Editor’s Note: This month, that is May 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Menstrual Health, where we invite various articles about various experiences that revolve around menstruation or the absence of the same. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
RED! RED! RED!
Red, the color that symbolizes energy, strength, fierceness, power, rage, passion, desire and love is also a color of life that is emotionally intrinsic to us. Would it be wrong to say that the color red is gendered? For many womxn, the color red is a symbol of fertility, pain, pleasure and stigma. All these other emotions of rage and passion are secondary. The day a drop of red shows itself, a womxn loses her mobility, her freedom.
Almost all of us will agree that menstruation is a biological and natural phenomenon intrinsic to a womxn’s body. Yet, womxn themselves, leave aside the men, partake in silently following the age-old restrictions and perpetuate it generation after generation. Womxn succumb to the larger patriarchal discourse, in fact if a womxn questions this systemic oppression, she is deemed as immoral, modern and in fact she is not worthy of being categorized as “an ideal woman”.
Isn’t idealism subjective? The female body should not be problematized or victimized for its fertility.This stigmatization impacts the overall development of womxn, shapes the discourse between the genders and the societal mindset. The origin of such taboo is rooted in the cultural, historical and religious myths circumventing menstruation.
The restrictions or prohibitions on menstruating womxn emanate from the idea of pollution and impurity. A bleeding womxn is seen as impure, and her touch is capable of polluting and causing destruction on things that classify under “pure”. This surely can be a reason given the patriarchal nature, but we mustn’t forget that India is a culturally diverse country and all its practices hail from these cultures that smell off patriarchy.
The myths around menstruation are sugar-coated with care and affection. Disguising it in the name of the gift, womxn are restricted and excluded. The rationale is to provide them rest, given the fact that womxn do all the household chores while in reality they exclude them because of the impurity notion. How skewed is ‘care’ here? The poetic manipulation of the term care by these patriarchs is a blunder.
Ironically, a womxn is excluded, not taken care of at a time when she needs care the most. The heights of paradoxes surpass the peak when it comes to society’s reaction to menstruation. This society looks down and frowns upon a womxn who doesn’t bleed as she becomes infertile incapable of “producing sons”. The society also despises a womxn who bleeds because she is impure. How oxymoronic! However, the only thing clear is the obscurity of the society on who exactly ‘to frown’ upon.
Different regions. Different cultures. Different conceptions.
Society uses cultures as a plank to justify their reaction. One of the myths believe that menstruating womxn are “living goddesses”, by which they are pure and powerful. They mustn’t enter temples because their power will suck the life out of the murtis as they will draw the energy from it. Some myths say that womxn face ‘severe pain’ because of this conflicting energy of goddesses. Some cultures narrate stories in which period blood is respected and believed to possess potent powers.
For instance, in Manipur, the mother gives the daughter her first bloodied cloth on her marriage as it is believed to protect the girl from bad health. There is a culture where a womxn tastes a drop of their first period because of its possessing power. If in Manipur, periods are seen as powerful; in Jharkhand, it is feared. Womxn therefore, destroy their clothes discreetly as they fear it can be used for ‘black magic’. Those who don’t destroy them are seen as ‘witches’. This stupid superstition claims the lives of almost 400 womxn every year. This also creates fumes of fear of using sanitary napkins as they are difficult to dispose off, which raises considerable issues of menstrual hygiene.
In Punjab, it was believed that mother Earth (dharti maa) slept for a week every month which is then seen as the period days. In the Malabar region, mother earth was believed to rest during the hot season until she felt the first drop of a rain shower. Till today, in Kamakhya temple of Assam and parts of Orissa, the rituals of the menstruation of the goddesses are still celebrated with the arrival of monsoon during the Ambubachi festival. Across South India, when a girl menstruates for the first time, it is celebrated in public.
