A woman on her period is supposed to follow a thousand baseless stipulations of what she can eat, where she can go, what she can touch. When shall we learn to treat menstruation as yet another normal bodily function?
“In society, men are not supposed to know about this. We have to keep it hidden,” says Sharmila Devi. She is talking about menstruation. Many of her neighbours from rural Uttar Pradesh agree that you cannot discuss it with men, you cannot enter a temple or touch spices and pickles, you cannot enter the kitchen. Taboos, stigma and silence surrounding menstruation make it difficult to have open conversations about health and well-being of girls and women during menstruation.
“In society, men are not supposed to know about this. We have to keep it hidden”
Make no mistake: this is not something limited to rural ‘backward’ areas. A survey among over 1000 respondents in metropolitan cities revealed that 75% women buy sanitary napkins wrapped in paper or opaque plastic because it is seen as shameful. In his 2014 speech on Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the sanitation needs of women while talking about the absence of toilets and launching the Swachh Bharat Mission. However, his government has recently infuriated women across the nation after refusing to class sanitary napkins as essential goods under the new Goods and Service Tax (GST) regime. While experts argue that the levying of tax is not the real battle to pick to ensure better access to menstrual hygiene, it does show that the government thinks sindoor (vermillion applied to the forehead by married Hindu women) is an essential commodity whereas sanitary napkins are not.
Video Volunteers conducted a Twitter chat and invited respondents, mostly urban, middle-class women, to share their experience of taboos surrounding menstruation. Some of the anecdotes shared were bizarre, not to mention hilarious. Kumud Rana from Nepal shared how a male friend thought period blood was so poisonous that it would even kill a horse! But it’s not just at the anecdotal level that such discrimination occurs. Research shows that period pain is as bad as a heart attack – and this is not recognised by the medical community.
Silence and patriarchal norms ensure that people like Sharmila Devi are forced to, on the one hand, hide their period, presumably to spare men the discomfort of having to deal with a normal bodily function. On the other, they are also ostracised and need to self-censor to follow the extremely demeaning untouchability practised against women on their periods. Fortunately, things are slowly but surely changing. Thanks to the GST controversy, periods are, for the first time dominating headlines and op-ed pages. Initiatives to combat stigma are also taking off the ground. We just hope the next generation of girls growing up do not have to feel ashamed about their period and are armed with the knowledge that helps them cope with the change their bodies go through and combat the taboos.
Article by Madhura Chakraborty