The Menstruating Taboo

There is still a social stigma surrounding periods, FACT. However, the range of sincerity within this taboo is huge. It is hard to fully comprehend the sincerity of this taboo until we fully understand the struggle faced by many females on a monthly basis. Whether that be girls in India questioning “Why do they tell us not to touch anyone, to sit in a separate room and eat from a separate plate when we get our period?¨, or the public outcry for the increasing of sanitation for women in Zimbabwe.  As recognised by Hannah Betts:

¨Given that they are experienced by half the population (some male wags would argue “all”) – and a quarter of women of reproductive age are menstruating at any one time – why are periods still such a taboo, still so unspeakable, even in Western societies, even among females?¨

Here I look into three key projects that are challenging how periods are viewed globally, whilst also bringing to light how far we still have to go in breaking down the social stigma many females face.

WATER AID – #TOBEAGIRL

This project was a great global journey Water Aid took around the world, reporting back what it is like ‘to be a girl’ in various different countries. Whilst in Nepal their research and photography focused on the highly engrained societal views of menstruating women. In indigenous communities, girls on their period are categorised as ‘chau’ – untouchable menstruating women. This means that their social status is lower than dogs and they are kept apart from the rest of the village due to superstition and stigma.

This chaupadi status affects all areas of their life. They are forced to eat outside the house for fear of contaminating the food of others, and only other female members of the family can bring food to them. The females are banned from using the community’s water source, making washing and basic sanitation very hard during the week-long menstruation period.

“Women and girls cannot touch water sources or nutritious food such as milk and meat while on their period, as people think they will contaminate the sources… For example, if they drink milk, then the buffalo will fall ill. They are brought plain rice and water by their family.”

It is also commonly believed that during the menstruating period females possess evil spirits and are therefore not allowed to touch men otherwise the male will get sick. This means that the young females must sleep in a ‘chapaudi shed’, which is a most dangerous injustice. Not only are the girls ostracised from society, and often very lonely, there are two unpleasant fates that may befall them here. Either the young girls will be crammed into a tiny shelter with many other menstruating occupants or they will be alone – and therefore susceptible to  rape. For whilst men are unwilling to touch the girls during the day, a common occurrence is for them to visit the huts and sexually assault their victims at night, usually after a few drinks. This photography series documents the day-to-day reality of living in a community in which men very much still dictate the rules, but also where getting your period is dangerous, unpleasant and never discussed properly.

MENSTRUAL MAN

Another country in which getting your period is still seen as a huge social taboo is India. It is often reported that India is one of the most superstitious countries in the world regarding menstruation, with young girls often lacking the education to understand the changes occurring to their body. As reported in the NY Times, young girls often believe they have cancer, a serious internal injury or are just cursed when they start bleeding regularly. Yet the reality they face is often little better, whilst society places many obstacles towards the education of women’s health, the countries huge lack of basic sanitation is one of the major barriers to female education and breaking poverty cycles.

Menstrual Man is a documentary about Muruganantham, a school drop-out, who was horrified by the ordeal his wife faced every month when trying to hide her period from him. He was also shocked to find out that this was a national endemic, in which women across the country used unsanitary techniques to stop their bleeding, all out of embarrassment of a natural function. He spent years researching and developing prototype sanitary pads that could be produced and distributed on local scales, continuing his campaign despite the social backlash he encountered from family, friends and neighbours.

The documentary touches upon many key issues faced by young women in India, firstly the difficulty of discussing menstruation without being met by hostility. However, it also looks into an issue that many young women in rural communities faced – due to small amounts of available cash and the high price of sanitation products they are often forced to forgo their own hygiene in order to feed their family. However, after years of struggle and difficulty Muruganantham came up with a solution to these problems by developing a small production machine that could make inexpensive hygiene products that could easily be made by women themselves and sold for a small profit. Not only does this empower local communities of females to become the site for their own development, it also sets up a sustainable chain of commerce that will last for many years to come.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CHECK OUT THE BBC WORLD SERVICE ARTICLE AND PODCAST ON MURUGANANTHAM AND HIS REMARKABLE JOURNEY.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD

There Will Be Blood is a photo series collaboration between VICE and Emma Arvida Bystrom. It touches upon some deeply engrained societal beliefs of menstruating women. Within modern society women are taught to cover, hide and clean up any obvious signs of their period – it is something embarrassing and highly private although a natural process that happens to half the population. Here we see Arvida Bystrom taking mundane photos of daily situations, with the only shocking aspect being visible blood stains on the women.

The concept of leaking is a situation highly common to post-pubescent women, however it is a social scenario met with embarrassment and low level of trauma. Even in the advertising world companies selling sanitary products shy away from using red, often favouring ‘clean’ colours such as blue and green. This notion is starting to be challenged, Kotex the Chinese company have started a mini web series in which they are encouraging women to talk about their periods. Always have also brought out the first sanitary towel advertisement that actually includes the colour red in their imagery (even if it is an uncharacteristically tiny dot, it is a start right?)

Whilst this photo series forces us to rethink our own relationship with our periods, it is the self-reflection that ensues after this initial reaction that is the beauty of the images. Something captured wonderfully by a comment left by viewer Donna D:

“I’m woman enough to admit it. They got me. A friend sent me the link and we had a moment of outrage and giggling and disgust and moved on. But my brain didn’t. It percolated over those images with niggling sense that I was being hoodwinked. And finally, like the veritable light bulb moment, it hit me. There’s nothing wrong or gross with any of those photos.”

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