Tackling the taboo of menstruation

Desi women are addressing the stigma around periods.

Tell us what you think! Please fill out our quick reader survey.

Photo by Annika Gordon via Unsplash

It wasn’t until Jessica Poovathinkal had passed out from intense menstrual pain during her shift at CVS that her father acknowledged her cycle.

Many South Asian women in New Jersey are silently battling menstrual stigmas and taboos from within the community as well as their own families. Periods are still viewed as “dirty” and “unclean” within parts of the community. Cultural and religious practices, such as some temples and mosques discouraging menstruating women from entering, only adds to the stigma that periods are impure. 

For Poovathinkal, breaking the silence around menstruation within South Asian communities became a personal mission. The Philadelphia native serves on the Health Sciences Diversity Equity and Inclusion board at Drexel University, where she is striving to make pads and tampons more accessible on campus. 

Since beginning her menstrual cycle at a very early age, she has experienced severe menstrual pain, heavy bleeding and even fainting from what her doctors are considering an undiagnosed condition. 

“I haven't been diagnosed with PCOS or endometriosis, like nobody knows what it is,” Poovathinkal said. “It got to the point where my doctor was recommending I get on birth control.” 

For South Asian women, being on birth control even for medical conditions can be stigmatizing. The conservative nature of South Asian culture prevents conversations relating to sex and women’s sexual and reproductive needs from being had. 

“They sent the prescription to the pharmacy that was on my insurance,” she said. “This pharmacy was owned by one of my dad's friends who goes to my church. My mom goes into the doctor's office and goes ballistic. She's like, ‘You can't send it to that pharmacy. Take it back. You can't: They don't know what's happening.’” 

At that moment, Poovathinkal said she felt that her mother cared more about what others in the community thought than she did about helping her daughter. 

“I was like, ‘You’d rather me go through all this pain for someone who you don't even know that just goes to our church, while you know that I'm having medical issues,’” Poovathinkal said. 

When periods are kept hidden, they prevent individuals from safely and comfortably discussing their menstruation needs. In many families, periods are not openly talked about in front of male relatives with some women needing to take out the trash immediately after throwing away their used menstrual products. 

“I didn’t know when my mom or sister had their period growing up and I never really understood when my sister started getting her period either,” said Umair Arshad, a Pakistani-American in Metuchen. “I think my mom did a good job at keeping those things hidden.”

There is even stigma and misinformation around sanitation supplies themselves, such as the notion that using a tampon will "take" someone's virginity.

“I definitely noticed my mom asking me to put [pads] away in the trash can or put my pads and tampons in a cabinet rather than next to the toilet where it would be a lot more convenient for me,” said Aisha Ali, a Washington University senior from Wycoff. “She would tell me not to use tampons, but then not really explain why I shouldn't be using tampons. There's a lot of shame surrounding it.” 

Ali has served as a research intern for PERIOD, a national organization rallying for menstrual equity and combating period poverty and as a volunteer collecting menstrual items for Oasis, a Paterson based women’s center. As a South Asian Muslim, she said people misinterpret what the religion says about menstruation with cultural stigmas. 

“A lot of people have this misconception that when women are on their periods, it's impure,” Ali said. “But actually there's nothing impure about your period at all.”

Mariyum Rizwan is a reporting fellow for Central Desi.

Phir Milenge header

Central Desi is free for readers, but it takes resources to produce. If you value this work, please support our efforts by becoming a member, inviting a friend to subscribe, or sharing our work on Instagram.

Let's make this a place for all Desis regardless of background, class or creed. ❤️