Since time immemorial, there have been taboos on menstrual health and hygiene based on the patriarchal notion that the female body and sexuality should not be discussed in public. The female body is considered to be symbolic of a community’s ‘honour’ because it is through her reproductive organs that ‘lineage’ and ‘identity’ are kept alive.
Over the years, women have been taught that their bodies are designated to bear children, and that female sexuality is for the larger society to take control over. Such beliefs have culminated into practices where women feel ashamed to speak about menstrual hygiene and reproductive health, even to their family and partners (husbands).
Menstrual blood is portrayed as dirty and ‘impure’ by society, further making women believe that their bodies and bodily functions are highly fallacious. In India, religion plays a pivotal role in determining these cultural beliefs that are replicated in regular practices. In the Hindu religion, followed by a majority of the population, there are innumerable folklores that portray menstruation as something to be feared and menstruating women as filthy, demon-like entities.
All these beliefs and practices generally come from a certain culture of religious adherence and ignorance towards modern scientific education. Besides folklore, religious institutions – temples – in some of the most pious and popular sites in India (in Punjab, Assam, Orissa) remain closed for specific periods of time throughout the year, owing to the belief that the goddesses menstruate and replenish their reproductive capacities or fertility, and thus must be kept secluded from people.
All over the country, menstruating women are seen as impure objects that must be kept out of reach of others, lest they should become ‘dirty’. The traditional taboos thrust upon menstruating women are such that they are not allowed to enter the kitchen and temple, cook food for their family members, and touch other people. In the more rural areas, such women are not even allowed to stay in the same place with other members of the family. Usually, there is a ‘special’, segregated room that they occupy during their periods, along with a separate toilet and separate utensils to eat in.
However, menstruation is also seen as a factor central to the purpose of a woman’s existence. The first time a girl menstruates, it is seen as a bright beginning to her actual ‘career’ in life, which is reproducing children for the expansion of the clan. In fact, in many places in south India, there are family functions held to mark the girl’s ‘coming of age’. This festival is called ‘Ritu Kala Samskaram’ or ‘Ritusuddhi’.
During this ‘rite of passage’, the girl adorns a saree for the first time. This is when the girl is given the status of a young woman who is capable of reproduction. This function is, however, only attended by the girl’s female relatives, neighbours and friends. Hence, we see that a girl’s value is inherently placed in her genitals, along with which she is taught to be ashamed and live in secrecy the moment she attains puberty.
The menstrual taboos on women and girls are so restricting and traumatising that more than 23% of girls drop out of school when they begin to menstruate. Most girls that drop out belong to vulnerable communities. Even schools fail miserably in terms of providing physical, medical and emotional support to adolescent girls and creating a salubrious atmosphere for them to thrive in.
This is also prevalent in urban areas, where it is seen that teachers in formal institutions are reluctant to teach children about the functioning of the female reproductive system. Due to this, girls from an early age learn about menstruation from their mothers (an estimated 40%), who are already imbibed in traditional values, beliefs and practices.
Moreover, the economic conditions of most families in India also play a crucial factor in determining the fate of women’s menstrual hygiene. Approximately 77% of the women in the country use dirty rags and pieces of cloth during their periods. Furthermore, numerous women even take to using ashes, sand, leaves and papers due to abject poverty. Menstrual hygiene, thus, lies in a sorry state of affairs for most women.
As far as buying hygienic sanitary napkins, tampons, or menstrual cups are concerned, they are atrociously expensive for a majority of women. In many cases, however, these are also stigmatised as ‘modern products that challenge traditional values’. In fact, even in the bigger cities, women are expected to speak about their menstrual issues in hushed tones and carry their menstrual hygiene products in a manner that ‘prevents the larger society’s stigmatised gaze’. Stained clothes are even sometimes seen as probable sources of witchcraft and black magic.
Such is the taboo and stigma associated with the female reproductive system and menstrual blood. What the country needs most today, is a holistic, inclusive, and changed methods of primary socialisation – from the very beginning of a child’s upbringing as a social being. We must teach our children about their own sexualities, bodies and educate them on the ideals of equality that shun gender biases of every kind. Along with this, another vital requirement of the hour is easy availability of cheap sanitary products and the society’s involvement in revolutionising and transforming the flawed notion of female bodies.
Most of the information and data are from my own knowledge of social sciences in higher education, hence these links were referred to, just to include passing references of certain things.