The amount one knows about the phenomenon known as menstruation depends on a number of things; sex, age, ethnicity and other characteristics. This is in spite of the fact that having periods is perhaps just as common as any other human bodily process, and is experienced on a monthly basis by roughly half of the world’s population. While there is a general awareness that periods are a necessity for fertility in women, not many people across the world are appreciative of what is involved in the process. Menstruating women are widely seen as ‘dirty’ and steps are taken to avoid them at all costs by people of certain communities. However, this stigma associated with menstruation is not just an issue of the ‘backward’ or ‘illiterate’ communities; it affects the most modern of societies too.
There are several religious superstitions associated with periods and pink products like tampons and pads. In cultures like Hinduism, women who are on their periods are often exempted from the rites and rituals that characterise the religion. They are not permitted inside the kitchen, to adorn themselves with flowers or to even touch anyone or anything, as far as possible. In fact, there are several temples that do not permit the entry of menstruating women or women of menstruating age. One such instance that drew wide condemnation is the Sabarimala Temple located in the state of Kerala in India. For centuries, this temple has restricted the entry of women of menstruating age (roughly between 10 and 50 years). This is claimed to be out of respect for the celibate nature of the patron deity. In a historic verdict on September 28, 2018, the Supreme Court of India lifted the ban on the entry of women, stating that discrimination against them, even on the grounds of religion, is unconstitutional. While feminists hailed this as a great victory, many others, including women, were not very appreciative of the step, and the Court has decided to review its decision.
Such restrictions are not unique to Hinduism. In Islam, women are not permitted to partake in the fasting that characterises the month of Ramadan and are essentially seen as ‘impure’. Men are instructed to stay away from women on their periods and to refrain from having sexual intercourse during this time. Similarly, Judaism refers to such women as ‘niddah’ and the Torah bans intercourse between a man and a menstruating woman. Besides, early Western Christian cultures considered a menstruating woman dangerous and placed restrictions on her to ensure safety for all. Even today, some church fathers continue to support the exclusion of women from the ministry on the basis of ‘uncleanliness’. The idea of women being impure or unclean during their periods is a very common notion among most of the world’s most popular religions and cultures.
There are however, some religions that do not view menstruation in a bad light. This category includes the Sikhs and Buddhists. Now, there are some denominations of these religions that share the idea of menstruating women being unclean, but in general, their beliefs are less overbearing compared to the others. A similar and rather astonishing example is Shaktism, a major denomination of Hinduism. The followers of this sect celebrate the annual menstrual cycle, called Ambubachi, of Goddess Kamakhya at the Kamakhya Temple of Assam, India. This takes place every year in the month of June. It is celebrated in the form of the Ambubachi Mela, a four-day festival, wherein the doors of the temple remain closed for three days and open on the fourth to welcome thousands of pilgrims from around the world. This view of the natural process of menstruation is in stark contrast with the more popularly held Hindu views. It is important to note here that the most popular religions and their denominations across the world belong to the former category and do not view periods positively.
The discussion up until now provides a view that only the most religious people tend to see menstruation adversely. This is, however, not very accurate. A casual stigma associated with having periods pervades among all of us. Common experiences of women bear testimony to that. In India, packets of sanitary napkins are wrapped in newspaper and then handed over to the customer in a black polyethene packet. At this point, I am pretty sure the entire demographic is aware of what is inside and we might as well opt for a new measure to hide the fact that women menstruate. Girls often feel embarrassed while shopping for period products when the experience should be the same as buying band-aids. Many refrain from using tampons due to the fear of breaking their hymen before marriage, something that is often culturally looked down upon. Girls also usually feel ashamed after discovering a stain on their clothes, which again, under normal circumstances, should not have been viewed any differently than a blood soaked bandage. The point is this, we are consciously trying to hide the fact that having periods is a normal occurrence, affecting about half the human population every month.
The misconceptions surrounding menstruation have always given it a bad name and resulted in women being oppressed. In Nepal, a very common practice is to move women on their periods to often very unhygienic menstrual huts. This practice, referred to as ‘Chhaupadi’, is actually illegal in Nepal, and yet it continues to exist as a commonplace practice. Several women die every year due to suffocation, snake bites, excessively cold weather and assault during their exile in these huts. The exact number of deaths due to this practice, however, is unknown as most of these cases go unreported.