In Tamil Nadu, this is famously known as, ‘Mangal Neerattu Vizha‘. It is a grand affair where relatives and neighbors are invited. The girl is bathed in turmeric water and stays in ‘kudisai’, a hut made of coconut, mango and neem leaves where men aren’t allowed. She is adorned in beautiful saree and jewelry and gifted with delicious delicacies. This ritual concludes with ‘Punya dhanam‘ where the priest performs ‘purification’ of the house. It is known differently in different south states like called, ‘Peddamanishi Pandaga’ in Andhra Pradesh. This celebration is problematic as it reinforces that motherhood is the sole objective of a womxn. They reduce a womxn’s life to being just a mother, or a wife, yet again.
Manusmriti, the most revered doctrine for Hindus, encompasses the daily practices and is coded as the “Laws of Manu”. Hindus believe the spirit of the words encoded in this book as for them, these are god’s words. The take of Manusmriti on menstruation, without doubt, emanates from patriarchal thoughts. According to Manu, a Kandala, a village pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating womxn, and a eunuch mustn’t look at the Brahmanas when they eat or show their presence during rituals as it produces an undesirable result.
Likewise, Manusmriti visibly indicates menstrual exclusion as a way of preserving men’s strength, wisdom, energy, sight, and vitality. Therefore, they mustn’t sleep together or converse, lest his life depletes. How fragile men are! Hypocrisy and patriarchy are two sides of the same coin. To protect men, womxn are excluded, discriminated and yet men are seen as ‘protectors’ while in reality their strength is threatened with just a look of a menstruating womxn- as spoken by ‘God’ and ‘men’!
A Life Of Stigma And Taboo
These are some of the myths given the diversity of India. What we can translate from these misconceptions is the effort of the patriarchs to justify the stigmatization of a womxn. It is a way to indoctrinate womxn into thinking that they are impure and worthy of such exclusion. It is a way to ensure that menstruation remains a taboo; any challenge is thwarted and crushed to the ground. It is a way to show that ‘nobody’ can dare challenge the notion as it is culturally crafted. You don’t challenge cultures because Indians attach more importance to their religion, cultures than humans.
These cultures however fail to convince us why we deserve exclusion, prohibition, and stigmatization. It fails to prove how a man perishes. How gods unleash hell if a menstruating womxn enters their paradise. How my bleeding makes the world bleed. Uncertainty is inevitable; how do I believe then that the mere presence of menstruating womxn produces an undesirable result? All these cultures and scriptures just serve the dictates which, in essence, are hollow. They don’t provide how’s and why’s. It’s disheartening that ‘we’ accepted these frivolous dictates without question. It’s dispiriting that still today these practices are followed in all its glory. Womxn tend to follow all these age-old practices without questioning as reverence. They want to be keepers of their ‘ancestral glory’.
Even if we are unaware of these cultures and scriptures, our actions are influenced by its subtleties. “Because ‘they’ said; because that’s what has been done since time immemorial, we must continue the practice”. All the menstrual taboos are reasoned under the garb of ‘they’ said. ‘They’ are all those who have unquestionably participated in propagating such myths and discrimination. ‘They’ are us. If these ‘they said’ practices are continued without challenge, we will be the ‘they’ for our upcoming generation. It’s a vicious cycle,- the one that never ends; the one that lives with facades and masks; the one that helps patriarchy thrive with skewed rationales in the words of the ‘they’.
All these misconceptions and myths underpin not only taboos that flare but also hint towards a lack of awareness regarding menstrual hygiene, threatening the health of womxn. The government’s inaction in tackling this serious issue is just another instance of institutionalized injustice. This taboo is a root cause of discrimination and the underdevelopment of womxn. It impacts the mental health of womxn who are posed with these conflicts- on one side they have their own ideology, on the other side the society imposes their perception.
We are a product of that generation where the controversy around Sabarimala temple is still fought. Yet another example of institutionalized oppression. Menstruation is not a social construct, it is a biological/natural phenomenon. But, the myths and taboos are a social construct; they are not natural. It’s wise to acknowledge the difference.
Featured Image Source: Contently