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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 41, New Delhi, Sept 25, 2021

Menstruation: Brook of life | Ajailiu Niumai

Saturday 25 September 2021

by Ajailiu Niumai

Menstruation, which is always clouded by silence, stigma, taboo, religious and socio-cultural restrictions, has become a public discourse since the past few years. Menstruation is part and parcel of women’s sexual health, and it is a "wellspring of life" from which opens up a possibility of human life. In essence, menstruation is the "brook of life," which means a source of life about giving offspring and nurturing the future generation. The idea of ’sacred’ and ’profane’ demarcated the difference of women passing through various stages of their reproductive sexual life. The emerging trend we observe is how menstrual hygiene is considered a hygienic practice that can prevent women from any infectious diseases like urinary tract infection, hepatitis and the like. In the past, menstrual hygiene is alien to many cultures. For example, some cultures in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana made menstruating women sleep in cowsheds as they were considered ’impure.’ Recently, menstrual hygiene management (MHM) has been made to be an integral part of the Swachh Bharat Mission of the Government of India. And, there is increasing investment in the "She Smart Toilets" for girls and women in various states across India, including free distribution of low-cost sanitary pads for marginalized girls and women. Stories of young brides who refused to tie the knot unless toilets were constructed at the groom’s residence have attracted international attention. And, the concept that only a clean India will make the nation healthy has captured the public’s imagination for the first time in the history of India.

The concern for women’s menstrual hygiene is slowly emerging as necessary, and it has penetrated in the academic space although there is no sufficient body of work being produced. Knowledge producers and those who framed curriculum for the educational institutions in India excluded menstruation since most of them are patriarchal and assumed that such topic is trivial though almost 50% of India’s total population comprises women who have faced challenges due to menstruation. Culturally, women’s bodies are perceived as inferior to men, and they were conditioned to feel ashamed of their menstruation. Fundamentally, menstruation is as normal as any other living activities like digestion, breathing, talking, and walking. And, it is an important biological characteristic of women’s body, but society preaches to treat menstruation as a polluted disease in which girls and women go through every month in their reproductive age. As a result, they are denied access to the kitchen, certain foods, participation in any religious functions, restraint from taking bath and avoid planting any saplings or seeds in the garden.

Sociologically, the social roles and gender relationships are sustained by ideas and beliefs about menstruation. Some Anthropologists like Margaret Mead (1928) and Psychologists like Sigmund Freud (1962) have shown interest in menstruation. Sigmund Freud has interpreted menstruation in various ways, such as male anxieties about castration and taboos that protect men from the dangers of menstruation. In contrast to Sigmund Freud’s theory, Margaret Mead argued that menstruation is a normal part of women’s life and there are no anxieties or taboos associated with menstruation. Mead asserts that women are not taught to look at menstruation as an experience of distress or fear and therefore, their experience of menstruation is not under a lot of stress though some of them may experience stomach cramp, anxiousness and hormonal changes. Historians have perceived menstruation as a purely women’s issue that has no historical importance. Furthermore, historians’ repugnance and the taboo of silence explain their lack of interest. The historical background of menstruation reveals that certain terms like ’the flowers’, ’sickness’, ’monthly disease’, ’monthly infirmity’ and the like were used to refer to menstruation during the 17th Century. Investigations of physiology and pathology of menstruation were abundant, but the proliferation of ideas and the generally agreed tenets are of more use in revealing the general climate of opinion rather than the accounts of medical discoveries which had real scientific importance. In the 21st Century, the two main conflicting ideas about menstruation were either purifying the blood of girls and women in their reproductive age or removing excess blood from their bodies. The other view of menstruation contradicted that of purification of the blood. This idea was that menstruation was the shedding of excess fluids. This study was conducted from April to June 2017 and February to April 2020 in Rasoolpura slum and Sultan Shahi slum in Hyderabad, Telangana. I employed purposive sampling method, involving individual interviews with selected respondents.

This study found that the challenges that slum women in Hyderabad face during this COVID – 19 pandemic is their sexual health and their inferior status in the society. A sociological approach to menstrual health emphasizes the influence of women’s socio-economic backgrounds on the quality of their health. For instance, Manemma, a Dalit housemaid, said, "I used my old sarees to make pads. I have been suffering from heavy menstruation for the past year, but I can’t afford to consult a doctor. I earn around Rs.6,000/- (six thousand) only per month, and my husband is a daily wage laborer who cannot find jobs nowadays. It is expensive to visit a hospital or private clinic. Hence, I suffer in silence. Due to the COVID pandemic, my three children no longer go to the nearby government primary school or attend classes as we can’t afford smartphones. It is tough to sustain ourselves, and we cannot go back to our village in Mahbubnagar in Telangana since we are not finding jobs". A teenager Shazia said, ’Whenever I ask my mother to buy pads from a nearby shop, she says that she doesn’t have money and gave me homemade pads’.

