Aanya has a party at home tonight. The 16-year-old is super excited to have her friends over. She has the entire evening planned out. But then came the unexpected friend – periods. The party had to be cancelled. Is it because she was in pain? Did she want to rest and have hot chocolate by herself? Well, no. In fact, she would have been more than happy to have her friends over. Unfortunately, the period brings along another unwanted companion – shame.
Aanya lives in a joint family in a posh locality in one of the cosmopolitan cities of India. Unfortunately, her grandmother heard that Aanya had just got her period and she banned her entry into the kitchen! For the next three days, Aanya will be eating in her own room, because she is now in a ‘state of shame’.
In this day and age, does period shame still exist, particularly among the urban, educated population? Yes, it is very much there; it never left us.
We always assume that the rural population is the victim of all these beliefs of the past. But it is the upper and upper-middle classes, particularly the women in these families, that practice and strengthen the idea of period shame.
An analysis of menstrual health in India, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, reveals that 71% of adolescent girls in India are unaware of menstruation until they themselves get it. This is because there is hardly any conversation around periods and parents rarely prepare their daughters for something that is definitely going to happen. This unpreparedness leads to more shame, fear and anxiety. From a very young age, girls learn to live with the pain and shame and seldom do they seek help for physical or mental discomfort caused by periods.
This study also found that a large number of women considered periods as dirty, which is why menstruating women are often ostracized from social and cultural activities and forced to follow all kinds of restrictions. For urban girls, not entering the prayer room or a temple is a major restriction, while for rural girls it is not entering the kitchen when they are on their periods. These myths arise from the cultural belief of ‘impurity’ associated with periods.
In a recent incident, in February 2020, in an institute in Bhuj, Gujarat, 68 females were forced to take off their undergarments to prove that they were not on their period. Why? Because apparently, they had been entering the hostel kitchen and mingling with others while on their period!
We find enough references in historical texts to periods and the myths surrounding it. According to scholar Janet Chawla, author of the article ‘Mythic Origins of Menstrual Taboo in Rig Veda’, the mythological association of menstrual blood with guilt and sin, which has been repeated in many historical texts, managed to get passed on for centuries and influence public opinion in the Indian society. Most women in our country have been conditioned to believe these myths, which further strengthens the stigma attached to periods.
The most famous incident that was sparked by such historical beliefs is the Sabarimala Temple controversy. This case confronted period shame right in the face and made periods an issue of national dilemma, with lawyers trying to defend the biological phenomenon. Until 2018, the temple did not allow women of childbearing age to enter its premises because menstrual blood taints the ‘sacredness’ of the temple. Ironically, in 2015, a temple representative had commented, “There will be a day when [a] machine is invented to scan if it is the right time for a woman to enter the temple. When that machine is invented, we will talk about letting women inside.” Besides many debates across all media, in response to this, a ‘Happy to Bleed’ campaign was also launched on social media that challenged period shame and gender discrimination.
The controversy took a political turn and in February 2019 the temple board changed its stance and allowed women of childbearing age to enter the temple. However, the list of successful entries of women into the temple is not too long, and might have some discrepancies.
Period shame is a centuries-old battle that needs to come to an end. It affects a woman’s emotional state, mindset, lifestyle and, of course, mental health, which no one talks about. A large number of girls, particularly in rural areas, drop out of schools when they get their first periods. According to a 2014 study by Dasra, a charity that works on issues of adolescent health, nearly 23 million girls drop out of school annually after they start their periods. One of the reasons is period shame. Shame stems from the lack of changing facilities and clean toilets in schools, poor access to sanitary products, and the general lack of education about menstruation and reproductive health in both schools and at home. This kind of environment is also an obstacle for female teachers.
Moreover, inadequate sanitation and changing facilities increase the chances of infection. For young girls, there is also a fear of staining and being mocked by classmates. Many girls are embarrassed about the odor of menstrual blood, and they fear getting stigmatized – another reason why they are forced to stay away from normal life.
The first step is to raise awareness about periods, especially in the rural areas. As mentioned, many young girls have practically no knowledge about periods. Even their mothers grew up with the same taboos and restrictions and never discussed it with anyone, except probably their own mothers. Thus, the shame and lack of knowledge is a chain that has been building since forever and somewhere it needs to be broken. With education comes empowerment. Educating women is important in improving their health status and overcoming the cultural taboos, including period shame.
A good place to break this is starting awareness campaigns in schools, which begins by first educating the teachers. But, as mentioned earlier, many girls in our country drop out of school when they start menstruating. To tackle this, there needs to be some provision of sanitary napkins and proper sanitation facilities in schools. Girls need to be educated and they cannot hold themselves back for something that is not their fault.
An inspiring and positive story of battling period shame is the short film Period. End of Sentence. The film follows a group of Indian women who have learnt how to make low-cost, biodegradable pads, which they sell at affordable prices. Because of the shame, the shops don’t sell sanitary pads, so these women sell pads secretly – creating a quiet feminist revolution. This empowers these womenpreneurs to educate other women about menstruation, while giving them a steady income. We need more stories like these. If more women begin manufacturing low-cost sanitary napkins, particularly in rural areas or where accessibility of these products is difficult, and sharing within their community, half the battle will be won!
What about the men, shouldn’t they be contributing to this war against period shame? Just like girls, boys also need to be educated about periods, with an emphasis on understanding the biological process, that periods are completely normal, to realigning their belief systems that are filled with taboos. Most men and boys have even lesser information about periods than women in our country. Any awareness campaign around periods should include boys, just so that they understand their role – which is to support their mothers, daughters, wives, employees or peers when they are on their periods. The best role model, of course, is Arunachalam Muruganantham – the man who grew up in a regressive society with the same taboos, and yet he challenged period shame.
Many social media influencers and brands around the world are using the power of media to raise awareness and normalize talking about periods, their main message being that periods are not dirty and not something to be ashamed of. Some women have come up and shared their stories and images about menstruation; though they are often faced by the moral police who troll them or threaten to ban them. In 2015, the feminist poet Rupi Kaur, then an undergraduate student at a Canadian university, broke the internet with her menstruation photograph series. Instagram removed the ‘period photo’ from her account twice but had to eventually change their guidelines and bring the photo back. She, on the other hand, received a range of responses – from death threats to interview offers.
The more we are exposed to images and conversations around periods, the more it will become acceptable without the shame tag. No girl or woman should be embarrassed about the stain on her dress or the pad, tampon or menstrual cup she carries in her bag. If someone finds images of sanitary products or stained clothes provocative or gross, then they are simply feeding the shame. It is something that has to be exposed and talked about openly.
Kaur’s one photograph shook the world and, especially in India, it revealed how period shame is more deeply ingrained than we can imagine. The fact that we still have to confront and expose period shame speaks a lot about our social outlook, which hasn’t changed from what it was centuries ago. It also reveals that, at some level, both periods and period shame are things people in our country are ashamed of.
What do you think we as women should do to stop period shame?