The discrimination is not just limited to these instances. On a wider scale, menstruating women face the phenomenon of the ‘pink tax’. It is a common knowledge that a gender based wage gap exists even today in most fields of work. An additional value added tax to feminine products in such a scenario effectively reduces the purchasing power of women in general. Moreover, our economic structure fails to recognise period products as a necessity and chooses to see them as items of luxury. Thus, even they are not exempted from the pink tax. As I have mentioned in one of my previous articles, this comes across as if menstruation is a crime and women are being fined for the crime of menstruation. There have, however, been some positive changes in this avenue over the last few months. Due to the continuous efforts of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats, a few states in the US have taken the decision to repeal the Tampon Tax. The biggest win in this avenue was achieved by Scotland when the country became the first in the world to make all period products available to all women free of cost on February 27, 2020.
Unfortunately, most other countries continue to charge heavily for menstrual hygiene products. The introduction of GST (Goods and Services Tax) in India on July 1, 2017 resulted in a 12% taxation on sanitary napkins. This sparked protests across the country and consequently, the tax on pads had to be repealed a year later. However, period products continue to be beyond the affordability of a large number of women in India. In rural areas of developing countries like India and other places where women’s accessibility to pads and tampons is very limited, menstruating women resort to the use of leaves for cleaning purposes.
Period poverty is a major issue in the modern world. Many organisations across the world have taken it upon themselves to strive to ensure these basic requirements for all women. Sanjay Wijesekera, former UNICEF Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene was once quoted as saying, “Meeting the hygiene needs of all adolescent girls is a fundamental issue of human rights, dignity and public health.”
Another rather surprising aspect of period products and menstruation is the lack of understanding of the subject among males. Now, since they do not have to face the monthly pain, they don’t really have to know how tampons are used. But a basic understanding of why it happens and the physical and mental complications associated with it is a necessity to at least make an attempt to tackle the misunderstandings and stigma around menstruation. Shockingly, even women tend to harbour a lot of misconceptions about the process like the belief that women living in close proximity sync up their menstrual cycles or that one cannot get pregnant while on their period. However, most educational set-ups across the world fail to clear these misconceptions due to the stigma associated with speaking about periods. It is almost an unspoken rule to not mention a naturally uncontrollable bodily phenomenon like menstruation. Even popular television shows like Survivor and others, which have a basic premise of surviving in nature, fail to talk about how women deal with menstruation during their stay.
In spite of the fact that women have been experiencing this phenomenon forever, the advancement in period products is rather disappointing. Tampons and pads, which are among the most popular period products to be used, are actually very bad for the environment. Besides, wearing one of these for a prolonged period of time may lead to the overgrowth of staphylococcus aureus bacteria in the vagina and result in a condition called toxic shock syndrome. The symptoms include dizziness, diarrhoea and even fever. Very few environmentally-friendly options that are completely safe to use exist and these are well beyond the affordability of most women across the world.
Another of the major side effects of the menstrual stigma are the taunts. Back in 2015, when Donald Trump was caught in a tirade of questions from Fox News host Megyn Kelly, he claimed that she had “blood coming out of her wherever”, probably in an attempt to shut her up. He, however, denied it, later saying that he was actually referring to Kelly’s apparently bleeding nose. Comments like this have always been around and various aspects of menstruation have been used to provide variety to the taunts.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is often used as a weapon to devalidate a woman’s concerns and feelings. In fact, my apprehensions involving PMS are not limited to just that. The phenomenon of premenstrual syndrome is characterised by a wide variety of symptoms including fatigue, cramps, diarrhoea, insomnia and depression. While each of these symptoms individually garners sympathy from most and can be a primary cause for being excused from work, the amalgamation of all, which is arguably worse, fails to do the same. This is primarily because of the association with the forbidden word: menstruation. The causes of these symptoms are not very well understood among the medical community but are primarily attributed to hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle. The lack of sympathy and understanding often results in adverse conditions for menstruating women, especially in the workplace. About 50 years ago, when Western women were entering the workforce in large numbers for the first time, conservative activists like Phyllis Schlafly claimed that women were hormonally ill-suited for positions of responsibility. This ideology continues to hinder women’s capacity to get an upgrade to a position of authority even today.
It is clear that we are not talking enough about menstruation and unknowingly, continue to keep the stigma associated with it alive. As much as all of us want to believe that women are not oppressed anymore, it is still a dream that we might need a while to realise. Active measures to educate the masses on the body function, making period products and clean water available to all and actively fighting against cultural practices of discriminatory nature is the need of the hour. And this begins with people talking about periods, rather than pretending as if they are Voldemort and must not be named.
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