Why Do India's Menstrual Taboos and Myths Refuse To Fade Away?

Menstruation, a natural biological process, has perpetually been political in India.
Menstruation, a natural biological process, has perpetually been political in India.PTI

Note: This article sheds light on the challenges faced by women and people who menstruate in India, particularly due to the cultural norms and taboos that revolve around menstruation.

Society and menstruation have been caught in the crossfire for ages, entangled in a complex web of taboos and cultural stigmas. Nowhere is this more evident than in India, where the shared struggles of women and people who menstruate during puberty and menstruation have developed a sense of familiarity with navigating Indian norms and myths. However, these natural bodily processes have been laden with fear, shame, and impurity, leading to the enforcement of taboos without much pragmatic or even logical basis. Menstruation, a natural biological process, has perpetually been political in India.

Menstruation, a natural biological process, has perpetually been political in India.
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The Origins Of Menstrual Taboos In Indian Culture

The roots of these cultural norms can be traced back to traditional associations with shame, impurity, and discomfort surrounding period blood and sexual reproduction. Many of these notions find their origins in the Brahmanical system, where rituals and taboos are used to maintain caste purity within families. The adherence to the ideals of being pure has perpetuated the marginalisation of menstruating individuals in Indian society.

The manifestation of menstrual taboos can be linked to a Hindu mythological text called the Rig Veda. According to this text, an evil being named Vritra, who was considered a learned Brahmana, was killed by Indra, the king of gods. Due to the guilt that came with the killing, Indra asked women to bear his guilt through menstruation, transforming the natural process into eternal punishment. This mythological association of menstrual blood with guilt and sin has deeply influenced Indian society over the centuries.

Menstruation, a natural biological process, has perpetually been political in India.
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Current Restrictive Practices

The enforcement of menstrual taboos has led to the exclusion of women from important aspects of daily life. These include the practice of making menstruating women shift to a separate room for a duration of three days. Many households keep menstruating women out of the kitchen and away from the household shrine, and they are often not allowed to participate in religious festivals or family functions due to perceived impurity.

Another taboo highlighted in these discussions is that women are not permitted to openly discuss their menstruation or bleeding, particularly with men. Furthermore, the disposal of menstrual products such as napkins or tampons is expected to be done in complete secrecy. Taboos also forbid them from touching certain food items such as pickles and papads due to a belief that it could cause decay

In rural communities as well, women face banishment to huts outside their villages during menstruation, and access to basic necessities like food is restricted.

Menstruation, a natural biological process, has perpetually been political in India.
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Menstruation impacts the eating practices of women as well. Throughout the subcontinent, strict dietary restrictions are followed during menstruation, such as avoiding sour foods like curd, tamarind, and pickles. There is also a belief that physical activity during menstruation worsens dysmenorrhea, although exercise can actually help relieve menstrual symptoms. While these practices have a cultural context and may be aimed at easing physical discomfort, they also contribute to the notion of women being dangerous and impure during menstruation.

With limited open discourse on menstruation, it took the absurdity of these norms, which was highlighted during the Sabarimala temple case, where the Supreme Court had to address the constitutionality of denying women entry into certain places of worship.

Menstruation, a natural biological process, has perpetually been political in India.
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Period Ritual

In certain South Indian communities, there is a celebration marking the onset of puberty, symbolising the transition of a girl into womanhood. The Ritu Kala Samskara ceremony is a significant tradition in South Indian Hindu culture. This ceremony is performed when a girl wears a sari for the first time, symbolising her rite of passage after menarche (first menstruation) or period.

A Tamil Hindu Girl's Menarche Function.
A Tamil Hindu Girl's Menarche Function. Wikipedia

However, even here, the woman is separated and excluded from the rest of the family, albeit being showered with many gifts for the supposed auspicious day. Paradoxically, these celebrations still follow the menstruation-related taboos that stem from Brahminism.

Menstruation, a natural biological process, has perpetually been political in India.
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A Reminder Of The Need For Inclusive Discourse

The taboos surrounding menstruation are more prevalent in elite caste-based communities in India. The idea of purity and sterility is deeply ingrained in Brahmanism, leading to the exclusion and oppression of menstruating women.

It is important to acknowledge, however, these challenges are a prerogative of the upper caste woman. As essential as it is to challenge and dismantle these taboos, it is crucial to recognise that this struggle is limited to certain privileged communities and caste groups in India. While the Brahmins and upper castes uphold caste purity, Dalits have no entitlement to ritual purity, highlighting the deeper complexities of India's caste-based society.

Menstruation, a natural biological process, has perpetually been political in India.
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The long-standing menstrual taboos in India are deeply rooted in cultural norms, superstitions, and religious beliefs. However, it is crucial to embrace a more informed and compassionate perspective on menstruation, making sure it does not remain a one-sided discourse.

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