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The vicious circle of menstrual taboos: We learn that menstruation is a shameful secret and teach our daughters the same.
“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)
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