– GUEST BLOG BY HANNAH WHELAN –
After two months of research in India, returning to Europe was a relief. Initially I struggled to find common ground between the two places, which made for an unsettling start to my trip. Indian streets are made up of blasting Tamil music, an unceasing stream of mopeds, and a tinge of animal dung in the air – far from the bicycle lanes and clean pavements I’m familiar with. Yet, as I acclimatised, I realised how some aspects of Tamil Nadu’s colourful culture were similar to home, namely the period taboos.
The purpose of my journey was to interview rural Indian women about the experiences of menstruation, and I was shocked, horrified, and appalled at what I learnt. Indian culture deems menstruation as an impure, polluted, and shameful process. During a woman’s period, it’s illegal to enter a Hindu temple. Often women avoid touching certain foods, and foreign objects entering the vagina – such as tampons – remain unthinkable as well. Although having read about these attitudes prior to my trip, hearing it from the women themselves seemed bizarre. How could ‘bad blood’ be so deeply attached to the menstrual cycle?
But after some time, I began to understand my participants’ perceptions. Likewise to my British peer group, some of the Indian women moaned about the expense of disposable sanitary products. I also saw an alignment between my experiences from home and those of Tamil women when they described the discomfort and feeling of low self-esteem during their menstruation. Such sensations made them less likely to leave the house and continue with their daily routines. Beyond these obstructions, the hush-hush tone of voice, disgust at the thought of talking about menstrual health with men, and blood euphemisms that were resorted to, were a lot like the language that we use – or do not use – when discussing menstruation in the U.K. The period taboos flowed between East and West.
Communication is key
Negative representations of women’s biological processes (and thus, their bodies) aren’t direct acts of misogyny. Nevertheless, discourse which encourages such cultural norms and values, also legitimises women’s inferior positions in society. A woman’s physiological ability, the curiosity surrounding the menstrual cup, the struggle of PMS, and the celebration that a body is healthy and happy to reproduce: all those things should be discussed, loudly, and at length. For period taboos to break, conversations around the world need to abound.
About the author:
Hannah Whelan is a recent Master’s graduate based in Amsterdam. Her former research has explored the experiences of menstruation in India, where she collaborated with Eco Femme, a social enterprise that provide washable cloth pads and menstrual health education to rural women. For more info, read about her work with Eco Femme or get in touch with Hannah.
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