A YOUNG girl told of “feeling unclean, dirty and impure” as she stood in the shower, sobbing, as she watched blood flow down the drain.
“The water was pure, while I was not,” she said. “I was overwhelmed and even felt slightly guilty for reasons even I do not understand. I only truly felt clean when I would leave the shower, a sense of satisfaction that all the dirty blood had left my body and I was finally clean.”
This young British Asian woman is referring to an aspect of her life that she cannot prevent or ignore, a part of herself that ultimately makes her female – her period.
The stigma and taboo of menstruation exists in cultures all around the world. Shameful, embarrassing, dirty, impure; these are all words that have been used to describe a woman’s menstrual cycle.
Despite sex education in schools, it is starkly evident that stigma, shame and lack of resources are still affecting girls in Britain today.
Binti, a UK-based charity that runs projects in India, Kenya and the UK, aims to smash stigmas surrounding menstruation.
Binti founder and CEO Manjit K Gill founded it after her involvement with the Cherie Blair Foundation five years ago. Working with the foundation as a mentor for a businesswoman in Kenya, she travelled to Nairobi and was shocked to see the conditions women endure while menstruating.
“One girl told me she used a chocolate box, stuffed with cotton wool, as an alternative way of using a sanitary pad. I asked if she was comfortable and she said she didn’t leave the house or go to school,” Gill told Eastern Eye.
In India’s Tamil Nadu state, a 12-year old committed suicide after a teacher publicly embarrassed her in front of her classmates, after she bled through her school uniform. The girl jumped off a building near her home, leaving a note saying her teacher had tortured her, officials said.
Only 12 per cent of girls in India have access to sanitary products and 23 per cent end up dropping out of school when they start their periods.
“There is a massive stigma and taboo associated with periods in India,” CEO Gill said, “but what we found while doing work in India is we have this massive chain that exists around menstruation in the UK too.”
Shockingly, Gill is right. Menstruating women and girls tell stories of being “hidden away” while they go through a natural bodily cycle.
“It’s absolutely true that we’ve spoken to many girls who, because of their religion or cultural beliefs, they can’t go to their dad’s funeral or their sister’s wedding. These are all cultural beliefs they’ve taken from Africa and India and brought here,” Gill said.
Binti ambassador Anila Dhami, 26, told Eastern Eye that she has heard stories from British Asian women who have rescheduled once-in-a-lifetime events due to their cycle.
“[One woman] basically cancelled her wedding and changed it to another day because she wasn’t allowed into the temple. It goes from not being able to talk about [periods] in the family to it affecting people’s lives. She’d probably been planning her wedding for an entire year and suddenly, you have to rearrange it because you’re on your period,” the journalist and activist said.
Stories such as these may seem alien to those unaware of some cultural and religious traditions, but they aren’t uncommon.
Anecdotes from the girls and women that Binti has worked with follow a pattern – they are discriminated against because of a natural bodily function, something they neither could nor should prevent.
Girls tell stories of being subjected to sleeping on the floor, being unable to hug family members as they are seen as “impure” and even being unable to attend funerals.
Shaamil Sedani, a 30-year-old volunteer has worked with Binti since June 2017. His drive comes from a personal experience when he was 15 and witnessed his aunt’s absence from her husband’s funeral.
“She couldn’t attend because she was menstruating. In Indian tradition, they bring the body to the house for prayers and she wasn’t allowed to be a part of that. How crazy is it that you can’t say goodbye to your husband? I was so angry about that because she had the right to say goodbye to her husband,” he said.
Gill said what she found shocking was that despite the awareness of menstruation in the UK, as compared to places such as India, some girls still see it as dirty and impure.
“If you speak to some of the girls, some of those thoughts are ingrained quite deeply and despite getting the education, they think they won’t go the temple because it doesn’t feel right,” she said.
Dhami, who promotes Binti’s message using her platform as a journalist, said that she feels as Asian communities are so tight-knit, taboos and stigmas can come from cultures that exist in the subcontinent and have been passed down the generations.
“Even with my generation, I have stories of people thinking they’re dying because they’ve got no idea what is happening to them and they don’t feel they can approach their parents because it isn’t something that is spoken about in the south Asian community,” she said.
Salman Farsi, the media and communications officer at East London Mosque said it was the first time he had heard about the stigma surrounding periods.
“I am aware women cannot pray during their period cycle, however, this should not stop them from visiting mosques. Calling anybody on their period ‘dirty’ or treating them any different would, of course, be wrong and unacceptable and clearly not from the Islamic tradition,” he said.
Dipen Rajyaguru, the director for equality and human rights in the Hindu Council, also said there shouldn’t be issues for girls or women who are menstruating.
“There are traditions, but I would say to women who are being stopped from doing certain things, we should not be constrained by customs and traditions that are probably alien anyway to the religion and hundreds or thousands of years old, which have no relevance to modern Hinduism,” he said.
Rajyaguru added that girls need to speak out if they feel they are being discriminated against.
“It’s a power issue over women,” he said, “It’s a woman’s choice at the end of the day. No man can or should be telling a woman what they should or should not be doing.”
Binti, still a relatively new charity, has more than 5,000 followers on Twitter, indicating that the issue is more widespread than most expect.
“[Binti] wants to educate girls. We aren’t saying ‘go to the temple’, but we are saying if you need to speak to God when you’re on your period, guess what? He won’t be mad at you,” Gill said.
“It’s that kind of change that will eradicate the shame for girls and generations to come.”