Women in India Are Turning a Taboo Topic Into Mainstream Conversation

Girls and women are challenging the country’s long-held belief that menstruating makes them ‘unclean.’
(Photo: Adam Cohn/Flickr)
Jan 13, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Priti Salian is a Bengaluru, India–based journalist who has written for The Guardian, CNN.com, The Christian Science Monitor, and many others.

Indian women are no longer shying away from a topic that has been considered culturally taboo for far too long: menstruation. In fact, many are speaking openly after a controversial comment from the board president of Sabarimala temple drew widespread criticism and sparked a Facebook campaign using the hashtag #HappyToBleed.

“There will be a day when a machine is invented to scan if it is the ‘right time’ for a woman to enter the temple,” Prayar Gopalakrishnan, who heads the temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala, said in November when answering a journalist’s question about the age-old tradition of restricting women between the ages of 10 and 50 from entrance. “When that machine is invented, we will talk about letting women inside.”

Sabarimala is just one of several holy places around the world that doesn’t allow women of fertile age within its precincts; the belief is that menstruation makes women impure and unclean. This week, the ban has come under scrutiny by India’s supreme court.

In response to Gopalakrishnan’s statement, 20-year-old student Nikita Azad wrote the board president an open letter protesting against “patriarchy and gender discriminatory practices prevalent in our society.” The letter was followed by the Facebook campaign using #HappyTo Bleed, an effort to break down centuries-old menstrual taboos prevalent in Indian society.

And there are many: It’s a curse. It makes you impure. You’re unclean—don’t enter holy places. Don’t touch the pickle—it will decay. It’s shameful—don’t talk about it. These are just a few things an average Indian girl hears countless times about her menstrual cycle growing up. The beliefs are often passed on from mothers to daughters through generations and are still followed by 40 percent of women, according to a study by sanitary napkin manufacturer Whisper and market researcher IPSOS.

For girls and women living in rural areas, conditions are even worse: Many are secluded from their families during their cycle and, according to research agency Euromonitor, 70 percent use rags, husk, or ash to stem menstrual flow because of associated taboos and the lack of access to hygienic resources. Nearly 62 percent of girls are unaware of what menstruation is until they get their first period, and 10 percent believe it’s a disease.

The response to Azad’s campaign has been positive, spurring debates around patriarchal structures and menstrual taboos in the country. In fact, for a subject that has so much shame attached to it, menstruation was discussed openly on mainstream television and on social media:

A number of men also voiced their support, including Anshul Tewari, whose media site published Azad’s open letter.

And popular Indian author Ravinder Singh tweeted:

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While the hashtag #HappyToBleed has resulted in social media exposure on the subject, it’s not the first campaign of its kind. There have been a handful of initiatives in the past few years dedicated to creating awareness around menstrual hygiene and breaking taboos in both urban and rural areas.

Social activist Sinu Joseph addresses the issue of menstrual hygiene with girls and women in Indian villages by conducting lighthearted discussions, accompanied by an animated educational video. Joseph has personally interacted with more than 15,000 women and girls, and her video has reached millions through schools and NGOs.

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Aditi Gupta and her husband, Tuhin Paul, launched a website called Menstrupedia in 2012 for the millions of girls who have no one to talk to about their period. The website, which extended its reach last year by publishing a comic book, works as a fun and easy guide to menstruation and encourages conversations on the subject. The comic book has a culturally sensitive illustrated story targeting girls between nine and 14 years of age, and it has been welcomed by parents, schools, and NGOs as an approachable way of introducing young people to menstrual hygiene. It has since been published in four Indian and two foreign languages, with 8,000 copies sold and 4,000 available for free to underprivileged kids.