Menstrual Taboos in Asia

BY: NIAZ

EDITED BY: MAHITHA MAMILLA


"If women used to cycle with the Moon

did we all use to be in sync

Carrying the world's rhythm inside ourselves?"

—Nikki Tajiri, She Dreams When She Bleeds: poems about periods


In the majority of Asian cultures, menstruating women are victimized due to the regressive attitudes that exist around menstruation; otherwise, it is not up for discussion as a topic, being covered in layers of shame and stigma. For most of us growing up in progressive cities, instances of certain taboos and practices prevalent in rural communities of the continent might even seem unbelievable, but thanks to better coverage through documentaries, other forms of media, and activism, a lot of illogical taboos have come to light. It is important to learn about what menstruators are still forced to go through in some parts of the world, often being excluded from social, domestic, and educational activities — several of these beliefs date back thousands of years and have shaped generations of cultural stigmas.


NEPAL


Chhaupadi is an ancient tradition practiced in some rural regions of Nepal which involve banishing menstruators, often young girls, to remote mud huts or animal sheds for the duration of their period or longer because it is believed that they will otherwise bring their families bad luck or ill health — crops may fail, people and animals may sicken or die. Ridiculous, isn't it?


"We aren't given nutritious food, and we are not treated like humans."


They are often left with limited supplies and absolutely NO menstrual protection or washing facilities are provided during their time away from home, i.e. menstrual hygiene is a joke. Without access to pads, several of these menstruators are forced to use rags to soak up the blood, which can cause serious and painful infections.


"I can't bring warm clothes to the hut — that's why I feel really cold in the winter. There are no windows and during the summer season I feel really warm."


Moreover, there have been multiple reports of deaths in Chhaupadi huts due to suffocation, fire, pneumonia, and animal attacks. Although illegal since 2005, Chhaupadi is still practiced in many Nepalese communities, that too mostly due to societal pressure.


INDIA


The menstrual taboos prevalent in my country are numerous and illogical to the point it's embarrassing. Needless to say, this neglect seems quite ironic in a land that celebrates a goddess' menstrual cycle (the Ambubachi festival which is primarily held at Kamakhya Temple in Assam). While the privileged citizens residing in bustling urban centers seldom encounter these superstitions, although most of us feel covering sanitary napkins in newspapers and black polythene bags is decency, we are not exactly unaware of them.


Strangely enough, in some cultures, the commencement of menstruation is celebrated; and in the same cultures, the already menstruating women are looked down upon as impure and filthy. Buying sanitary napkins is considered embarrassing for both men and women, and hence the secrecy (yes, this is very much prevalent in big cities). Not just a religious point of view as most places of worship prohibit people on their menstruation cycles from entering their premises (but, how can any practice be religious if it causes the already disadvantaged more detriment?) other societal and cultural influences are also responsible for turning this issue into a taboo — which undoubtedly impact menstruators' emotional state, mentality, and lifestyle and most importantly, health.


In some cultures, women bury their clothes used during menstruation to prevent them from being used by evil spirits. It is also believed that a woman can use her menstrual blood to impose her will on a man. Makes sense to you? I don't think so.


PAKISTAN


In Pakistan, 80% of women do not have access to sanitary menstrual products. According to a UNICEF report, the biggest hindrance to sanitary conditions was prevented by the lack of washing facilities. In addition, it has warned in 2018 that in some cases information about menstruation has deliberately been withheld from women as a "means of protecting their chastity. This in turn negatively impacts their physical and emotional health." In fact, for a country frequented by natural calamities and insurgencies in some areas, women should be educated and encouraged about using hygienic products since there is always the likelihood of moving to temporary shelters in such circumstances.


Traditionally women have used rags and cloth to soak up their menstrual blood, but the stigma around periods and a lack of reproductive education mean hygiene standards are poor and many contracted infections. In many areas of rural Pakistan, menstruating women were viewed as unclean and limited in what they were able to do.


Let's talk about period poverty, shall we? Pakistan's culture as related to periods has prevented the population from educating menstruators, therefore period poverty in Pakistan extends beyond just the financial discrepancies that hinder women from having access to proper menstrual products and extends into a “social period poverty” wherein women are deprived of education about menstruation. U-Report found that 49% of young women in Pakistan have little to no knowledge of periods before their first period.


INDONESIA


"I was afraid that I was sick or had a disease. I was afraid there was something wrong with me."


Like in many other countries, menstruation is a taboo topic in Indonesia. Many girls do not learn about it from their mothers or teachers and find out about it on the day of their first period. UNICEF Indonesia found that 25% of adolescent girls had not discussed menstruation with anyone before first menses and 17% were not aware that menstruation was a physical sign of puberty. Bullying and shame are an issue here too—which affects their health, education quality, and empowerment. A recent U-report poll found that 11% of girls skip school during their periods because they are teased by boys.


Just like India, menstruators prefer black plastic to cover their sanitary pads while buying them in public, sometimes even expressing discomfort at mentioning their needs at all. Advertisements are supposedly vague, leaving them with scanty ideas about how these products are to be used. Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy, a nation of economic and cultural crossroads, yet the country has made little progress in women’s health, rights and education.


Period poverty comes into play once again as they often have poor access to comprehensive information about menstruation, lack of appropriate materials to manage menstrual bleeding, inadequate water, sanitation, hygiene facilities (WASH), and harmful socio-cultural taboos. These engender reproductive health risks, low self-esteem among adolescent girls, and school-drop out and absenteeism, cultivating vast gender disparities within Indonesia.

 

Unawareness and equating menstruation with shame and secrecy has worsened the situations to where women are not comfortable with their bodies so much so that they from birth to death are unaware of their own anatomy. Moreover, this exclusion of men from period education has led to men being absolutely clueless about the importance of menstruators to be safe, clean, healthy, and rested when they menstruate, heightening misogyny even more in areas where the residents are struggling to battle it. Thus, a change is necessary by educating menstruators, subsiding sanitary menstrual products, criminalizing discrimination against them, including men in this drive, and fortunately enough, we've advanced far from where we had started.