The Irony of Menstruation: Vital but Impure

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“Sorry I cannot sit in the prayers, as I have my periods”

Does that sound familiar? I am sure it does!! Not surprisingly, many of us have either turned down invites for religious or related ceremonies or have had our relatives, friends and acquaintances do that, just because of the monthly menstrual cycle.

I was born in India and I also had a similar notion – I used to avoid going to temples during this phase of the month.  I don’t remember my mother ever explicitly asking us to follow this norm but I was well-aware of it- could have been through friends or overhearing someone in or outside the family. It seemed to be a norm- it was followed and accepted.

I am (generally) not a rebel and I usually choose my battles wisely. Having said that, this didn’t pose a threat to my freedom nor did it affect me emotionally. I don’t remember thinking in those terms at that age any way. However, I do reminisce one instance where I couldn’t go to a ‘Jagrata’ in the neighbourhood, an all night long Hindu ritual, in the honour of ‘Maa Durga’, where all my friends went and I missed out on the tasty ‘prasaad’. I am sure I must have questioned, “why I could not go?”, but I cannot recall the response I may have got.

My trips to the temple were, in some way or other, influenced by these ‘dates’. But this had little or no effect on me as such. Years went by and the custom continued, until the ‘D’ day arrived- yes, my ‘wedding day’. I had this beautiful lehenga that I was waiting to get into- all nervous but excited and amidst these feelings, my ‘periods’ unexpectedly decided to pay me a visit!

Traditionally speaking, Menstruation is seen as a form of impurity (Rierdan and Rise, 1995). It is considered a culturally sensitive subject and not generally spoken about in public. Procter & Gamble’s Whisper & Ipso, conducted a survey among 1,105 women and 202 men across 10 cities in India in 2014. It was reported that 75% women bought pads in a brown bag or newspaper- And we all know why!! Women find it embarrassing to talk about their periods due to associated shame, leave aside carrying sanitary napkins in transparent bags. Let me tell you, this survey was done amongst urban men and women, so it is ‘you’ and ‘me’ and not just women in villages or slums (As we may like to think!) that have such a perspective about menstruation.

Strangely, on one hand, Menarche, i.e. the onset of menstruation, often quoted as ‘readiness of a girl for marriage’ is celebrated, while on the other, we ourselves consider periods to be an ‘unclean’ state. In our culture, where childbirth is a chance to celebrate the creation of life and as a woman, giving birth is her biggest rite of passage, we consider the reproductive cycle, which prepares a woman’s body for pregnancy each month, as unholy.

Coming back to me and my own experience. In the Indian tradition, marriage is a religious ceremony – so would I have refrained from getting married that day? For me, menstrual cycle is a natural biological process and I let it flow through its natural course. I can understand that they may be painful or uncomfortable, but certainly not sinful. People who mattered to me, were aware of it and doesn’t that only matter after all?

Anyhow, being a social researcher, focusing on ‘reproductive health of women’, how could I have let a natural occurrence dull the sparkle of my wedding.

Having said that, I do appreciate and respect other people’s sentiments- and if I am ever invited for a religious ceremony- I do let them know ‘I am bleeding’ and try and understand their preference of whether I attend their ceremony or how I attend it.

I have never let ‘my periods’ come in the way of worship. I don’t believe in treating a menstruating woman as dirty or impure. God is the same for all of us, for rich or poor, for men or women, whether we are bleeding or not.

I think it is time, we speak openly about menstruation, to help us all break through the traditions of myths and taboos. Media is very powerful, but in a country like India, it can do wonders in creating change in the society. Curious to see how the upcoming Bollywood movie #Padman will be received by the Indian audience and if it will be able to create a stir and will be a step in the right direction in opening a dialogue regarding this very taboo topic. We can certainly hope so!

P.S. This blog attempts to put forward some of the learning and thoughts arising from my doctoral research along with my first-hand experiences. As you would appreciate, this is a very wide theme and one blog cannot do justice to it. Feel free to write to me if there is any specific perspective of ‘menstruation’ that you would like me to write about.

Also, feel free to get in touch, if you wish to know more about me, my research or for a general chat – would be happy to help and support. I’d be happy to share my thoughts and experiences. You can message me personally at radhikamutreja@gmail.com.

 

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