Sumanti Sen is an English Literature graduate who believes "there's just one kind of folks. Folks.".
Menstruation has a long history of taboos across almost all cultures, continuing to manifest in complex, subtle ways. It has long been associated with disgust, dirt, shame and fear. A menstruating woman is often considered impure and unclean.
As soon as puberty hits, women are taught how not to talk about their periods openly. If you need a pad, ask another woman in a hushed tone so that nobody gets to hear you and when you get it, put it in your pocket and hide it, they are told.
While most women have grown up being told the same things about menstruation. It is the men who almost remain clueless about the whats and whys of menstruation. The Logical Indian spoke to some men to know about their stance on menstruation.
“The stigma is easily explained. People are always appalled by bodily fluids, especially someone else’s. And as usual, it was inflated out of proportions and made into something “dirty”, which it is not. It’s natural and biological, and if you could educate people and let them know what it is, they would stop being grossed out by it, and maybe appreciate it as just a biological phenomenon. I first heard about it when I was 15-16 I guess. My first reaction was to thank my lucky stars that I’m not a woman,” said Rohan Banerjee, a hardware engineer working with Samsung.
In schools, teachers in biology classes often tend to not stress on the subject of menstruation. Most of them just touch upon it and move on to the next chapter. This may not be true of all schools, yet many of our men seemed to have learnt about periods outside school.
“The first time I was familiarised with menstruation was at the age of 17 when my mother asked me to buy pads for my sister. Everything stems down to education with respect to awareness about menstruation. I’ve been to chemist to buy pads on a number of occasions, so I wouldn’t really think twice the next time. However, I’m often met with very inquisitive eyes when I ask for pads which again goes on to show the lack of sensitivity prevalent among men with respect to this,” said Ronit Chowdhury, a student pursuing Chartered Accountancy.
Shubhagata Choudhury, an employee at GrabOn, had similar things to say. “The first time I heard about menstruation was in class 6 or 7, in an ad that spoke about sanitary napkins. I asked my mom and she explained what menstruation is, how it works and how these napkins help. We, as a society, should accept that menstruation is a natural process. There is nothing “impure” about it except our minds. The social stigma is primitive in nature and if we truly believe that we are going to progress, we should educate ourselves and future generations about it,” he said.
There is also the impact of religious views and teachings on menstruation. In several rural areas, women are banished to abandoned huts due to their ‘impurity’ while they are menstruating. Taking the Sabarimala conflict for instance, despite the Supreme Court’s verdict to allow women of all ages to enter the temple, scores of people took to the streets to stop women from doing the same.
“I feel the Sabarimala verdict by the Supreme Court was a game changer but the stance taken by a section of religious fundamentalists and unfortunately the central government clearly indicates the problem at hand and explains why we still have a long way to go. But on the plus side, I think things are changing. There are more and more people talking about periods and their associated taboos, there are films and documentaries being made on the issue. This I believe is having a positive effect on society,” said Akash Pyne, a student of Presidency University, Kolkata.
From a very young age, young girls are told to manage themselves while on their period discreetly and privately. For women of an entire range of several different cultural groups, the major concern related to menstruation is concealment. This, to a large extent, affects how women feel about their bodies, and not only menstruation.
“We need to encourage candid conversations surrounding women’s health; conducting sessions on gender, sexuality, and menstrual hygiene management will help young children (both male and female) understand menstruation as a clean and natural biological process. Like an everyday object, people — irrespective of gender, caste and creed — around the globe need to treat sanitary napkins as indispensable part of everyday life. In addition, availability of sanitary napkins in first-aid boxes may prove helpful to a girl who has started menstruating before her usual date,” said Siddhartha Mukherjee, who is pursuing Masters in English from Kolkata’s Maulana Azad College.
Another long existing problem surrounding menstruation has been a girl’s attempt to ensure her skirt is not stained, or that she does not leave blood on the chair she was sitting on. Not because a stained skirt looks bad, but because of the uncomfortable stares and lewd remarks she would have to face from people on the streets or even fellow classmates at school.
“When I was in class IX, a friend of mine had her periods in school. The good part was my mother always educated me about it and hence I decided to help her out rather than falling prey to the general mentality of making fun of the stains on her skirt. I think it is a shame that people consider periods as something vile, unholy and associate all the orthodox negativity around this term,” said Abhishek Sarma, an MBA student. He further says that if an individual doesn’t have the gumption to offer sanitary napkins to a woman, be insensitive about all the pain a woman has to go through every month and most importantly disregard and disrespect the very notion of helping someone having periods, then he/she cannot be regarded as a human.
Vignesh Ananthraj, a journalist, first heard of the term menstruation in middle school when somebody talked about ‘period’ being a taboo; something unpleasant because of blood being discharged from a woman’s body. “Education on reproductive health, sexual health should be made compulsory for children in schools, from as early as fourth standard. This can ensure there is no taboo associated with sex or any bodily functions, and kids can be more aware of the issue,” he said.
Sabarimala is just a larger picture of the scenario inside several Indian households. Menstruating women are considered so impure that they are not allowed to enter a puja room, let alone worship. They are not even allowed in the kitchen. During menstrual cycle, women are not allowed to do anything auspicious. In Nepal, women are abandoned in huts during the five days of their period. There have been several instances of these women dying due to the lack of food and water and staying in unsanitary conditions in those abandoned huts.
The situation is similarly grim in rural India. Either women do not have access to sanitary pads or they do not have access to sanitary conditions. A 2016 study by the TATA Institute of Social Science (TISS) found that eight of ten Indian girls are not allowed to enter religious shrines when they are on their period, six out of ten girls are not permitted to touch food in the kitchen and, three out of ten are forced to sleep in a separate room. The prevalence of the taboo even in the 21st century can be attributed to low awareness about menstrual hygiene in both men and women, low levels of education and understanding of puberty and reproductive health.
Indeed, open communication and interaction are great ways to make people realise that menstruation is nothing more than a primary biological function. “Even though I was uncomfortable with the thought of menstruation when I first learnt about it, interactions with people both at home and outside helped me overcome it,” said Koustuv Saha, a research scholar at Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai.
Age-old practices and customs which bear no meaning should have no existence in society. Orthodox beliefs which deprive women of their basic rights should be protested against. Despite years of education teaching us to respect women and believe in equality, a lot of people’s orthodox mentality does not seem to have changed after all.
However, several people from this generation are indeed protesting against the stigma. Films and documentaries are being made to bring about a change in society. The Logical Indian hopes that with time, more and more people will learn to treat menstruation as just another biological process, and to give women the respect they rightfully deserve.
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