Proscription and Prescription – Taboo and Compulsory Geographies (Part 4)

In one of the three previous articles in this series (you can read it here), I spoke about the taboo geographies of menstruation. Today, I will explore that topic in a little more detail and suggest reasons we should all care about it.

In many traditional cultures, the Indian sub-continent being one of them, menstruation is seen as a ‘dirty’ phenomenon. The blood that the female body emits is considered both physically and ritually impure.

The notions of physical and ritual purity or impurity have geographical implications, too.

These notions are the bases (pronounced ‘baySEES’; singular: basis) of the taboo and compulsory geographies. Some examples:

  • Leaving your footwear outside the house (physical cleanliness; footwear that has been out on the dirty streets will carry icky stuff into the house). The same applies to the proscription (taboo) of footwear in the kitchen in many households (you don’t want that icky stuff on your footwear coming into the kitchen where food is made).
  • Washing your feet after using the toilet and before re-entering the living space. This is a common practice and is based on physical hygiene concerns.
  • Washing of hands, feet, and face before entering a mosque for namaz, church for mass, a temple for pūjā, and so on. Again, a physical cleanliness concern.

In these cases, you can see the taboo and compulsory geographies are like the two sides of a coin.

Further, note also that physical cleanliness is made a pre-requisite (i.e., prior requirement) for ritual cleanliness.

These concepts also extend to notions of ritual purity and impurity. Here, it refers to having a spiritually oriented mind. Such a mental state is required before ritual sacred acts are performed. One example of this is the pre-worship rituals that are practiced before sandhyā-vandanam by some Hindus.

Find out what rituals are performed before the actual prayer in various religions. No, it doesn’t matter if you are an atheist, an agnostic, or a believer. This is research. Knowledge can only enrich you.

Menstruation geographies

During the monthly menstrual cycle of women in India and surrounding countries, the menstruating woman is considered ritually impure. And from that, she is also considered physically impure.

It is not entirely clear to me what the bases of these beliefs might be. At some olden time, they probably had some practical significance. Perhaps there were concerns over the way the menstruation blood was handled (old, used, cloth rags used to clean up might have led to problems).

However, as times change, those concerns also change. These days, there is much better understanding of what menstruation is and there are many methods by which physical cleanliness and health can be maintained quite well.

Sanitary napkins are among the products that modern science has given us. Read about these people who have made a difference in making sanitary napkins more affordable.

Cultural lag

Science and technology often move much faster than cultural change.

Modern medical science and technologies offer many products that menstruating women can use to deal with the issues relating to this totally natural phenomenon of nature. Sanitary napkins, tampons, etc. are examples.

When we look at the modern family structure, we find that more and more families are nuclear families – usually a couple and their children; may be the parents of one of the couple. In earlier times, families were large and lived in a common shared space. Women’s role in the daily household life was primarily in the kitchen, and caring for the elderly and the young. In those days, if women were confined to a different part of the household, there were others in the large family who would take the work of those women.

In a nuclear family, that is less and less an option.

However, modern science and technology offer both understanding and solutions to such domestic problems. Even then, the taboos persist. This is an example of cultural lag – i.e., cultural practices are slower to change than scientific and technological changes.

These advances help open up the traditionally taboo geographies for menstruating women.

Why should we care?

At the discussion following the presentation on The Taboo Geographies of Menstruation (by Fiza Banu, Saira Sheikh, and Misbah Khannum of Class 9, Citizens English School, Bengaluru) one of the questions was about why break the taboo?

The presenters argued that it is a practical necessity: There is still stigma (shame) attached to menstruation. This makes it difficult for young women to even go and buy sanitary napkins. The alternative is to ask an older woman in the household, usually the mother (remember the nuclear family concept?). However, the mother may not always be available (away for some reason, gone to work, or not even alive!).

If this taboo exists, and the young woman cannot talk to her own older brother or her father, asking them to get her some sanitary napkins, it is not just unfair and uncomfortable. It is a genuine health hazard!

Further, the discussion led to this point: if we are to be truly citizen geographers, we should care and help make the world a safer and better place for others, too. In this, there is no gender concern – we all have to do it.

For the cultural lag (regarding not just menstruation, but many other issues also) to be addressed and changed for the better, we all need to get informed and involved.

One male student in the session said, “We don’t know anything about all this.” Fair enough.

My challenge to the boys in the audience was: Saying, “I don’t know” can no longer be an excuse for inaction. We must also learn about those issues that may not directly concern us. At next year’s International Geography Youth Summit, you must present research on geographies of women’s (girls’) issues. And men’s (boys’) issues.

Equally, for the girls: You must also research issues pertaining to boys / men.

In this process, in our modern society, you are likely to find that there are more than two genders and far more geographies.

Knowledge is power! Ignorance is not!

A version of this article appears in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 16 August 2017.

Featured image: Structure of an eco-friendly (and low-income-woman friendly) sanitary napkin by Aakar.