by Wash united on social media brought positive and inspiring communication and they got 145 partners on the board from all over the world to celebrate world’s first menstrual hygiene day on 28th May 2014.
Thus from the above inspiring actions it is clear that taboo around menstruation has started to be seen a threat to health and many people are willing to break this silence. So what’s the way ahead?
In the exploration of the origins and basis of menstrual taboo we have looked at the perception of menstrual cycle in cultures and religions like Hinduism, Muslim, Sikhism, Judeo-Christian traditions and Jews culture. The root of almost every perception seems to be patriarchy. As many theories about menstrual taboo have said that the taboo has been originated by male’s fear of genital injury by contact with a menstruating woman. Young and Bacdayan, in their study of menstrual taboo origination have seen menstrual taboos as forms of institutionalized discrimination against females imposed by males. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim had coined a hypothesized the term ‘Vagina envy’ where he says that male sex feels envy with regards to sexual organs and functions of female sex. He declares that certain men desire to menstruate and give birth. Ashley Montagu writes, “If one happens to be lacking in certain capacities with which the opposite sex is naturally endowed, and those capacities happen to be highly valued, then one can compensate by turning others capacities into handicaps. ” there is a dual character attached to a menstruating woman as both sacred and unclean which can serve as an indirect proof for the envy. Therefore the origination of taboo certainly seems to be the discrimination that females have had from primitive times. There are institutionalized basis for these taboos to exercise control and authority over females. Therefore the way forward is to destroy this authority. There have been some interventions in this regard such as the may MENSTRAVEGANZA campaign which seeks to break the culture of silence and shame. But the change bearers are none other than women who have to take the first step, they have to fight the society and break the taboos. This is the only way forward.
- Norsigian, J. (2011).Our Bodies, Ourselves. Simon and Schuster.
- Bang, R. (2010). Putting women first: women and health in rural community. Stree.
Articles & research papers:
- Montgomery, R. E. (1974). A Cross‐Cultural Study of Menstruation, Menstrual Taboos, and Related Social Variables.Ethos, 2(2), 137-170.
- Whelan, E. M. (1975). Attitudes toward menstruation.Studies in Family planning, 106-108.
- Phipps, W. E. (1980). The menstrual taboo in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Journal of Religion & Health,19, 298-303.
- Van Woerkens, M. (1990). Dialogues on first menstrual periods: Mother-daughter communication.Economic and Political Weekly, WS7-WS14.
- Chawla, J. (1994). Mythic Origins of Menstrual Taboo in Rig Veda.Economic and Political Weekly, 2817-2827.
- Clarke, A. E., & Ruble, D. N. (1978). Young adolescents’ beliefs concerning menstruation.Child Development, 231-234.