K Fayaz Ahmad
In the western world record numbers of women are CEOs, the pay gap is narrowing, and in the UK the tampon tax has just been neutralised but the progress in our society is not echoed around the globe. The world is a culturally rich and varied place, full of every creed, colour and belief, but in these modern times there's never an excuse for making women the inferior sex.
Reports came out this week that a president of a temple in Kerala has defended the decision not to allow women inside unless they can be proved to be 'clean' i.e. not menstruating. Prayar Gopalakrishnan told reporters that "these days there are machines that can scan bodies and check for weapons. There will be a day when a machine is invented to scan if it is the 'right time' for a woman to enter the temple. When that machine is invented, we will talk about letting women inside."
Just wow. I acknowledge that people are entitled to have their own religious beliefs but what does equating a woman's reproductive system with a weapon really achieve?
The #HappyToBleed campaign has responded to this with Indian women taking to social media to highlight the preposterous yet predominant view in India. Hinduism pronounces menstruating women unclean and therefore forbids them from even entering a kitchen, let alone a temple, during these days.
India is not alone. Many girls in Nepal are also made to eat and sleep in outbuildings when they have their period, away from their families. The #15Girls series highlighted an extreme example of this. Teenage Kamala is made to sleep in a shed with 'no walls, no roof, a small puddle of water in the middle from last night's monsoon' when she has her period. This happens every month. She lies there worrying about whether snakes or men will come and get her. Kamala is not the only girl who has to endure this. Again, we must respect differences in culture but when it comes at the ostracization of children who have no control over a natural function we must question that culture.
I run a delivery service called Sanitary Owl, which alongside our subscription boxes also provides an introductory box for teenage girls with a heavy focus on positive language to normalise a topic that has been taboo for too long. We will not stop pushing for a greater acceptance on this subject. For every person who questions the importance of this, there is a Kamala who at 15 years old is made to sleep and eat outside every month. Sorry, but that's just not right.
Whilst these shocking practices go on in places like Nepal, does it really matter here in the UK if we are talking a bit more openly about menstruation? So what if we pay an extra 5% VAT for the 'luxury' of having our period - which the Chancellor has now (guiltily?) agreed to donate to women's health charities. Well, yes it does because it all has a ripple effect. The recent protests in the UK that we still pay 5% 'luxury' tax on sanitary protection has resulted in George Osborne announcing in the new budget he will donate £15m a year of this to women's health charities. Change can happen, if we all keep pushing.
We live in a global world and these days we are all connected. I'm not suggesting a period crusade to Nepal or India but I don't think we should continue not to talk to the next generation of girls in our own country about what is happening with their bodies. We shouldn't be teaching them that this normal bodily function that affects half the world's population is a reason to be banished out of sight, not to be touched or to touch. Even in the UK young girls are advertised period products with the words 'discreet' and 'fresh' on them. What kind of subconscious messaging is filtering through to them? Most of the questions we have had from teenage girls is about their anxiety about playing sport when they have their period. Many studies have been done on how boys and girls are pretty similar in their attendance and enjoyment of sport and STEM subjects (science, mathematics, engineering and technology) up until puberty and then often there is a drop off amongst the girls. While there may be other factors in play let's not make a self-consciousness about their changing bodies be one of them.
So for those of you who still want to turn a blind eye to periods, or believe that it's some unclean act, here it is. Every month or so, the lining in a woman's womb (uterus) gets thicker to prepare for a fertilised egg if the woman becomes pregnant. If the egg doesn't get fertilised, that lining is released from the body as blood through the vagina and this monthly process is called menstruation or a period. That's all it is. No mystical properties that will make her start levitating. No demons that will shoot out of her vagina when she passes the salt over supper. Now let's just make sure she knows that.
Celia Pool, Co-Founder, Sanitary Owl