Social and cultural norms create some pretty bizarre trends—American culture has normalized pouring hot wax on your body to rip hair out by the root and covering fingernails with paint containing toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, after all. The aforementioned trends are beauty related, but there are various cultural perceptions all over the world when it comes to women’s periods.
Some of these period myths contribute to gender-based discrimination and can also bar women from education, jobs, and overall equality.
Here are 10 myths about menstruation that still exist in the world today.
1. Sharks Will Attack Women on Their Periods
While women may be “riding the crimson tide,” there’s no need to worry about shark attacks if a woman wants to actually go in the ocean. There’s no data to support menstruation attracts sharks. So for everyone (guys and girls) out there thinking menstruation attracts sharks, think again before you blame periods.
2. Women Will Contaminate Food
In parts of rural India, there is a myth that women cannot water plants or cook during their period because their “uncleanliness” will spoil the food. In a study done in a random school in rural India, 55 percent of girls surveyed believed they could not cook or enter the kitchen during and 4 days after menstruation or food would sour. While I’m all for more boys and men taking on household chores so that girls in India can get an education, this myth doesn’t help with that.
3. Showering Will Cause Infertility
A women in Kabul goes to the doctor to check her health during maternity. Without healthy menstrual cycles, cleanliness and properly managing periods women can risk infections that cause infertility.
In Afghanistan, the word “gazag” means to become infertile. It’s said (in old Afghan tradition) that during the week a woman has her period she cannot wash or shower or she will gazag. You’re probably thinking this is gross. It is. And it’s more than that--it’s a major risk for infection.
In many places, including Afghanistan, it’s common for women to use cloth sanitary napkins. The benefit here is that it’s relatively inexpensive and a renewable way to manage periods. The downside is women are often ashamed to hang clean cloth used during menstruation outside with other laundry. So women hide and wear sanitary napkins for too long which causes infections deadly to reproductive health. This can all be fixed if social taboos over periods are eliminated.
4. Periods Are Debilitating For Women
Imagine someone telling you to miss work every month even if you don’t feel sick. Menstrual leave is a thing, and this one is more controversial than some others. Several countries in Asia, like South Korea, China, Japan, and Indonesia have laws providing women sick leave during their period. The debate here is whether menstrual leave for women is a form of discrimination or a medical necessity.
Periods taboos are more debilitating than anything menstrual cycles themselves. Lack of access to sanitary napkins, and knowledge on managing periods for girls and women is debilitating. But, periods themselves are rarely a cause for necessary sick leave.
Yes, every woman experiences menstrual cycles differently, but only 20 percent of women report severe pain during periods. The other 80% of women reported no debilitating symptoms or pain. With the proper supplies and knowledge on how to manage periods, girls and women can be empowered to accomplish any task any time of the month.
5. Girls Cannot Participate in Class
Yeah...we have some questions about this myth.
The chaupadi tradition is a practice in rural parts of Nepal where women are literally put in isolation during their period. Again the reason stems back to “being unclean.” Women cannot be in classrooms with other students while menstruating.
The myth goes back to the belief that a woman’s uncleanliness will anger Hindu goddesses. Dispelling myths like chaupadi where 16 percent of women in Nepal are forced from their homes into isolation is a task that will take effort, education and awareness.
6. Women Can’t Prepare Sushi
According to a cultural belief held by some sushi chefs in Japan, such as Jiro Ono–a famous sushi chef with restaurants in Tokyo, Ginza, and Chūō, women cannot be sushi chefs because of menstrual cycles. The myth here is that menstruation causes an “imbalance in taste” and therefore sushi cannot possibly be properly prepared by a woman. Side note: male sushi chefs also think women’s hands are too small and warm to prepare rice properly.
Fortunately women like Niki Nakayama defy stereotypes and period taboos by mastering the art of sushi. Women deserve to pursue any career.
7. Women Can’t Enter Holy Temples
This myth exists in parts of the world ranging from Bali and India to Nepal. Women are believed to be “unclean” while menstruating and are thus not allowed to enter “clean” and holy places like temples. This is a form of gender inequality that limits women from the same human rights like freedom to practice religion that men have access to.
Girls and women menstruating are not unclean. They are normal, natural, and healthy. The myth that women cannot enter temples and holy ground is culturally controversial, and a sensitive issue. When women are treated differently because of a naturally occurring body cycle it creates shame, taboos, and humiliation towards periods that is deeply embedded into society. And that is the only thing that’s ridiculous.
8. Women Have “Cooties” That Make Men “Sick”
In India and parts of Nepal (in alignment with the chaupadi tradition in Nepal). Myth number eight says that women cannot interact with or touch men because men will become sick by touching an “unclean” woman. Some 20% of girls in rural India believe they should not talk to a male member of the family during menstruation.
And 40% of girls in India learn about menstruation from their mothers. So, if external education is not provided these traditions will persist.
9. Menstruation Is a Disease in Iran
Longstanding stigmatization in Iran has caused a staggering 48% of girls to believe that menstruation is a disease, according to a UNICEF study.
But there is hope.
A 2012 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information revealed that when young Iranian girls were given menstrual education, more than half of them started bathing when they had their periods, while others busted the erroneous misconception.
10. Pads Need To Be Kept Unseen and Apart From Other Trash, or Could Lead To Cancer
Traditional beliefs in Bolivia misinform young women and girls that the disposal of their menstrual pads with other garbage could lead to sickness or cancer, according to UNICEF. Because there’s still so much humiliation around the topic, many are told to keep their pads far away from the rest of the trash and are often led to collecting them in their bags during the school day until they get home.
The organization investigated 10 schools in Bolivia and identified that the two main challenges menstruating girls face include feelings of shame and limited access to private bathrooms. For this reason, UNICEF has implemented a massive menstrual education program in hopes of increasing access to proper menstrual products and sanitation facilities.
The bottom line is period taboos are not only crazy and ridiculous but they are a huge obstacle holding women back in many ways. It’s hard to believe these myths still exist all over the world today. But they do, and they need to be busted.
Awareness and education, especially for people in rural and developing countries, is necessary to empower girls and women everywhere. Together we can create a better world where girls believe periods are powerful not shameful.
The good news is there are people making a difference each day when it comes to eliminating period taboos. Arunachalam Muruganantham is a man in India who’s not afraid of social taboos. His own family ostracized him when he created a sanitary pad that cost $0.04 (USD). Arunachalam is just one of plenty of other men helping end period taboos.