Menstruation, also referred to as monthly, aunty, date, problem, time, or monthly birthday, amongst others, is a natural biological process that all women regularly undergo during a major period of their lives. The words used to refer it can reflect how a woman/girl thinks about her period. In many a sense, menstruation, owing to its relationship with fertility and motherhood, is something which is closely associated with womanhood and which indicates how women as individuals are different from men at many levels.
Recently, this very natural process has been in the middle of the controversy that is going around temple entry, gender equality, etc. These controversies have resulted in many people, both men and women, to question various accepted notions, traditions, and practices surrounding menstruation. On one hand, many sanitary napkin advertisements encourage women to ‘touch the pickle’ and continue pursuing their interests like sports and dance, but on the other hand our traditions and some taboos restrict these activities. This creates a confusion in adolescent girls and if they try to question these, they don’t always receive an answer.
Since I was never satisfied by my mother’s answers, I made my grandmother my next target. She patiently answered my questions but after 10 years of menstruation! I remember growing up with not entering temple or not attending religious functions when I was menstruating. Especially, when we had functions at home, I found my mother juggling with responsibilities but I was unable to help her. It was difficult for my parents to explain to me why we follow certain traditions and now after growing up, I can feel what parents go through. Though my parents are well educated, they believe in respecting everyone’s sentiments hence I was allowed to pray at home but outside it was banned. Gradually, our arguments changed to meaningful discussions when both of us made efforts for the same.
With changing times, women have come out of homes and are exploring different careers. We changed from old cotton saree cloth to sanitary pads and tampons. Also certain practices/ traditions have taken a backseat while some of them are still followed without knowing the reasons behind them. Restrictions, certain notions and traditions are looked upon as taboos as most of us feel that they take away the freedom of choice from the person. These taboos/ traditions may look like binding on us but in certain situations and for certain people, they do mean a lot.
In some cultures it’s believed that a woman should avoid sleeping with her husband during her menses. It may sound ridiculous as many modern women are also seen following this tradition. My colleague strictly followed this and suffered emotionally as she couldn’t even talk with her husband! On one hand it seems unjust but when some rural women or women of low income groups were asked the same, they said, they look at it as an opportunity to sleep peacefully because they are saved from husband’s abuse in those days. An old tribal woman I met in Chhattisgarh mentioned that sleeping away from husband serves as safety net for women as it avoids forceful sex and abuse by drunk husbands.
In some cultures, menstruation is an important event in a woman’s life hence she is expected to take utmost care of her body. She should focus on her body, relax for some time and eat simple yet nutritious food. Some traditions do have roots in Ayurveda. According to Ayurveda, our body comprises three elements – Vata, Pitta and Kapha — and a number of sub-elements. Staying healthy entails keeping Vata, Pitta and Kapha in right balance. During menstruation, the occurrence of Vata and Pitta imbalance is common, which weakens digestive system. Ayurveda mentions certain types of food that affect women negatively during menstruation. Any food that generates heat such as oily or spicy food including pickle, animal and dairy products should be avoided. Some women also have stomach upsets or loose motions during menstruation. Therefore, food that is easy to digest, and food that is rich in iron and calcium such as ragi, drumstick leaves, fenugreek seeds, green vegetables, etc., help menstruating girls/ women and reduce cramps.
In some parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka, a prevalent practise is of menstruating women living in other room and restricting daily activities. When I asked my grandmother, she answered that in early days, most of the women worked very hard at home and also in the farms. Living in another room for 4 days gave a woman an opportunity to rest and take some time for herself. Times are changing and we women don’t do that hard physical activities, thanks to different innovations which made life simple. So now women may not look at it like an opportunity to rest and slow down but a restriction to go out and do interesting things. My grandmother and some other women in family used to pursue certain hobbies like reading books or doing some artwork. In case of girls, they were given a doll or their favourite things so they doesn’t feel lonely. At the same time, the girl is expected to wash clothes and utensils on her own. To some extent this teaches her to be self-reliant but it also makes her feel unwanted, and dirty, during those days. This may negatively affect her yet undeveloped personality. In a way, we shame her which she not only carries with herself but passes it on to women she meets and next generations. In a family, the girl should receive more support and should be made more comfortable as she goes through physical and emotional changes during puberty. This will help her build good image about herself and cope with changes in a better way.
The most commonly heard misconception about menstruation is ‘menstrual blood is impure’, ‘no one should touch or see your blood’, or ‘it’s a bad blood’ and these reactions haven’t changed for ages. When I meet women for sessions on menstrual health management, I get to hear that periods is elimination of toxins and impure blood. I am surprised that very few women actually know about their bodies. There is a gap which needs to be addressed and we all should thrive to understand our body in a scientific manner.
Interestingly, we all are here in the world due to menstrual blood, and still its considered impure.
In some communities of Chhattisgarh, it is believed that menstrual blood is very powerful and can be used by a woman herself or others for black magic and therefore, women should be very careful about destroying this cloth after use. So women mostly dry this cloth in discreet way and destroy it after every few months. As quoted by Mythri speaks, they see the opposite in mothers of Manipur who preserve the cloth used by their daughters during menarche (first period) and gift it back to her when she gets married. This cloth is believed to be so powerful that it will protect the girl and her family from poor health and other ills.
During menses, some households are very particular that women should avoid going out or restrict their daughters to stay indoors. Some women believe that staying indoors may avoid conflicts and emotional outbursts in public but staying indoors may also worsen their emotional state. Girls might feel better outdoors as they meet friends or play for some time. The emotional up and downs have some relation with Ayurveda. Typical symptoms of Vata imbalance before and during periods include anxiety, nervousness, mood swings. It is advised to take rest and stay calm in secure environment.
When traditions/ norms are forced on girls without explanation, it is possible that they might rebel and thus cause frictions among mother and daughter. If we could explain the reason behind traditions, girls may accept it. I have met some women who were very submissive when they lived with their parents as they couldn’t question traditions related to menstruation but once they got married and had kids, they maintained a healthy dialogue and also changed few things as per their comfort and choice.
I must say that there are different perspectives to look at the same thing and we should choose what is best for us. One solution can’t fit everyone, hence cultural norms should be understood before labelling them. Western thinking has high influence on urban living which in turn influences low income groups and rural living. We can’t change certain circumstances but we can try best to not change anyone’s behaviour by labelling but educating ourselves first, then reach others. It’s important to understand that everyone has freedom to make choices for themselves.
Education and discussion is the only way to make menstruation taboo free
Let’s help each other understand this and start a healthy conversation on this topic. I hope for a future where men and women both freely talk about this topic like any other biological process and remove the shame associated with this topic.
This article was originally posted by me on Feminism in India for #ThePadEffect series https://feminisminindia.com/2017/05/05/tradition-behind-menstrual-taboos/