For years, menstruating women have been linked to numerous superstitions; which vary from idiotic to outright bizarre, depending on the geographical location and respective culture they hail from. A taboo topic in most societies, it is considered as both a curse and a divine gift in many places. Historically, menstruating women have been regarded with deep suspicion and even outright fear. They have been banished for the entirety of the menstruating week from the house, forbidden to step into the kitchen or praying area(s), prohibited from touching food for fear of turning it impure and sometimes even prevented from coming into contact with any household member for the duration of their period week.
In some historic cultures, menstrual blood was considered sacred and very powerful. In the traditions of the Cherokee, menstrual blood was considered to be the main source of feminine strength, and it was said that it had the power to destroy enemies. Mayan mythology dictated that menstruation was the punishment women faced for breaking the social rules governing marital alliance. In Africa, to this day, menstrual blood is used in creating some of the most powerful black magic.
While advancement in science has now allowed society to finally understand the complex nature of the human anatomy which is responsible for the monthly ovulation resulting in menstruation, knowledge does not so easily replace folklore and suspicion. Even today, menstruating women are treated differently from others – even in educated households that should know better. The myths and superstitions surrounding menstruation are given below:
A menstruating woman will “contaminate” food
In many parts of the world, the belief that a menstruating woman can “contaminate” food still prevails to this day. In parts of rural India, women cannot water plants or cook food during their menstrual cycles; in parts of Pakistan and Bangladesh, women are similarly thought to be “unclean” and kept away from things that they can “taint” or make “dirty”. This is another reason why so many girls are made to miss school across India and Pakistan every month; because they are considered “too dirty” to go out in public.
Showering during menstruation will cause infertility
The word “gazag” means to become infertile. Old Afghan traditions claim that women who shower during their menstrual cycles become infertile. Most women use sanitary napkins as they are relatively inexpensive and provide a renewable way to manage periods. However, the stigma attached to menstruation, and the highly patriarchal society they live in, means that women are usually ashamed to hang their clean sanitary napkins with their other laundry, hide their napkins by wearing them for much longer periods of time. This increases the risk of infections deadly to reproductive health.
Bathing can halt menstruation
This is a very common superstition that most women have unfortunately been conditioned to believe. The belief that water temperatures can adversely affect menstruation is highly prevalent throughout Pakistan. Many women avoid bathing –or washing their hair – during the first three days (at least) of their menstrual cycle. “There is no medical evidence to support this idea whatsoever,” said Jafri, a Health Professional, in her interview with Tribune. “In fact, I would recommend women to bathe as per normal during menses because hygiene is of utmost importance then. Lack of hygiene can lead to other related issues, such as rashes or bad odor.”
Periods are debilitating for women
There is a widely held perception in most societies that menstruation causes women to become weak; almost unable to function properly for the entire duration of their respective cycles. While some women certainly report feeling slight discomfort, such perceptions of near-feebleness are nonetheless grossly exaggerated; and are a major platform for mansplaning. To tackle these issues, many brands, such as Always, have started to come up with creative advertising ideas that question the legitimacy of such perceptions.
Menstruating women cannot enter holy temples
This is a widespread (religious) belief in a majority of places around the world, from Indonesia to Nepal. Women who are menstruating are considered unclean to enter holy places of worship, and are required to keep away from religious rituals until their cycles are completed and they have become “pure” again.
Women have “cooties” (vermin) that make men sick
In some places (such as India and Nepal), it is believed that if a menstruating woman talks or touches a man, she contaminates him and he will fall sickly after being touched / touching an “unclean” woman.
Pads need to be kept unseen, and apart from other trash or could lead to cancer
Due to the widespread taboo and humiliation regarding the topic of menstruation, women in different parts of the world (Pakistan included) are taught that pads need to be unseen from other people – especially if the woman lives in a patriarchal society. This is a major reason why most shopkeepers selling sanitary napkins also keep brown paper bags right next to the shelf for sanitary napkins, so that the customer can first wrap the offending sanitary napkin boxes in the brown paper before bringing it to the cash counter for purchase.
Some women and girls are also brought up to believe that disposal of menstrual pads with other garbage can lead to cancer or other sicknesses, according to a UNICEF report. The social prohibition on openly discussing this topic leads to menstruating girls facing various challenges in schools and other public spaces, such as feelings of shame and limited access to bathrooms, being forced to carry their used sanitary napkins in their bags until they get home and can dispose of then “properly”, among others.
Menstruation cycles are the same for everyone
Most women and girls erroneously believe that menstrual cycles are the same seven days for everyone. This opinion is as widespread, as it is incorrect. The duration of a cycle depends on the health of the woman or girl menstruating, and so it can vary from person to person. Many women also experience irregular cycles with no set dates; and sometimes also require frequent medical checkups with the gynecologist. It is highly recommended that mothers take their daughters to the doctor for a checkup after their first menses, to ascertain that everything is okay.
Exercise disrupts menstruation
Unless one suffers from a pre-existing condition such as heart disease, or any other medical condition, there is absolutely no reason why they should discontinue their exercise regime simply because of menstruation. On the contrary, exercise – as long as it isn’t extreme – has been proven to regulate menstruation and help soothe the symptoms of pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), such as cramps and fatigue.
One should not each certain foods during “that time of the month”
There is no proven medical evidence that supports the claim that women must avoid certain foods during their menstrual cycles. This does not mean that women have a free card to eat whatever they want, as it is always better to consume healthily. The main aim should be to consume the right about of protein and carbohydrates to maintain sugar levels through the week.
Pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) is a myth / cry for attention
While the common attitude towards PMS includes laughter, condescension, and generally the perception that it is just “women being dramatic” or “wanting attention”; PMS has been defined by the American Pregnancy Association as “refers to the changes women experience in the days preceding their menstrual period”; the American Psychological Association as “PMS is characterized by both physical and behavioral symptoms that occur repetitively in the second half of the woman’s menstrual cycle”; and the American Association of Family Physicians (AAFP) as “recurrent moderate psychological and physical symptoms that occur during the luteal phase (post ovary portion of a woman’s menstrual cycle) of menses and resolve with menstruation.”
These findings clearly show that PMS is anything but an overdramatic cry for help. It is, in fact, a combination of symptoms that occur prior to their menstrual period. They should not be used as an excuse to mansplain a woman’s menstrual cycle to her.
It is a sin to throw stained clothes into the bin (unwashed)
Some women and girls believe that if the clothes get stained with menstrual blood they should be washed clean before being thrown into the bin, otherwise they have committed a sin. This is a highly pervasive superstition; clothes stained with menstrual blood do not result in accumulation of sin and should be changed instantly. It is all right if they are not washed immediately right then and there; and are washed with the rest of the laundry later.