The Taboo of Womanhood
This past summer, I interned for an organization called Doris Dillon School in Cambodia, a village school dedicated to serving its surrounding community. In Cambodia, especially rural Cambodia, the stigma of being a woman persists stubbornly. Girls are not expected to stay in school; education among girls is not valued, even discouraged. Girls are often seen as a source of labor for the family rather than a daughter to be loved and nurtured. Many are forced to drop out before even finishing middle school. For girls who drop out, there is only one future: staying in the village, marrying young, and becoming mothers while they are still of school age. For generations, Cambodian village women lived that way: working young and marrying young. Girls who are either forced to drop out due to family finances or cultural pressure. Many live in a cycle of not being able to take back the freedom of pursuing life on their own terms as they are not equipped with the basic tools of learning and literacy to do so.
Menstruation, one of the fundamentals of womanhood, is an obstacle for many girls in school at Doris Dillon. There, menstration is a taboo and a source of shame. Due to both lack of access to menstruation products such as pads and tampons and a strong cultural stigma against menstration, girls often miss school on the days of their menstral cycle.
Further, the stigma is deeply rooted and menstruation is seen as a source of shame. I talked with the board of Doris Dillon about a possible source of income for the girls: making pads and selling them. We discussed and all agreed that it would be a great idea for the women at home to make money and become financially independant. However, a local correspondant shut down our idea instantly; she said that it would be a source of shame for the women and their family to be "dirtied" by menstration products and such open talk and display of menstration. Familys who hang wahsed cloth (used by many rural women during their periods) to dry outside are shamed by the entire village; association with menstration is a great source of shame for the whole family. This idea of women making pads and selling them is considered audacious and unimagineable in such a cultural climate of taboo.
Cambodian culture is not alone in its shunning of menstration. In other Asian countries such as Nepal, the taboo is even more extreme and harmful.
In the NY times article "Where a Taboo is Leading to the Death of Young Girls," author Jeffery Gettleman details the tragic tradition of hiding women away during their periods. Women are forced into isloated and poorly ventilated huts for days at a time, seperated from the rest of society as they are considered "dirty" and "polluted." Gettleman calls such huts "foxholes" as they are poorly built and tiny. Gauri Kumari Bayak, a young village girl, died in one of theses due to smoke inhalation; in the hut, she tried to build a fire to keep herself warm during the harsh Himalayan winter. Her tragic death is not a singularity. Many others followed before her and as long as the dangerous tradition persists, many will follow after her. The crude conditions of such sequestered dwellings are dangerous, especially in the harsh Nepalian weather. This practice is called "chhaupadi," translating in Nepali to someone who bears an impurity.
The root of traditions as such and the taboo of menstruation stems from a bigger taboo around womanhood; womanhood itself is seen as unnatural, undesired, and "polluted" by traditional patriarchal culturs. The key elements of womanhood and femininity--from women's bodies to women's thoughts--are encouraged and pressured to be hidden away at all costs. The Nepalian chhaupadi is a manifestation of the deep rooted prejudice against women present in many cultures. Although laws are being implemented to ban such practices, as Gettleman points out, the tradition is unlikely to stop anytime soon just by laws alone. Change would have to come through a reversal of thought and education of what menstration represents. Men alone are not at fault; women themselves also need to realize what their bodies represent and how they may protect themselves and other women against the culture of taboo. The intense social pressures that succumb women to such extreme practices can only be gradually eliviated with education and awareness of those who have suffered such as Bayak.
Gettleman, Jeffrey. “Where a Taboo Is Leading to the Deaths of Young Girls.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 June 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/06/19/world/asia/nepal-women-menstruation-period.html.