I remember that in my childhood, I was confused when I realised we were not allowed to touch women during their menstrual periods. I could not get any real explanation for this custom. Also they were not allowed to enter kitchen or rooms were gods are offered prayers.. I noticed this mostly in the ancestral home of my parents, when a large number of family members converge for some occasions and not (as far as I can remember) in my own home. Of course they were not allowed to enter temples during that time and this restriction continue even now. I was sure there were many more restrictions and taboos on menstruating women then and some are persisting.
I was reminded of my childhood confusion when I read the news of students of a University in Lahore, Pakistan, demonstrating against menstrual myths and taboos as part of a college project.
It all started with a simple college assignment at Beaconhouse National University (BNU) in Lahore. A group of girls, and boys, decided to protest against the stigmatisation of menstruation and the ‘sharmindagi‘ (shame) attached to it.
The protest, held on April 7 and April 8, aimed to encourage the public at large to accept menstruation as a normal fact of life, instead of treating it as a “dirty little secret” and brown-bagging sanitary pads at grocery stores.
Students Mavera Rahim, Eman Suleman, Mehsum Basharat, Noor Fatima, Sherbaz Lehri and Asad Sheikh from the Department of Information & Technology and Liberal Arts at BNU set out to break this taboo in Pakistan by placing 25 sanitary pads on their university’s wall with important facts about periods and the various reasons why people consider it “gross, weird, or wrong”.
“This is not a campaign; this was merely an aesthetically-based protest as a class project. We chose this because Eman and I feel women face a lot of stigmatisation and ridicule for menstruation, something they have no control over,” Rahim told The Express Tribune.
“Firstly, the protest was against the stigma attached to menstruation and the sharmindagi with which we discuss it. We are made to put pads in brown paper bags when we buy them, we are made to talk about periods in hushed voices as if it’s a dirty secret, and all in all, made to act as if it is something we should hide more so than other bodily functions, when it’s really a natural part of our biology. Several women contract diseases because they are not fully informed of hygienic practices when it comes to menstruation and very few people will actually discuss it,” she wrote in a post on Facebook.
The taboos and shaming due to menstruation that women face now is much less compared to past. These students of an elite University, coming as they are from an urban educated upper class background, must be facing much less taboos than their counterparts from rural, poorer and less educated families. The latter probably won’t be allowed to carry out such a protest. A large number of girls in this part of the world is even made to drop out from schools when they attain menarche. Studies show around 23 % of girls in India stop formal education at that time.
This protest is a welcome move, as they could generate a pubic debate on this issue, so that soon we can hope that all such irrational and oppressive beliefs will become extinct.