Menstruation (commonly referred to as periods) might be painful for some while a cakewalk for others, for some it may be long while shorter for others. Experiences of menstruation differ among the women who go through the natural processes every month for a major part of their life. However the experience of Indian society as a whole with regard to periods is (as has forever been) one related to a great taboo!
Menstruation is a bodily process integral to the reproductive health of a woman. It is also a ‘weapon’ in the hands of society which is integral to discriminating against women. In India menstruation is considered to be the ultimate taboo with no one really interested in having a public conversation about it. The consequences of this are surely not just the physical pain and discomfort which go away in a few days but more importantly they pertain to the systematic societal barriers which get entrenched due to the lack of the conversation.
In a nation obsessed with having children, you would expect everyone to be aware of the biological process called menstruation which is usually a part of every woman’s reproductive cycle. On the contrary, a large part of the population is kept unaware of the existence of this process until they (if they do) discover it for themselves one fine day. This discovery usually comes in the form of the first period for young girls while boys may have to wait till their high school textbooks in order to ultimately reveal the secret that has been kept from them all this time. The high school textbooks however are fast losing this privilege these days to the internet and ‘friends group discussions’. This change in the source of information is particularly frightening since these new sources are the most common sources of misinformation.
When you see young boys and sometimes young girls smiling, giggling and laughing when the concept of menstruation is being taught in school, you will notice that the boys usually laugh because they either find it funny or simply ‘weird’. The laughter of the girls in such situations is usually the nervous laughter that all of us use to hide our discomfort in moments of embarrassment. You must be wondering why such a division of emotions exist within individuals of the same age group, I have been wondering about that too.
I had once witnessed a male acquaintance stating his frustration at the course outline of the Class 10 Biology textbooks. He was particularly critical about the inclusion of ‘menstruation’ as a topic. According to him it was a waste of time for it to be taught to all students since the concept would be relevant only to medical students and females. As much as I would love to believe that his ideas are an exception and not the norm, our society is determined to prove otherwise.
One abbreviation that all of us in the present generation are acquainted with is PMS. Short for premenstrual syndrome, it is a term used liberally by and against members of ‘Gen Y’. This large scale use unfortunately does not indicate a strong awareness regarding the complex medical situation related to menstruation but indicates a potent means of demeaning women and discriminating against them. PMS has gradually turned into a device to ridicule women who ‘dare’ to voice their opinion, question a man or display signs of anger. PMS is the choice of attack when a man has no answer to a woman’s statements because surely he does not need to take notice of statements that a woman makes in her state of ‘hormonal hysteria’!
The hypocrisy of our society is most evident when women are cursed for not being able to give birth but nobody bothers to ensure that she gets medical attention for her irregular menstrual cycle. In India, a woman is celebrated for her ability to give birth and take forward the lineage. The same woman however is ostracised during her menstruation (which is a necessary precursor to a woman giving birth). In India a myth exists that a woman’s body ‘cries’ during menstruation. The idea of the body crying is based on the persisting idea that menstruation is the ‘weeping of a disappointed womb’. The symbolic imagery is (as must be evident) extremely problematic in that it implies that a woman is supposed to give birth from the moment she acquires the ability to do so. This prevailing idea suggests that a woman’s duty to give birth is so integral to her being that each time she fails to conceive even her own body becomes displeased with her.
Throughout our lives, we are made to believe that the topic of menstruation is only of interest to women. Women are taught that conversations regarding this ‘taboo’ topic should be had in private such that the men around never find out that women are capable of menstruating. As a woman it is particularly disconcerting for me to realise that there is a conscious effort on the part of almost an entire society to relegate a process so integral to my reproductive experience in the realm of ‘myths’.
We say that India is a modern country. All of us like to promote ourselves as ‘liberal minded’. Well let me put your modernity and liberalism to a simple test. How many women among you have had an honest conversation regarding menstruation with a male friend or family member? How many men among you have gone out and bought a sanitary napkin for your girlfriend, wife, daughter, sister or any other female friend or relative? If you have done what has been mentioned in the question then consider yourself to be lucky because despite the high school textbooks explaining (evidently quite unsuccessfully) what menstruation is and being surrounded by women for a major part of their lives, most Indian men are actually clueless about what periods and the experience surrounding it is actually all about. The ignorance of men in this regard is not just detrimental to the women who will come into contact with them at any point in their lives, but also to the men who shall forever remain unaware and unequipped to deal with this very real biological phenomenon.
We are all familiar with the blue ink stains which are used to demonstrate the absorption power of sanitary napkins in advertisements. In a nation famous for its road rage and love for the colour red, it seems odd that the capability of a menstrual sanitary product meant to absorb menstrual blood cannot be shown with red ink. (is not advertising these days all about highlighting similarities with real life?) I am unaware of whether this is a conscious effort by advertisers themselves or a result of actions by regulatory bodies but what I am certain about is that this is only helping in perpetuating the taboo of menstruation in India.
The packaging of menstrual sanitary products is another huge contributor to menstrual taboos. On top of the multi layered packaging that sanitary napkins come in, each time you buy a pack of sanitary pads from a medical shop, the store person will diligently pack it for you in a newspaper which is then packed into a black plastic bag. After all, the world should never know that you or any woman you know is on her period!
