Periods can be awful at the best of times. We can get cranky, have mind numbing pain and wake up greeted by a bright red stain on our bed sheets. There is also the stigma across all cultures in some shape or form. Within Indian culture, the period has been seen as a sign of impurity – despite it being a sign of your body functioning normally and there being nothing in religious Hindu texts to denote it is an unclean thing.
It may not be the biggest surprise to hear in India itself, outdated practices such as keeping schtum about your uterus lining shedding and not being able to go to the temple is common place. In many parts, women are still banned from the kitchen and sometimes even their own homes, as they’re resigned to stay in little drab huts, for the duration of their period. These huts do not always even have beds in them and women feel they have to still follow these ridiculous customs, because they are bound by society. Although in some progressive enclaves, women are now being taught their periods are not shameful, dirty and impure, there is a long way to go.
Whilst I am lucky to not be banished from my 3 bed terrace (as I probably wouldn’t survive on these south London streets!), this mentality has been exported with Indian immigrants from India and east Africa. Since I began my period at 10 years old, I was told certain things would change that didn’t make sense to me then and make far less sense to me now, 15 years later.
‘You can’t go to the temple’.
This one was almost a blessing as I had never been religious and was not fond of going to the temple anyway, so I perhaps took a little more glee in it than I initially should have. However as I got older, I questioned why because it should be a personal choice whether to attend temple, not based on whether I’m menstruating. There is no real basis for this in Hinduism from what I have seen and it is merely a cultural practice because women are deemed too impure to be in the presence of any type of god.
This even extends to giving family members that are about to embark on a trip to the temple or religious activity a hug. Yes, that wasn’t a typo. I have been told not to hug people whilst on my period for this reason. Menstruators have suffered this stigmatised form of social distancing waaay before covid.
‘You can’t take prashad’
Linked to the first one, I was told I can’t take offerings made to God. My mum gives small offerings everyday of fruit or nuts. It is easy to abide by this at home and just have literally any other piece of fruit, but it’s a different story at a guest’s house. The aunty giving you prashad, which may be a tempting Indian sweet, will be refused as your mum interjects ‘she can’t have any today’, with a knowing look meaning aunty knows your uterus’s business and thinks you’re ‘unclean’ right now.
You’ll feel under surveillance as you’ll be reprimanded if you touch any religious idols or go in the vicinity of anything holy. Besides, it’s just ridiculous bleeding dictates our relationship with God and a piece of fruit.
‘You can’t get married or partake in rituals’
There is a huge religious theme – not because it states anywhere in the Veda’s that menstruation is impure, in fact it is against this notion – but because culture has used religion as an excuse for reinforcing this patriarchal mind set. Around my sister’s wedding time, I recall someone saying that certain rituals can’t be performed by a lady if she’s on her period.
This can apply to the bride herself and any other ladies partaking in pre-wedding or wedding rituals. Again, the no hugging rule applies here too, so if your beloved sister was getting married, a strict aunty that’s been brought up deep amidst the patriarchy, may forbid you to hug each other, because of a natural bodily function.
‘You have to wash your hair and bedsheets on the third day’
From the same people that bring you ‘You can’t buy shoes or wash your hair on a Wednesday’, this rule has always felt random to me. I mean, of course I’ll wash my bed sheets if I’m having a leak and my hair twice a week anyway, but it having to be on a specific day of the cycle…no thank you.
I have been told by my aunts that after washing my hair on the third, or perhaps fifth day, I am now deemed ‘clean and pure’ again to partake in activities 1 and 2. Whilst this innocuous and seemingly random rule can appear harmless, it will make young girls and women believe their period as a whole is an dirty thing that makes them less pure, and more ashamed 12 times every year.
‘You can’t use that bin’
This applies more to India, but I noticed it after some of my relatives visited me in England. I noticed one taking her sanitary waste product to the main bin outside instead of using the bathroom bin. I think this is rooted, again in the belief of periods and any of its associated products being ‘dirty’ even though it’s fine to through used cotton buds, condoms and dental floss in the bathroom bin.
It seems to be the perfect place for pads and tampons, but this shame and attempt to conceal it as much as possible, means we’ll remain further from normalising the products needed when menstruating. Even my mum’s generation used an old cloth which was washed and reused, and access to period products in India remains a huge issue, with many girls having to miss school because of it. This can hinder equality in multiple ways as education is the key to future success in life.
‘You can’t use tampons’
Whilst this is never explicitly said, many Indians and Asians more widely, tend to use pads far more in comparison to westerners. It indicates the myths previous generations have passed down have stuck with us, leading to a silence around tampons and menstrual cups. Myths of these products breaking your hymen and them loosening your vagina stem from a whole other taboo around virginity – another thing society makes women feel wrongfully guilty about.
Although parents may not always explicitly say this to their children in the UK, the non-conversation means we may never think to buy or learn how to use tampons properly, unless our friends (or Google) awkwardly show us at the age of 25 or 30. How frustrating for when you want to go for a swim in that glistening blue ocean.
It also cuts off a lot of other options if we feel like we can’t talk to the older females in the family, as we may never know of the range of products that may be a better fit for us like eco-pads, menstrual cups, or using contraceptives to regulate our periods. Basically things that allow us more autonomy, choice and freedom in our lives instead of the rigid constraints silence and stigma brings us are inaccessible due to stigma.
‘She’s just feeling sick’
This is something that has been previously said to my relatives, when I’ve been unable to attend a function or gathering, to the men at least. The women may have been told the truth in hushed tones. My period cramps have often stopped me leaving the house due to the debilitating pain, but of course instead of telling the truth plainly, and thus normalizing period conversation within our society, they are often told ‘she’s unwell’, as if I just have a cold.
Of course, any assumption that it is just a cold or tummy ache is not usually corrected…until they see me next time and I am moaning about my own period pains. Even as a kid, I recall my mum not wanting to mention it to my dad. I never understood why, because as I got older, my dad has always empathised when I tell him I am in pain and understands more about just how necessary the hot water bottle, ibuprofen, tea combination is!
Whilst there are many issues facing women and some of the ones above seem trivial and easy enough to live with, they’re all indicators of a patriarchal mentality that we need to work on eradicating. They are all forms in which women have been constrained, shamed, pressured into silence or embarrassment, and made to feel negatively about themselves.
We need to directly challenge these age old traditions so that we can progress to a point where women feel comfortable enough to discuss their period, have accurate knowledge of their sexual health and menstrual products and not be shamed if we choose to join wedding festivities on our period. We can’t let life pass us by because of outdated, nonsensical traditions.