Pathanamthitaa district in Kerala is home to the Sabarimala temple, where the Hindu god Ayyappan, a Brahmachari (a celibate), attracts millions of devotees every year. The heavy rush of pilgrims largely constitutes men, since the hill shrine disallows the entry of women within the menstrual age span of 10-50 years. Reinforcing such attempts at protection of sanctity, the newly appointed Devaswom chief, Prayar Gopalakrishnan, made bold declarations on 13 November, about how women will only be allowed to enter the temple when a machine is invented to scan whether they are menstruating or not.
The duplicity of the statement did not sit too well with 20-year-old student activist from Punjab, Nikita Azad, who wrote an open letter to Gopalakrishnan, introducing herself as a “young, bleeding woman”. Thereafter, a massive social media campaign, by the name of Happy to Bleed, has spread, with the support of thousands of likeminded women and men, to fight against such discriminatory patriarchal discourses.
In a society, where menstruation continues to remain a taboo, the letter Nikita wrote, holds prime importance. It highlights the kind of social conditioning girls are subjected to, leading them to categorise a natural biological process like menstruation as ‘impurity’; something that women must always be consciously apologetic about, apart from keeping it a well-hidden secret.
Nikita narrates how she always kept her sanitary napkins concealed in black polythene, away from the male members of her family, and sought shops with female attendants to purchase them. “I have tried my best to uphold the sacred culture of our society,” she wrote. Yet, the same letter is reflective of the young urban mind questioning the validity of patriarchal values.
The burden of menstrual taboo is such that the space required to debate and discern its status as a normal biological phenomenon does not exist. Parents and schools, for the most part, fall short of preparing and sensitising young girls, to adapt to the changes that come with puberty. This often results in insecurities and misconceptions, at times causing girls to drop out of school, sports and other physical activities, restricting their public life.
Menstrual health, which should essentially be considered as a factor contributing to the overall wellbeing of women’s health, often becomes a matter of concern only when it interferes with their reproductive health.
The fact that only 12 percent of menstruating women in India have access to sanitary napkins, while the rest resort to alarming alternatives such as cloth, ashes, and even husk sand, underscores the extent to which the issue of women’s menstrual health and hygiene remains unaddressed (AC Nielsen’s 2011 study ‘Sanitary Protection: Every Woman’s Health Right).
Validated by most religious ethos, our social order debars women having their periods from engaging in religious activities and instances are replete to show that they are sometimes not even allowed to perform regular day-to-day chores. It is not uncommon for them to stay away from the kitchen or sit separately from family members during ‘that time’ of the month. This is rather ironic, since it is the same culture that venerates the bleeding goddess at the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, Assam.