Millennium Post

Menstruation: A curse?

Despite modern society’s advancement in science, the deep-rooted taboo surrounding menstruation continues to flourish unabated in our country, discusses Porni Banerjee.

The subject of menstruation has been held taboo in India's social structure since time immemorial – menstruating women have long been considered impure or unholy. From when a girl starts to menstruate, she is taught to discuss the topic only in hushed voices; she is not allowed to enter the kitchen, touch the eatables or even eat several things during 'those five days'; she is forbidden to visit temples and is instructed to sleep on the floor in a separate room, among many other such primitive restrictions.

If she does not follow these rules, she would 'pollute' everything and everyone around her.

Menstruation is one of the primary reasons contributing to the growing number of school dropouts among girls belonging to developing countries. This includes approximately 23 per cent girls in India. The reason behind a large number of dropouts is the lack of proper infrastructure, unhygienic toilets in schools and the lack of adequate menstrual protection, which undermines the right to privacy.
Several sections among the modern Indian youth are slumped in deep despondency with such social evils indicative of menses. This is a matter of serious concern and contemplation.
Hindu Mythology gives a brief description of the origin of menstruation as a curse ultimately leading to societal taboo.
Indra's sin
As noted in the Bhagwada Purana, menstruation as a curse has a long association with Lord Indra's sin. When Lord Indra disrespected Brihaspati, the former lost all his supernatural powers as well as his kingdom. His throne was conquered by the demons. He soon went to Lord Brahma seeking help. To make amends, Indra was advised by Lord Brahma to treat a young boy, a bramha-gyani, as his guru until Brihaspati was satisfied. The young boy was the son of a demon. Hence, when he learnt that the boy gave yagna-havis (offerings) to Gods and demons alike, Indra killed him.
After the young boy died, Indra was accused of killing a Brahmana. The curse he invited upon himself took the form of a brutish demon that followed him wherever he ran. He finally decided to hide in a flower and begun praying to Lord Vishnu for years. Vishnu finally appeared and freed him from the sin. But, Indra could not flush out the sin completely from his mind.
Indra's sin divided
In order to relieve himself from the sin, he shared a quarter of his sins with four pious worldly creatures– trees, water, earth and women. Indra's sin was distributed – as sap in trees, froth in water, infertility or barren lands on Earth and menstrual blood in women. For bearing the sin, he granted a boon to each one of them - the trees could regenerate from their roots, water could purify everything, Earth could recover from its cracks over a period of time, and women would enjoy sexual intercourse more than men.
In grade six, we attended a seminar on menstrual health. Not surprisingly, only the girls attended; the boys were made to stay away from such 'womanly' deliberations. Years later, a chapter in my tenth-grade textbook detailed the menstrual cycle. Notwithstanding the prescribed syllabus, teachers have always uncomfortably turned the pages to a different chapter. Even in 21st century India, in the age of postmodernism, globalisation, digitisation, we are stuck with the age-old menstrual taboo. Teachers must understand the importance of teaching this crucial chapter to girls and boys alike: the more it is discussed in whispers, the more it will amuse the opposite gender. The same education should take place at home, with as much seriousness as other topics of social relevance.
The story of music composer Kiran Gandhi, who decided to run without a tampon on her first London Marathon, is worth a mention. When Gandhi was in the final hours of preparation of her marathon, she realised that many would be familiar with oncoming cycles at a really inconvenient time.
Gandhi said, "I remember evaluating my options: a pad wouldn't really be ideal – chafing is a real issue on a marathon course, and no man I know would run placing cotton between his balls at 26 miles."
"I didn't have a moon cup on me at the time, and I guess a tampon was somewhat a viable option, but it didn't seem comfortable and I didn't want to run with one and change during the marathon course – there's no privacy. So, in a radical act to prioritise my own comfort, I decided to bleed freely and run. I knew it was combatting stigma and my own shame in my own right. But I didn't know how powerful it would be," she said.
Expressing her confidence, Gandhi said, "It was so empowering. It wasn't uncomfortable at all. I was like, Damn! I'm running and bleeding. Women do extraordinary things all over the world and I felt an enormous sense of power. I ran with blood dripping down my legs for sisters who don't have access to tampons and sisters, who, despite cramping and pain, hide it away and pretend like it doesn't exist."
However, Gandhi drew criticism for her decision to bleed free and she was labelled as 'unsanitary', 'unladylike', and 'disgusting'.
"This reaction taught us that period stigma runs deep and that we have a lot of work to do as a society to build together a world that is more loving and inclusive of women's bodies," she said.
The recently released movie of R Balki, Padman (February 2018), is appreciable. Akshay Kumar plays the role of Arunachalam Muruganatham who invented the machine that made low-cost sanitary napkins keeping every woman's menstrual hygiene in mind. Born in 1962, Muruganatham is a social entrepreneur from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. He decided to produce this machine after he witnessed his wife using dirty clothes, rags and newspapers during her periods. Since then, he has been raising awareness about menstrual health and discussing the ill-effects of traditional unhygienic menstrual practices adapted by women in his village. Muruganatham was a 'man' who, fighting all odds, dared to welcome such a revolution in the Indian society in the early-2000s.
Delhi based Sociologist and economist Susmita Dasgupta says, "The subject of menstrual taboo is very inconvenient for me but definitely not a taboo. In my family, menstruation was never considered unholy. Every woman performed every religious activity even during their days. According to me, religious institutions have a major role to play in eliminating the menstrual taboos. The Ramakrishna Mission Society, Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj do not consider menstruation a taboo. I do feel that Godmen and religious institutions can together eradicate the deep-rooted practice of such taboos depending on their social attitudes."
Understanding the implication of generating awareness on menstrual hygiene, the Maharashtra government introduced its new scheme Asmita Yojana on International Women's Day this year. Under this programme, girls in Zila Parishad schools across the state will receive a pack of sanitary pads at Rs 5, while rural women can enjoy the benefits of the same at subsidised rates between Rs 25 and Rs 29.
An empowering step has also been undertaken by the Chief of Delhi Commission for Women, Swati Maliwal, who urged Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to make sanitary napkins tax-free. Sanitary napkin is a basic necessity and a source of ensuring quality health and hygiene during menstruation – this is sufficient reason for it to be exempt from GST.
The stigma attached to menstruation has left several in the society brooding over its ramifications. Why is it considered impure, unclean? Blood is pivotal to human physiology, and menstrual blood is an essential aspect of every woman. There is no denying that the discourse on menstruation should be taken up on a new urgency as many consider it 'unholy' even today. Together, we can make the society a healthier place for every woman. If we do not imbibe the culture of healthy dialogue on menstruation, we can never succeed to become a socially progressive country.
I boldly say that I menstruate and I am not impure.

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