Pure Or Impure? Contesting The Menstrual Taboo
– BY YASMIN SONI –
Until when will you silence the voice of your uterus which cries for you?
The voice of your heart which tries to call you back home?
Until when will we continue to bury that strength which pulses in every woman
and which has its own voice, dreams and desires? Aspirations, dreams and will?
‘Women in the temple? First through the menstruation check machine please’
Recently there was a campaign among women activists to lift the ban on women entering the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani Shingnapur temple in India. A group of 350 women from Bhumata Ranragini was stopped by the temple administration, and later by the police, from entering the temple. Eventually, these women activists were able to break the 400 years old tradition. Until recently, there has been a similar kind of ban in Kerala’s Sabarimala temple, where women between the age of 10 and 50 weren’t granted access. The new president said that women would only be allowed in the temple after the invention of a machine that can scan if it’s the right time for them to do so. That’s right: a machine that checks if women are menstruating.
It doesn’t seem this strange menstrual check will anytime soon though, as in July 2018, the Supreme Court has declared that temples are public places and that there can’t be any discrimination on the basis of gender or age. Access to places of worship is a fundamental right, also for women, ruled the Supreme Court, stating that access could only be denied (to both males and females) on the ground of health, morality and public order. Still, discrimination based on a person’s sex still happens in Indian shrines: since 2011 women have been denied access to the Asthana – the actual spot where the saint is buried in Hali Ali Dargah.
‘Indra divided the sin into four parts and gave them to the trees, water, fire and women’
There are many more instances were women are denied equal rights in religious practises. A woman inadvertently entered the open platform of Shani temple to offer prayers, prompting the priests to purify the area with milk and oil. This example shows how these exclusionary ideas are based on notions of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’. The result? Many taboos; menstruating women can’t enter the puja room or kitchen, they’re restricted from offering prayers and touching holy books and they aren’t allowed to touch pickle. Some women even have to bury their clothes used during menstruation.
One explanation for all these restrictions can be found in mythology. According to the Hindu shastras, menstruating women are inauspicious because of the curse that was given to them. The story in the Mahabharata (one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India) explains that Indra acquired his exalted status by killing Vritra. But Vritra happened to be Brahmin, and by his murder, Indra acquired the sin of Brahmahatya. To get rid of this sin, Indra divided it into four parts and gave these to trees, water, fire and women. The monthly period is the manifestation of that sin, and that’s why women are considered impure.
Menstrual blood: from powerful and healing to unclean and cursed
This hasn’t always been the case though. Many years ago, the menstrual cycle was celebrated instead of seen as taboo and women were considered far more powerful than men. In primitive societies, menstruating women would walk through fields as it was believed their blood would help crops grow. If they’d run naked through these fields at night, the menstrual blood would even destroy all the crop worms. Ancient cultures believed humans were created from coagulated blood and thus menstrual blood was considered to have a life-giving, healing and cleansing effect. It was used in spells, medicines and ointments, for example to protect new-born children from demons.
The taboo against menstruation was first found in ancient Egypt. An inscription at the Hathor temple has a list of gods with their specific dislikes and one of the gods disliked menstruating women because they were seen as extremely powerful. Slowly, men started to fear these powerful women and aimed to bring them down by establishing patriarchy, teaching everyone that menstruation is taboo. Over time, menstruating women were seen as weak, unclean, impure and unsafe. Men started to keep their distance from them, even forbidding them from touching certain things. Over many years, these beliefs were created by men as an excuse to oppress women, and slowly the newfound ‘knowledge’ was thrusted into the minds of both men and women.
‘No more degrading practises with the excuse of ‘letting women rest’’
Currently, these beliefs hold a very strong place in the mind of people, up to the point where even some women consider themselves impure. They aren’t taught anymore that they’re powerful when menstruating and that their ability to dream, have visions and attain altered states of consciousness is strong when they’re bleeding, as happened in the ancient cultures. Instead, they’re taught that they’re unclean and have a monthly curse.
Seeing as all these taboos are ingrained in today’s society, breaking them has to be a collaborative effort. People’s mind-set needs to change. Menstruation shouldn’t be considered taboo anymore. And there certainly shouldn’t be anymore degrading practices which seclude women from living their life the way they want to, with the stupid excuse of ‘letting them rest during those days’. Women themselves should decide whether they want to rest or work when on their periods, it’s not up to society to make this decision for them.
‘If women can’t talk openly about menstruation, no-one else can’
In order to achieve this, women need to break the silence. If they can’t talk openly about menstruation, no-one else can. There’s no need to hide or be ashamed of something that’s given to us by nature. Also the media play an important role here. Currently they’re brainwashing society; the entire sanitary products market conveys the message through magazines and television that periods aren’t good and stains shouldn’t happen. Instead of complimenting the taboos, advertisements should start breaking these stereotypes. Women need to question illogical taboos that result in their subordination. They should fight for their rights, the way gender equality activist Trupti Desai did when she wasn’t allowed in the temple.
Change is needed as the practise of menstrual taboos violates human rights. Menstruation, a sign of female health and vitality, can no longer be shrouded in fear or embarrassment. Breaking the silence around menstruation is essential for women and girls to reach their full potential. We need to demystify and destigmatise menstruation. Women all over the world should stop being ashamed of their periods and instead be proud of them.
About the author: Yasmin Soni (Gujarat, India) is a research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She’s currently in the first year of her PhD at the School of Management and Labour Studies. Yasmin has noticed menstrual taboos, fabricated with religion, as an intricate part of ordinary women’s lives. She aspire to work on improving menstrual hygiene in India and breaking taboos at the rural level.
More personal stories?
When I got my periods, by Rimli Bhattacharya
A very public menstrual leak, by Sarah Sahagian
The crimson wrath, by Noni Roberts
An ode to Padman, by Sonia Chatterjee
Period changes and chemotherapy, by Cruz Santana
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