Stigma Around Menstruation Persists in 21st Century India


BY NIKHITA MITTAL

“No, No! you can’t be a part of this ‘pooja’, you are on THOSE days of the month”.

Being in the 21st century for over a decade now, these comments are still heard on an almost daily basis. The saga of numerous myths involved around a menstruating woman still continues.

In India, even the mere mention of the word ‘Periods’ has been a taboo in the past and even till this date. Due to many socio-cultural factors, the topic continues to be a taboo. These myths have been deeply rooted in our society and are believed to be dated back to the Vedic times and are popularly associated with slaying of Vritras, a Brahmin Demon, by a Hindu god Indra. It is believed that women took part of Indra’s guilt of killing a Brahmin and that appears every month as menstrual flow. Even today, a menstruating woman is considered to be impure and dirty. According to the Hindu beliefs, a menstruating woman should be prohibited from participating in normal life activities. In many cultures, menstruating women are isolated, often given a room outside their homes during their periods. Many girls and women are restricted from entering the “puja” room and kitchen. However, these beliefs slightly differ according to the socio-economic status of the family. In Urban areas, they are usually restricted from entering ‘Pooja” rooms while in rural areas they aren’t even allowed to enter kitchens. Menstruating girls and women are also restricted from offering prayers and touching holy books, there are even boards put up in some temples to restrict the entry of menstruating women. The underlying basis for this myth is also the cultural beliefs of impurity associated with menstruation. It is further believed that menstruating women are unhygienic and unclean and hence the food they prepare or handle can get contaminated. According to various studies conducted, women themselves believe that their bodies emit a particular odor or harmful smell which spoils the stored food. And, therefore, they are not allowed to touch sour foods like pickles. However, as long as general hygiene measures are taken into account, no scientific test has shown menstruation as the reason for the spoilage of any food in making. In some parts of India, some strict dietary restrictions also prevail. According to these beliefs, sour food like curd, tamarind, and pickles should be avoided by menstruating girls as they are can cause dysmenorrhea.

Even with so much enhancement on female hygiene and government initiatives like Menstrual Hygiene Scheme (MHS), 70% of women prefer using old cloths during periods. In some cultures, these women bury their cloths used during menstruation to prevent them from being used by evil spirits. According to these traditional norms, there is an association of menstrual blood with evil spirits. In Surinam, menstrual blood is believed to be dangerous, and a malevolent person can harm a menstruating woman or girl by using black magic (“wisi”). It is also believed that a woman can use her menstrual blood to impose her will on a man. Many believe that menstruating women should not exercise but according to scientific studies doing exercise/physical activity during periods aggravate the dysmenorrhea while in real exercise can help relieve the menstruating women with symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and dysmenorrhea and relieve bloating. Exercise also causes a release of serotonin, making one feel much happier.

According to some beliefs, bodily excretions are said to be polluting, as are the bodies when producing them. Therefore, all women, regardless of their social caste are believed to be incurring pollution through the bodily processes of menstruation and childbirth. Water is considered to be the most common medium of purification. The protection of water sources from such pollution, which is the physical manifestation of Hindu deities, is, therefore, a key concern. This highlights the possible reason why menstruating women are not allowed to take a bath especially for the first few days of their menstrual period. And due to the same reason many women, even today, refrain themselves from washing their hair for the first two days of their cycle.

Tulsi Plants and Cows hold a very important religious sentiment in India.  A menstruating woman is asked not to touch a tulsi plant because their touch may lead to drying up of the plant,and they are asked not to touch a Cow as the cow can go infertile upon the touch of a menstruating woman.

 She must be “purified” before she is allowed to return to her family and day to day chores of her life. However, scientifically it is known that the actual cause of menstruation is ovulation followed by a missed chance of pregnancy that results in bleeding from the endometrial vessels and is followed by preparation of the next cycle. Therefore, there seems no reason for this notion to persist that menstruating women are “impure.”

Categories: Culture and Society, Health and Environment

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