Exclusion and menstrual taboo

Sigmund Freud (1962) theorized that menstrual taboo was an attempt to control women. The menstrual taboo culturally conditioned girls and women to perceive menstruation as shameful. There is a matrix of relationship between shame and silence in the lives of menstruating girls and women. Menstrual taboos are deeply rooted in religious and cultural life. Most religions prohibit menstruating girls and women from participating in their everyday activities. The problem of isolating menstruating girls and women is much more prominent in adolescents when they have their first menarche. Before their return to routine chores, they need to be purified through rituals. Religion and the caste categories also treat the girls and women during their menstruation as impure and segregate them from family activities. Bodily excretions are considered polluting, and most religious Scriptures discourage any physical relationship between men and women during menstruation.

Hinduism affirms menstruation as ’Rajaswala’ because of Indra’s cursed called rajaswala dosham. There are restrictions for women not only on menstruation but during pregnancy and when delivering a baby. For the Hindus, the myths and taboos around menstruation contradict the worship of the bleeding goddess "Devi Kamakhya" in Guwahati, Assam, where the mythical womb and vagina of Shakti (power) has been installed in the ’Garvagriha’ or sanctum sanctorium of the temple. Every year, in June, the goddess Kamakhya menstruates, and her devotees from across the globe celebrate Ambubachi Mela or Tantric fertility (holy festival) for three days to observe Goddess Kamakya’s menstruation course. It is believed that Brahmaputra River near Kamakhya temple turns red during this festival. The temple then remains closed for three days, and holy water is distributed among the devotees. There is no scientific evidence that the blood turns the river red. Some people postulate that the priests pour vermilion into the waters. Symbolically, menstruation symbolizes a woman’s creativity, fertility, and shakti (power) to give birth, indicating a source of life or ‘brook of life’. Therefore, the deity of Kamakhya Devi celebrates this ’shakti’ (power) within every woman. (Source: Secrets of Kamakhya Devi Temple - Menstruating Goddess in India http://www.reckontalk.com/secrets-of-kamakhya-devi-temple-menstruating-goddess-in-india/). The notions of purity and pollution in India determine the basis of the social relationship and are central to their culture and gender relations.

Founder of Naari Wellness Foundation in Hyderabad, Anju Arora said, "my mother-in-law pointed out to my helper girl that she stepped in the temple of our house while she is menstruating. My helper apologized and felt guilty. However, I told her not to bother about my mother-in-law’s remark. Nevertheless, she was restless, and like any other Indian girl of her age, she felt that her action was uncalled for. Majority of Indian women and girls have believed for generations that menstruating girls and women should not enter the temple even till today. I shared why women were excluded in those older days and why it is not relevant nowadays. I also consoled her that menstruation is a biological process of the body, just like a breathing system. This blood loss is the most nutritious blood of the body that nurtures a baby inside the womb. I asked her why we don’t feel grossed at blood coming out from any other parts of the body but the vagina? How do we worship the menstruating goddess in India but deemed unfit for women to worship when they menstruate? Finally, she calmed herself and expressed that she would convince her sisters and friends to enter the temple and worship God even during menstruation. This incident of liberating my helper from cultural norms and attitudes reflects that whenever one woman changes her attitude and perception towards menstruation, she wishes to transform her peer groups. As a result, she becomes an agent of change".

Santoshi, the 21-year-old housemaid, said, "my mother restricted me to eat pickles and take a bath during menstruation. She did not allow me to visit the temple during my menstruation, saying that I am impure". Because of religious beliefs, menstruating women are excluded and have to face a psychological and social ordeal. People’s perception of menstrual taboo and myth is not as bleak as in the past years, but they still suffer from menstrual exclusion in different forms.

Way forward

For women to live healthy, productive, and dignified lives, they should manage menstrual bleeding or practice feminine hygiene effectively. Menstruation should be debated without any shame in the public space, and media must play a crucial role. Attempts must be made to change the psyche of people to restraint from practicing menstrual taboos and myths through massive awareness campaigns, change of attitude towards menstrual blood as impure, include menstruation in the curriculum of the educational system in India, and ameliorate the culture of stereotypical subjugation of girls and women in the family and society.

[This study is sponsored by the Eye Foundation of America, West Virginia, USA & Sehgal Foundation, Gurgaon. I am indebted to Dr. V.K. Raju, Dr. Suri Sehgal, Jay Sehgal & Aparna Mahajan.]

(Author: Prof. Ajailiu Niumai teaches at the University of Hyderabad. Email: ajainiumai[at]gmail.com)

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