• Chinese Olympic medalist Fu Yuanhui speaks candidly about her period. (Getty Images, AFP)Source: Getty Images, AFP
Menstruation is a natural part of a woman’s life. But in several countries it’s still a source of shame and taboo.
Shami Sivasubramanian

18 Aug 2016 - 9:05 AM  UPDATED 18 Aug 2016 - 10:01 AM

When Chinese Olympian Fu Yuanhui spoke candidly about her period during an interview with a CCTV reporter, viewers reacted with a variety of emotions. 

However, Fu's candid comments hold a much greater significance that simply seeming ‘cool’, ‘relatable’, or even 'inappropriate'. For many girls and women around the world, having one’s period is shameful, and speaking about it is taboo.

In most of these situations, girls who are excluded or mistreated when on their period come from a more conservative background. However, there is still a remarkable number of households with a more liberal approach to women’s equality that maintain some form of prejudice towards menstruating girls.

How menstruating women are treated around the world
From ceremonies and parties to menstruation huts and period leave – menstruating women are treated very differently around the world. Cultural differences and attitudes convey menstruating women as both something to be celebrated and shamed, as both a journey of womanhood and as a monthly contamination.

“There are a lot of strict rules around what I can and can’t do when I have my period, though I do break them a lot because it’s too hard to keep up!” says Pooja, an Indian-Australian young woman.

Pooja is a 22-year-old professional who lives at home with her immigrant South Indian parents. Though she says her parents are liberal by most Indian standards, they do get strict about how she should behave whilst on her period.

“I date. My parents have met my past boyfriends, some of whom aren’t Indian, and been totally cool with it. They’re also all about me having a career, and being educated and financially independent,” she says.

“But the moment I’m on my period it’s all like ‘Stay away from the altar! Don’t touch the clean laundry! You can’t come into the kitchen!’ I have to wait for someone else to get me a plate of food. It’s really frustrating.”

Pooja says in South Indian Hindu culture, getting your period is considered "dirty". She isn’t allowed to go to temple or participate in religious activities, either. 

“It’s only for the first three days of your period, though. On the fourth, you wash your hair and go back to normal, even if you are still bleeding,” she says.

In contrast, there are also Hindu practices that celebrate menstruation. The Kamakhya Devi temple in Assam, India gives patrons of the temple a piece of cloth soaked in red dye, signifying their goddess deity’s menstrual blood. 

Thai-Australian Maddy says, "Women, in general, are not allowed to be less than one metre apart from Thai Buddhist monks. But on our period, women can't touch or be in contact with nuns either."

#HappyToBleed campaign challenges social taboo
An Indian woman has launched a social media campaign to challenge sexist prejudices about menstruation that have seen women reportedly banned from entering a temple.

However entering the temple and participating in prayer while menstruating are permitted for non-clergy, she says.

"But if you're a nun you're held to a higher standard. They have to be off their period to be considered pure, and participate in certain rituals," Maddy says. 

Some young women from Asian countries have tried to shed a light on the prejudice they face while on their period. Social campaigns promoting period positivity have taken off in recent years.

Last June, Delhi-based blogger Kaanchi Chopra published an artwork celebrating the menstrual cycle. Last May, a series of Nepalese girls took photographs of things they were not allowed to touch whilst on their period; the series was published by WaterAid.

So it’s clear Yuanhui's comments might have seemed amusing to some at the time, but for many women around the world, her words meant so much more. 

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