Dear Universities, Is Menstruation Unacceptable

Published: April 06, 2015 12:51 IST

(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books and has been PI of a DST project on 'Language, Emotion and Culture'. She is currently leading another ICSSR project on 'The Capabilities Approach to Education: Access, Equity and Quality.')

When the basic emotion of disgust and the complex emotion of shame come together, they tend to indicate an area of taboo, something that is so awful that it must not be spoken about in public.  

The recent 'show cause' notice issued to some young women at Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia, as well as the official reaction to students at Jadavpur University who have used the sanitary napkin as a visible symbol of invisible discrimination, reveal how deep these currents of taboos run in our culture.

In response to the students' protest, Ashish Swarup Verma, Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University, has declared: "It is not a socially acceptable means of registering a protest... We should understand what we should display, what we should not display." These words can hardly be bettered as a classic statement of the ancient practices of taboo operating within modern institutions. So, why have some of our best universities reacted to a peaceful student movement  with such belligerence?

One of the students concerned, Joey Banerjee, very reasonably enquires what the rubric 'socially acceptable' entails: "Is the sanitary napkin not acceptable? Is menstruation not acceptable? Or are women as a whole not acceptable to society?" The Vice-Chancellor, in his turn, has answered her, as bureaucracies do, by forming a committee. Meanwhile, here's a partial answer to Joey's bafflement while officialdom probes.

Taboo, the English noun, derives from the Togan-Polynesian word, tabu, which, paradoxically, means both 'holy' and 'unclean'. The word refers to a "system of prohibition connected with... [a] restraint, ban, exclusion, ostracism." Used as a verb, it means to "forbid approach to or use of" (Chamber's).

How do taboo systems work in practice? Here's an instance: India gloriously honours its women. In Hinduism, they are worshipped as goddesses; in Islam, they enjoy full status as independent agents; in Christianity, the 'mother of God' is a mortal female. Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism and various communities in our country that may not go by religious tags all laud women as saints, poets, leaders and thinkers. Today, our Constitution guarantees equal rights to both sexes - in theory. In practice, report after report and awful accounts of violence against women tell a different story.

Notions of taboo attempt to explain how cultures manage to reconcile such opposed views. How can women at once be so valued and so badly treated?  How can they be 'holy' yet 'unclean'?

A tentative answer: several taboos across cultures are associated with feelings of disgust and shame. On the one hand, our bodies symbolize 'who we are' and strong socio-psychic pressures enjoin us to keep these 'vessels of the soul' clean, hygienic, well-maintained. On the other, these same bodies produce waste materials such as faeces, piss and spit that we have to rid ourselves on a daily basis. It is around these 'foul' materials that cultures have, over time, created  taboos.

Menstrual blood belongs to this group of basic bodily wastes. That is why some temples, iconic 'holy' places, seek to prevent menstruating women, deemed 'goddesses' in the abstract, from entering their premises when 'unclean'. It is this age-old world-view that the administrations of the present universities - often called 'temples of learning' - seem to be displaying.  They are asking, in code:

Have these women no shame?    

Now we come to the matter of shame. The simple truth is that modern cultures have not quite gotten over the deep tabooing of 'insanitary' bodily wastes. Perhaps they never will. That is the primal force of taboo.  Shame and sanitation are as deeply connected today as before. This is why we have toilets as private enclosures and also why women in our country remain the most terrible victims of not having  access to home toilets. If our women are oftentimes raped and assaulted in having to go out to the fields under cover of darkness, they are vulnerable physically as well as psychologically. Shame and economic constraints combine to keep them oppressed.  

The brouhaha around the 'sanitary napkin' protest in our elite universities has the same roots. Something  that 'should' remain under cover of darkness has been brought out into the open.

This is where the Jadavpur and Jamia controversies also relate to the fundamentals of free speech. In using terminology that is not, in the immortal words of Vice Chancellor Verma, "socially acceptable", they speak openly of experiences considered 'shameful'. Psychologists and sociologists from Freud in Totem and Taboo to Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger and Erving Goffman in Stigma have repeatedly pointed out that breaking taboos relating to conceptualizations of 'the other' in terms of food, language, gender and so forth can lead to extreme social castigation or 'shaming' across cultures.

Amruta Mitra, a philosophy student at Jadavpur University, thus emphasizes that their protest is not just about practical things like the high price of sanitary napkins or the paucity of stores selling them on campus. Rather, it is about breaking the silence around gendered shame: "Basically what we are fighting against is continuous victim blaming and shaming."

Language, food and emotion constitute some of the basic elements of living in human communities. The essential issues raised by the Jadavpur and Jamia students connect, in my view, to the much larger social context of the 'Swacch Bharat Abhiyan' which all sections of our society have embraced with enthusiasm. I think this is because we all recognize that 'dirt barriers' are pervasive in India.

Traditionally, 'unclean' occupations were relegated to certain castes and 'untouchability' was an abhorrent norm. These practices may be on their way out but they remain part of a cultural system where 'ganda' (dirty) is a common derogatory adjective, extending both to sexual abuse and bad language ('gande kaam', 'gandi batein'). Inter-caste marriages are still severely punished in some parts of the country because they break 'pollution' taboos and, linguistically,  we continue in many ways to be a 'chee, chee!' culture, where untranslatable words like 'jootha' (Malayalam 'echil'; Bengali 'etho' etc.) train us in attitudes towards bodily wastes.

Whatever the complicated rights and wrongs of these customs, the students of Jamia Millia have shown great courage in speaking out. In doing so, I believe, they address the deep problems of mindset that we must confront when envisioning a 'clean India' that does not sweep freedom of expression under the carpet.  

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