Which ancient Indian temple will surprise you? Why?
New Delhi. - Menstruation is taboo in many places around the world. In India too, women are considered unclean and are discriminated against and excluded during their days - it is believed that food and water will go bad in their hands. The scientist Monalisa Padhee fights against stigma.
Development policy online: In almost all major religions, menstruation is used to declare women unclean. For example, you are not allowed to go to the place of prayer during your menstrual period. In western Nepal, for example, women have to live in a shed during their period and are not allowed to participate in family life. How is it in India?
Monalisa Padhee: Since India is very large and religiously diverse, there are regional differences. In general, however, menstruation as part of reproduction and thus sexuality is a big taboo. Menstruating women are considered impure. During this time you are not allowed to enter the temple, should not touch statues of gods, enter the kitchen or touch pickled vegetables. Women are also not supposed to come into contact with food during their days, so they are not allowed to cook. That is one reason why daughters usually have to learn to cook at a very young age. In India, discrimination against women goes beyond religious rites. Nobody controls whether a woman has her period or not. But women themselves believe that they are impure and that menstrual blood has evil or negative powers and brings bad luck.
Conservative Indian society's treatment of menstruation reflects and reinforces the lower status of women compared to men. This has psychological and physical consequences. The devaluation of the body as something unnatural and bad or even evil leads to feelings of inferiority and insecurity. Since menstruation cannot be talked about, access to information is severely restricted.
At the end of last year, women in India protested on social media with the #happytobleed campaign that they were not allowed to go to the temple. Was that a step in the right direction?
Many Hindu temples prohibit menstruating women from entering and devout women adhere to it. The protest was directed against the statement of a temple chairman who wanted to forbid women in general from entering temples as long as one could not "scan" with a machine whether a woman was currently having her days.
The #Happytobleed campaign was aimed at making menstruation taboo. This is exactly what my work is about. Women shouldn't feel inferior or impure. If they find it enriching to gain access to temples, let them do it. It doesn't matter whether it's access to the temple or something else. Again, it is about equality and power and control over women's bodies. But it's still important to say that it was an urban campaign. The situation in the country is much more conservative, I don't think that the women here would demand a right of access to the temple.
You are a scientist with a doctorate in biomedicine. Why are you interested in menstruation and how to deal with it in rural India?
I myself come from a small town in the east Indian state of Orissa. I still remember exactly how irritating and confusing it was when I myself only had a partial knowledge of menstruation. My mother couldn't tell me much about it. I remember a friend who told me when I got my period for the first time that I could get pregnant now. I didn't get it right and thought I was pregnant. Of course, I was really scared. I had no idea where children came from and I didn't know anything.
But I've always been concerned with it and just read and absorbed everything I could find. I started talking to friends about it. I learned more from exchanging ideas with others than from books.
How did your commitment as a "menstruation activist" come about from this?
Through the “Youth for India” program of the Indian government, which places young Indians in various social projects for a year, I was given the opportunity to develop an educational project on menstrual hygiene and health for women and girls. The girls are between 11 and 15 years old and I reach them and older women through schools and social projects that work on other topics in their villages.
What is your experience?
Attitudes are often very conservative in rural areas. Talking about a topic like menstruation in general is much more frowned upon there and also filled with shame. I had expected that I would be confronted with completely different stories again in the country. But then I was surprised at how shy the girls in particular are and what superstition is still deeply anchored.
In some parts of the country, women are not allowed to drink the same water as the rest of the family. Some also believe it is a bad omen to look in the mirror during this time.
In Karnataka, women say that if they burn their sanitary towels they would get a rash. In Bihar, on the other hand, women firmly believe that if they burn their sanitary napkins, their husbands die. So far it has been impossible to talk them out of it. Neither of them would risk "killing" their husbands. I have to accept that.
What do you want to achieve with the educational work?
Of course, spoiled food is easier to risk than death or a rash. The problem is also that this superstition is very anchored and the origin is mostly unclear. If I knew where these stories came from, it would be easier to take them apart and refute them.
I don't see my job as saying that everything is wrong. I try to convince them with facts. I ask how it can be that something of one's own body can be impure. I declare that menstruation is a biological process that has to do with reproduction. Other parts of the body are not unclean either. To explain that shakes her conviction.
Throwing scientific facts out of your mind is useless and would also overwhelm or even insult you. I want you to come to the result yourself and consider whether you are really unclean. I see it as a slow process. I'm interested in food for thought. I hope they don't tell their daughters that they are unclean.
What does your work look like in concrete terms?
I have developed six workshop units in which I try to create a relaxed and safe atmosphere. It's important to build trust and take superstitions seriously. During the first meeting, I just listened. We later discussed what myths we can refute.
I have a science background, so I love to experiment. I asked the participants to do the same. Do pickles get really bad if you touch them while they're on their own days? I was able to convince them to experiment with small amounts.
It is easier to talk about anatomy and the cycle after we get to know each other better. I try to convey that all parts of the body are the same. Talking about arms and legs or genital organs shouldn't make any difference.
With the help of comics and small films, I can convey the information in a way that women and girls can understand. Of course, this is very complex for illiterate women and a lot of knowledge at once. Some have a vague idea that menstruation is related to having children.
I have the women and girls draw what they understand and we make bracelets with beads to represent the cycle. In general, women are more interested in contraception methods and girls are more interested in overcoming superstition and getting information at all. The taboo means that the girls have no contact person for questions and are often surprised by their first period and think they are going to die.
Is hygiene a problem in the country?
Like almost everywhere in India, garbage is mostly incinerated. Women often burn sanitary napkins or whatever material they use to make sanitary napkins. It is also the ideal solution for them to get rid of the evidence of their menstruation.
Many women also throw the sanitary towels into the river. I explained to them that this is not a good thing, but it's hard to come up with alternatives. Especially when burning isn't an option. Access to health care and hygienic products is also problematic. Most women have disposable pads, reusable pads, or they use old cloth. I educate them about hygiene rules and try to take their shame off before going to the doctor. Of course, if the nearest doctor is too far away, there is nothing I can do.
How do the men deal with your work and the topic in general?
The women are very shy and do not want to talk to men. But after a while they felt more confident and went to the doctor alone, for example. Before that, I always had to come along and speak for her. I didn't get to know their husbands. That would be interesting, of course. So far, I have not had any negative reactions from men to my work. But I don't give workshops for men so I don't know how they would react if they were supposed to talk about menstruation instead of me talking about my work on menstruation. That's a difference.
You are still at the beginning of the project and had the first run of the workshops. What's next?
I'm working on preparing the content better and making the workshops more interactive. I am also developing a manual that women can keep in order to pass the knowledge on to their aunts, daughters and neighbors. That was important to women.
In the educational workshops, the mood should be relaxed and positive, it is important that that comes across and that taboos and shame are overcome. Next, I'll be using kitchen aprons that are printed with the female anatomy in the workshop. This should simplify the use of the new vocabulary and reduce inhibitions. It's supposed to be fun and really make women realize that menstruation isn't meant to be restrictive. You are neither impure nor unfree.
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