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The Vicious Circle Of Menstrual Taboos

Posted: February 19, 2014

“Today I learned something new at school. Periods. Mamma says I’m a big girl now. I should be careful and should not talk about it in front of Papa and my brother. I should also sit with closed legs and behave properly.”

These are some of the eternal statements that young girls usually get to hear from their mothers. I don’t really remember the story of my first menses, but there were a few taboos that I found unacceptable even back then as a teen and upon which I would now like to throw some light.

I find it very problematic that most of the mothers don’t discuss this with their daughters before they begin to menstruate. This discussion always takes place after the shock and for a girl between the ages of 10-14 or even younger, it really does come as a shock to see their favourite dress stained with blood one fine day all of a sudden. Some might even think that they are sick or got themselves hurt ‘in the place where they pee from’. Yes, that’s what it’s called. I have heard and had experiences of mothers either pointing downwards or using the phrase above but never really explaining things the right way.

Then there is the school which plays its part in further hushing up the topic and creating more confusion in the minds of young girls and majorly in boys as well. I remember when we once had a seminar on menses when I was in the seventh grade. Mine hadn’t started yet, but I had a vague idea about them. While the boys were sent out to play, the girls were made to gather in a room where they were introduced to menstruation and sanitary napkins for the first time.

As expected later, the girls were all giggly and the boys were seen strutting around, hinting that they knew what it was all about and additionally shouting out the names of popular sanitary napkin companies in order to embarrass the girls. Schools really do a great job in messing up young girls and boys in this regard because instead of having a co-ed seminar and focusing on sensitising the topic, they go for the most convenient route they can find, which is by segregation.

Another thing that I remember during those first years was how I and/or the other girls were taught to keep this hushed up. So you should not mention it in front of your father, uncles, brothers, elders and such. Again, this kind of attitude just reinforces the fact that menstruation is something to be embarrassed about and should be kept a secret. Or the time when you go to buy a packet of sanitary napkin, the discomfort you feel to tell the man standing behind the counter that you need Whisper Ultra which is then compounded by the fact that he in turn puts it into a black polythene bag. So nobody should see what a girl is carrying because it is shameful, right? In the later years that follow, boys again make fun of girls which further forces them to go inside their shells.

There was another incident where I got to know about yet another taboo around menses and this not time, it was not by an adult, but by a female friend who belonged to my age group. When I wanted to accompany my friend to a temple, I was prevented from doing so because according to the reason furnished by her, I was not allowed to enter the temple because I was menstruating. Since I am not a Hindu, I was not aware of this fact and apologised appropriately as I didn’t want to hurt the religious sentiments of my friend.

Later I was explained that in Hinduism, as women are considered unclean during this period anything they touch is also believed to lose its power. So if they touch anything in the prayer room for instance, the deity that is being worshipped will leave and evil will take over the idol. One will then be praying to some spirit and not the deity one has in their mind and faith and the whole area would then have to be cleansed by calling a priest or a saint.

Same goes for the kitchen. Menstruating women and girls should not enter the kitchen, touch the utensils or cook because yes, you’ve got it right, they are considered to be unclean and impure. At that time and during that age I did not realise that I was not doing something wrong, rather being wronged or that my brainwashed friend should be the one who should apologise in the first place. However, I don’t see it as her fault, she only reproduced what she had been taught was right.

Sadly, there are still a lot of women and not just middle-ages mothers and elderly grandmas but also many educated women who still contribute to the tabooing of menstruation and the process of shaming and embarrassing young girls on its account. We still do not take our ability to menstruate as a pride.

On this note, I would like to end my take on people’s attitude towards menstruation and the taboos surrounding it and would additionally recommend everyone to read Gloria Steinem’s If Men Could Menstruate for a hearty laugh and for taking pride in your monthly struggle.

This article was originally published on Menstrupedia’s blog 

Pic credit: Zeal (Used under a Creative Commons license)

I smash the patriarchy for a living! Founder & Editor-in-chief of Feminism in India.

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  1. I confess I am guilty of most of the things mentioned above. I would be horrified if I enter a temple during my menses. The fear and guilt is conditioned in such a way into me that I won’t dare defy the “menstruation rules”.
    But I promise that I would fight from now on against this taboo and so my best to sensitize people specially women around me 🙂

  2. Japleen thank you for addressing a key topic for women, and may i add men, especially in India. In fact, this goes on and on… Once women have children, the first 40 days after childbirth, incidentally the time duration in which again a woman menstruates for a continuous period, the woman is treated almost as a pariah. She is not allowed to enter the kitchen, in fact in certain communities till a proper puja/havan is performed, there is no daily puja performed.
    Maybe in the olden times with a clear lack of hygiene standards, etc, the practice of menstruating women not being included in daily chores made sense, but in these modern times it is a heinous activity. Just another manner of making a woman feel inferior.

  3. Ya this temple thing irks me like hell.. the only people who made me conscious of this morbid myth were my own friends not even my mom.. When I say i dont really care when how and what way i Go to a temple ,, they all look incredulously ..

