Menstruation and Misogyny in India

All definitions agree that at its core level, misogyny is a prejudice against women. However, I find it hard to fit the term into the constraints of one or two sentences, when there are numerous different shapes in which it can materialise. In the workplace, it appears in the wage gap between genders and sexual harassment. At home, it can emerge in the expectation of the dutiful housewife or in the difference in the way daughters are treated from their male counterparts. On a broader level, misogyny comes into sight when you look at the lack of education opportunities offered to the girl child, and in more severe (but common) cases, female foeticide and infanticide. I could go into the intricacies of sexual assault, domestic abuse, slut-shaming, cat-calling et al, but I would be starting a discussion with seemingly no end.

The biggest problem with misogyny is that even though I have already listed eleven different kinds of it above, there are a thousand others more where it comes from. Sexism’s omnipresence should be something that we as women are always aware of, but the sad truth is that it is so ingrained in the fabric of our lives that we are unable to recognize it at all times. A significant contributor to gender discrimination is the stigma against menstruation that is prevalent in many parts of the world.

In some regions of India, the lack of sex education and the prominence of superstitious beliefs have consistently contributed to the exclusion of menstruating women from activities varying from cooking to attending community events. Even in relatively modern households, women are ironically dissuaded from entering the very kitchen that patriarchy has subjugated them to. There are even places of worship that ban women of menstruating age from entering their premises such as the infamous Sabarimala temple in Kerala which practices age-old traditions of Hinduism, where menstruating women are viewed as impure and discouraged from participating in religious rituals. Earlier this year, a college in Gujarat allegedly forced almost seventy women to prove they weren’t menstruating by removing their undergarments. Under the college’s rules menstruating women aren’t allowed to enter the temple or kitchen and aren’t even allowed to mingle with one another. Other than being completely unacceptable, this sort of unwarranted humiliation and segregation further intensifies the deep-rooted misogyny prevalent in Indian society which can only be battled with serious reforms to education systems in cities as well as villages.

Moreover, menstruation is a huge problem in rural India where there is a lack of access to washrooms and to menstrual hygiene products. For many women, sanitary products are not only inaccessible but also unaffordable, forcing them to resort to unhygienic alternatives. The usage of these substitutes puts women at risk of infection and injury. In a country like India, with a monstrous wealth disparity, it is saddening to see that basic hygiene products are only available to the upper and middle classes.

If everything I’ve mentioned seems too far-fetched or distant to you, then try and think of your own personal experiences with menstrual stigma. The idea that women on their periods are more emotional or erratic is one that many of us are familiar with. Raise your hand if you have used the ubiquitous brown paper bag to shield your co-workers, fellow students and strangers from finding out that you were carrying a sanitary napkin or tampon with you. If you’ve been told that you’re overreacting when you voice your menstrual discomfort, you too have been subjected to the misogyny that we are all far too used to. The disparagement of discussion of women having the right to menstrual leave is yet another aspect of this problem.

The idea of shame associated with menstruation is universal, regardless of what country or class you belong to. The chief factor here is gender and this discrimination proves to be detrimental to female empowerment and autonomy. This prejudice could be defeated by governmental projects aimed at restructuring the religious and cultural ideas that are anti- women. If your government itself is anti-women, it is exceptionally hard to see any change being brought about and I can understand the frustration that causes.

If you’re reading this and wondering if there’s anything you can do to help, then yes, there is. Donate sanitary supplies to those who can’t afford it or women-centric organizations, start talking to your male friends and family about normalizing menstruation, and do your best to fight the taboos being enforced upon you.