The bizarro world of menstrual shame

If I were an astrologer or a mentalist eking out a living, partnering people to planets and constellations, I would want to examine the moon-woman connection. Now it may be a coincidence that cycles of woman and moon match up more or less, and if not serendipitous, I would put it down to evolution not astrology.

It had to be evolution causing some cells whether in human or coral reef to synchronise, react in a given manner to the periodic light given out by planetary bodies in space. If the cells that swim the dermis-bound seas of my body treat the moon like a calendar, then accident or not, it is to do with the way our body clocks look for a reliable anchor in the dimensions around them.

If I am to be connected by a blood grip to any pockmarked rock out in space let it be to this one; Luna, so close yet so far.

This biological rhythm as old as evolution itself is at the receiving end of some bizarre modern-day sexual politics. In my country, I am an object of intense revulsion to local religion when I menstruate. Even talking about it publicly in this manner is taboo. For this, I can expect some excommunication from family. So intensely polluted am I that I will not be allowed into temples or god rooms or near sanctified objects. A famous temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala set in the forest at the end of a steep pilgrim’s trail has banned girls and women between the ages of 10 and 50. Women have been arrested for trying to get to the top of the hill and into the abode of the bachelor god inside.

Back in college, when we discussed this particularly abhorrent temple custom, I was puzzled to find a friend, otherwise cool and with the times about most things, defending the infamous policy. When we protested, she insisted stubbornly that the religious dons were not misogynists, and their ban had nothing to do with gender discrimination. Temple authorities were merely being considerate to weakened women enervated by all the bleeding who were no match for the rigours of a sacred trek. At least, this was the argument then, however ridiculous it may sound to us today.

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The lunar eclipse of December 10, 2011 captured over Pune, India

Over the years, a powerful, influential devout woman or two have managed to famously sneak in without much ado, till temple bosses got wind of it from leaks to the media. Purification rituals were reportedly performed to rid their premises of the upstart red ghost. There are some societies in southern India where the arrival of a girl’s menses is a celebratory occasion almost like a bat-mitzvah or a quinceanera. But one such local event was described to me as ‘pagan, backward’ by a denizen of the middle-class.

The religious stigma around menstruation has inculcated a kind of body dysmorphia in generations of women. To them, a natural function of body is somehow shame-inducing, therefore spoken of in whispered euphemisms, kept hidden, and worse deemed a form of weakness.

The stains that sporadically soak through clothing barriers, blotting upholstery, shouldn’t be announcing the menstruating woman’s humiliation to the world, but these do. The intense physical pain that sometimes accompanies bleeding only heightens the sense of misfortune. Learned, internalized shame begins with early programming. As a result, the staunchest defenders of casual misogyny are often women, who view criticism of menstrual discrimination as an attack on their culture.

The bleeding woman was turned into a symbol of debility, the act of periodic bleeding used to keep her from demanding a more equitable place in the world. At least, sanitary napkin advertisements on Indian television have changed, somewhat. They still seek to sell the impossible stain-free dream, which is like selling fairness cream to the dark girl, something they also routinely do, still impenitent. But the pad commercials now show energetic young women moving about freely in the world doing jobs, unashamed, telling off their grannies for stigmatising them. Why does it always take capitalism to jettison the intolerance of religion? It would be almost ironic, if it ultimately took a viral campaign to subvert the bizarro world that is menstrual shame.

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