  4. The thing about not entering a temple or the puja room when menstruating is true in many households. I personally don’t believe in them and but sometimes I use them to get out of something that I don’t like doing. Like for ex, if I don’t want to go to a boring function and if luckily I’m menstruating I remember my husband about the ‘Rules’ 🙂 But seriously it will take a long time for women to rethink their ideologies about myths of menstruating.

  5. Its amazing how much of negativity is associated with this biological marker in women ,which on the contrary is an indicator that all is actually well inside . I explained to my daughter some 8 years ago how this happened with biology diagrams and all .And my mother in law too listened and found out the truth behind the menses. Yet a few days ago,a college friend advised my daughter not to wash her hair during this time . Thankfully she called me up and I revised the whole thing with her and told her to tell her friend too.

  6. You nailed it Japleen and very well described. Growing up in the 1970’s/80’s I have personally experienced each episode you described above – at home/school/college/work place/with in-laws. Precisely for this reason I made sure my daughter was brought up with a lot of awareness. It is definitely time to adapt ourselves to the changing dynamics of society where women play the significant role.

    I differ on the religion aspect of menstruation. Practicing Hinduism is more a way of life, a science. Any restrictions on women during “that” time is purely to give women the much needed rest, which would otherwise be denied. Our grand-mothers never had uterine diseases like fibroids or PCOS but the generations after them has suffered because the science related to that was ignored. But, as it is with all religions, the hindu theories too have been badly distorted down the ages.

    I really appreciate you brought out the ghosts locked up in our cupboards.

  7. Hi.. There is a scientific reason for not entering the kitchen in those days..( we did not ever follow the practice of not entering the kitchen though)
    Ladies had to do all activities of the house right from
    Cow dung plaster to cook to clean.. So she would be tired. During the period that she is menstruating she is a little weak plus her immunity is a little low.. So to allow her to rest for the three days she was told not to do anything. And what better fear than the fear of God would make all listen to it. Hence the belief that u couldn’t go to the kitchen

    • Hi, could you please explain me the scientific reason? Secondly, shall age old customs still apply now. Can’t we just say, take some rest or lie down for sometime? Do we still have to hide behind customs or justify them in the name of “it was for their own good”? Thirdly, what about temples? I feel it’s high time we confront such customs and say things upfront.

    • If letting menstruating women getting rest was the motive, then the best way was to cook up something to blame those who might make them work. Like, the menstruating women are Goddesses and need to be worshipped, so anyone harming them will go to hell, or do service to her and gain brownie points or something like that. Instead the women who supposedly need rest are victimized as being unclean!

  8. Hi,
    Reading this blog made my memory so fresh of the early days of menses. All the topics covered are so true, fear of God is something that was kind of engraved in us. But today i perform my daily puja even during this period without fear, though I admit for the first 3 days never visit a temple. Entering the kitchen part well family will starve so these rules go out of the window….

  9. Women slogged thru the day.. And some sensible matriarch must have made these rules…. Just so that women get some rest… It irked me everytme mom or mil did the untouchable drama … Orthodox Hindu families made women work a lot in the kitchen specially during poojas n festivals . While sat n did the Pooja .. I m sure the original plan was to treat women with some respect and as a human but ill informed women passed on illogical info down thru generations

  10. Yes, there is a scientific reason.. and it is this.. During periods, the blood flow can act as a carrier for viruses and pathogens.. and it is easily susceptible to infections.. not only from us to others, also from others to us.. That is why, they declined visits to the temple or any other function where people gather..

    • “During periods, the blood flow can act as a carrier for viruses and pathogens.”

      Your data/source for this? After all, it is only the unfertilized ova and uterine lining. Why should it be pathogenic?

  11. I always have a feel that what our ancestors followed was a better option to follow.. I am not talking deep of the science factors.. but as everything is being scientifically proven, this too would be..

    • In certain cases, while that may be true, I don’t think we should forget that our ancestors followed child marriages too.

      Also, the link which you have cited only says that women are *at risk* of infection and from bacteria in the reproductive/urinary system itself, not from anything contagious. Nor is menstrual blood cited as a contaminant. So, how would isolation help? And if it would, why only religious/social occasions? Should we also stop going to work on *those 3 days*?

  12. As created by the creators or GOD — the 2 dominant genders in our society |- woman have been bestowed or gifted to take a generation ahead — menses as known the sign of woman – ready to procreate is often taken as a unhealthy / unclean 4 days of every month — thats 12 * 4 = 48 days/ yr.

    Its sick to see that such topics are not discussed at right time and issues of sanctity come in picture. the writer has very well mentioned about the confused yrs in school where u are introduced to biology and there is a giggly time around it. Its a god gifted thing and one should not consider as if the woman is touched upon by some disease.
    I happened to visit Durga festival @ my cousin’s place — and co-incidentally I had my menses ON; being a liberal individual I just didnt bother about it. My relatives showed not so pleasant reaction about it — and then myself had a subtle laugh – to the goddess you are worshipping to (DURGA) – is a woman itself and u are not allowing any women in “her 4 days” to worship her !!!! thats the level of hypocrisy our country has!

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