Debunking social taboos
The socio-historical constructions of India are often essentialized ones, framed in terms of twofold opposition and stereotypes. One of the manifestations of these stereotypes is evident in the portrayal of women and the culture of taboo associated with them.
Around the world, different taboos have different sources which go beyond the individual and the household. A much larger driving force that has helped taboos prevail in India is superstition in the name of religion. Acceptance of different practices though is the nature of Indian culture. Yet, accounts of taboo question whether the project of making a ‘liberal’ nation was always fraught with religious prejudices and traditional disbeliefs. There are various taboos existing in India but one which is glaring and needs some attention is the menstrual taboo.
Since ages, women have been subjected to derogatory practices just because they menstruate and for such things to flourish it has to thrive at fundamental levels. Unfortunately, families and cultural groups represent these fundamental levels, where people are socialised in a certain way. For instance, girls are taught from the very beginning that they should not let people know about it, they still have to hide sanitary napkins from male members of the family among other various reasons. This basic foundation for socialisation forces itself to look beyond the building blocks of identity. While periods can be uncomfortable for certain material reasons, a girl child is more uncomfortable because she becomes conscious of other people knowing about it. As a result, faulty socialisation facilitates blind superstition.
The experiences of female bodily processes have always been construed and placed within the narrow cultural domain in India. While menstruating, women are prohibited to enter temples, kitchen, not allowed to have intercourse, touch pickles and the list goes on. This stark reality does not call for romanticising the issue rather it calls for normalisation. However, the kind of taboo and derogation that has been vested on the phenomenon, has led to a necessary romanticisation of menstruation.
On a brighter side, feminists like Rupi Kaur and others have helped raise awareness on this issue. Women have come out of their shells and are upfront about discussing this issue now more than ever. Also, being free about discussing periods has become a medium of seeking liberation from downtrodden cultural norms. It should be kept in mind that the enforcement of menstruation as a taboo in an extreme way makes people think of it as liberating. Had taboo not been associated with this, it would have been normalised just like any other biological process. However, normalisation of the issue remains an ideal dream, it keeps oscillating between extremes.
Menstruation as a process is intrinsic to the functioning of female biology and the extent to which it has been ritualised results in the facilitation of patriarchy in our society. Menstruation is just like any other biological phenomenon, a loss of certain bodily fluids, for example, sweating or defecation or urination. So, if patriarchy could work on an issue so intrinsic, then it makes easier for us to understand how ingrained patriarchy is in our society and how women have internalised the fact since ages because women have acknowledged menstruation as a taboo – as something impure and have agreed to the restrictions placed on them while they are on their period. Hence, the sense of dirtiness that is associated is internalised at every step.
Menstruation is one of the common taboos associated with women. These kind of taboos form the basis of a lot of other complex feminist issues like body shaming, where people keep talking about how they should be comfortable in their own skin and leave aside obsession of attaining a perfect figure. Both of these cases have made women overtly conscious of themselves.
Ideally that should not be the case, one should be able to embrace the fact this is just a process, a routined process that is absolutely essential for a female body to function in a certain way and it’s also central to certain other processes in life like child-bearing.
Thus, socialisation makes a big difference. It is probably being changed now but there are millions who are still overtly conscious about the fact that they don’t want people to know about their period. Looking for an ideal situation, where there would be no discrimination, remains a distant dream but women have to learn to get comfortable to what is naturally a part of them.