It is this secrecy about menstruation that has facilitated the lack of awareness and thereby prevented the addressing of the lack of access of Indian women to menstrual hygiene products. According to Euromonitor, over 70% of Indian women use old rags or other items during their periods instead of sanitary napkins. According to BBC, several Indian women use unhygienic items like sawdust, leaves, sand and ash to deal with their menstrual flow. Not only does this increase the chances of infections but it also causes several women to voluntarily withdraw from the public sphere (in the lack of a better option since our society cannot tolerate the thought or sight of a woman bleeding during her periods). This cumulatively results in a loss of work and income for women particularly in rural areas.
Numerous discriminatory practices against menstruating women continue on the ground that during menstruation, a woman is impure, polluted and in some instances even cursed. What is particularly shocking is that studies have shown that these practices are not just limited to rural India but also followed in urban India. Such practices include but are not limited to not allowing a menstruating woman to enter the kitchen (because apparently the food will rot due to her touch), not allowing her to water plants, sleep on the same bed as her husband and even preventing her from entering temples. These practices are simply illogical and absurd, only going on to prove that a majority of Indians still prefer to follow baseless superstitions rather than think of a scientific reason behind a practice and reform it if necessary. With regard to not allowing menstruating women to go to temples or worship God, I have only one argument to make. If God made all of us then he must have been responsible for menstruation in women. If you hail God as the Almighty who can do no wrong, then why do you think that God will be unwilling to face the result of his own creation?
It is true that India has a lot of problems with regard to lack of conversation over the topic of menstruation. However it would be unfair to state that India is the only nation suffering from this problem. There have been instances in the west regarding the ignorance and intolerance of citizens as well as political figures towards menstruation. The top definition of PMS according to Urban Dictionary (a US based crowd-sourced online dictionary providing GenY definitions for words) is “A powerful spell that women are put under about once every month, which gives them the strength of an ox, the stability of a Windows OS, and the scream of a banshee. Basically, man’s worst nightmare.” (I used to think that bleeding from their private parts for at least three days every month would be a woman’s worst nightmare, clearly not!). Other top definitions refer to a PMS-ing women using words ranging from psycho bitch to beast. The situation is particularly worrying when a Presidential candidate in the US (read, Donald Trump) is found mocking a female journalist who subjected him to ‘harsh’ questions by stating that she must have been ‘bleeding from everywhere’. The use of menstrual metaphor in forwarding one’s political agenda is certainly most unfortunate.
Another particularly problematic issue is the tampon tax that has been in place in the US and UK which taxes women for the use of feminine hygiene products which have been categorized as ‘luxuries’. I see this move as particularly regressive for these otherwise progressive nations. It is shameful that the governments of two of the most prominent nations in the world have decided that it is a luxury for a woman to go about her day without bleeding through all her clothes. What I mean is not that bleeding during menstruation in any way reduces the efficiency of a woman, what I do mean however is that by imposing a tax on sanitary products these governments are in essence taking away the choice of a woman to decide not to free bleed.
I am also disappointed that the Indian Government has failed to substantially reduce the plight of the millions of Indian women who lack access to sanitary napkins. In this context I would like to acknowledge the Indian Government’s awarding of a national level innovation award to Arunachalam Muruganantham for developing the technology to produce menstrual products at a low cost. However I feel that though this is a good start, much needs to be done in alleviating the situation. A conscious effort should be made to introduce other utility items related to menstruation in the markets, since various foreign innovations like tampons, panty liners, menstrual cups and period underwear among others can benefit women in India greatly. I believe that voluntary organisations can be engaged and collaborated with in order to increase the outreach of sanitary products. We have treaded on a brilliant road but there are a lot more steps to cover.
It would be unfair for me to end this piece without mentioning some heroes (and of course heroines) who have succeeded in sparking a conversation in this regard. In October 1978, Gloria Steinem brought the conversation on periods to the limelight through her impactful piece called ‘If Men Could Menstruate’. Rituparno Ghosh marked a milestone in Indian cinema in 2003 by showing the female lead menstruating in his film ‘Chokher Bali’. In 2012, Aditi Gupta launched Menstrupedia as a guide to healthy menstruation. Procter & Gamble in 2014 through their sanitary napkin brand Whisper launched the ‘Touch the Pickle’ campaign to encourage questioning and breaking of menstrual taboo and discriminatory practices.
Closer to the present, in January 2015, tennis player Heather Watson spoke to BBC about how her performance had been affected by her period’s side effects. In March 2015, Rupi Kaur posted a photo of herself on social media showing menstrual blood on her trousers and bed sheet. She wrote a powerful open letter to protest against the censorship of the photo which was later restored. In November 2015, Charlie Edge free bled outside the British Parliament along with her friends to raise her voice against the imposition of the tampon tax. Once again in November 2015, Lauren Towles organised a menstruation themed hackathon called Hack the Flow at New York University. In late 2015, Lily Murphy Johnson created a beautiful range of accessories based on the theme of periods. This January 2016, Anushka Dasgupta has brought focus back on the need to have a conversation on menstruation through her powerful response piece to those individuals who shame menstruating women.
The ultimate tragedy in all of this is that despite the brilliant efforts made by these individuals to break the taboo surrounding menstruation and strike a conversation, they have been criticised due to their apparently overly feministic orientations (I wonder when feminist became a bad word!) and questions have been raised regarding their decency. It does not take a feminist to recognise the problems that a menstruating woman faces in our society; it just takes a human to do so. You don’t need to be a feminist. Just be a human being and use your freedom of speech to talk about something that actually matters. Remember that your words can help build a better future for women around the world and the newer generations to come.
Photo Credit: Flickr (Ashley Ringrose)