Last time, I introduced the concepts of rasa and geography. I talked about how these are intimately connected. I also talked about why this connection is important for us as Citizen Geographers.
Today, I want to share with you an example of taboo geographies that a team of students researched and took action on. I will end today’s article with a plea to you – boys, girls, and everyone – to consider life through these geographic tools of analysis. And action.
Gender and geography
How gender connects with geography is a very complex topic. However, if we observe carefully, we can see the connections all around us. I’ll walk you through a simple example.
But first, two basic concepts. In our lives, we engage with two kinds of geographies in our engagement with the world. Yes, there are many kinds of geographies, but here I am looking at two.
Activity space is the space that we routinely occupy and in which we function. These would include home, school, office, our neighborhoods, the routes we take on our day-to-day activities.
Awareness space this is the space that is beyond our activity space. We don’t engage with these with intensity or frequency of activity space, but we have some knowledge of them. I have never traveled in northeastern India but I know something of that region; that is part of my awareness space.
Back to your activity space. I have spoken with many students in my teaching experience, and found that boys enjoy more geographic privileges than girls. Examples:
- Boys are allowed to go farther away from home than girls.
- Boys are allowed to go alone away from home more than girls.
- Boys are allowed more time after dark to return home than girls.
There are many such examples. Observe and note them.
Menstruation and geography
Menstruation is a natural phenomenon among non-pregnant female humans and non-human primates. It is the “the periodic discharge of blood and mucosal tissue from the uterus, occurring approximately monthly from puberty to menopause …” (Source: Wikipedia)
Interestingly, in many cultures around the world there are restrictions placed on menstruating women. Generally, when a girl starts menstruating, she is considered a woman.
These restrictions may include segregation from the rest of the community, exclusion from certain spaces (places of worship, the main home, the kitchen, etc.), and prohibition of certain activities (not allowed to look in a mirror, not allowed to bathe, not allowed to touch trees or any other human, etc.).
These practices may have started in olden times when our understanding of biology, and human biology in particular, was poor. However, with advances in the knowledge of human biology, we better understand the nature and mechanism of menstruation.
However, the traditions that exclude menstruating women often continue. These lead to reduction in the size of the activity space of menstruating women. This also causes many disruptions in their lives. It affects the lives of school- and college-going women, women employed outside the home, etc. The rules are still often rigidly enforced.
A team of three high-school Citizen Geographers from a school in Bengaluru decided to conduct a research project and develop an intervention to raise awareness of this topic and help break some of the taboos surrounding it.
They say they did this because they felt the inconveniences of these restrictions as school-going children. They also felt that these were superstitious. Therefore, they found out how the geographies of menstruating women are affected by these restrictions and how to help open up these geographies.
They conducted interviews (i.e., a survey) among their peers at school and in their neighborhoods, mothers and other women in the neighborhoods, and teachers at their school.
Here is their summary of the work they did:
The Taboo Geographies of Menstruation
Fiza Banu, Saira Sheikh, and Misbah Khannum
Class 9, Citizens’ English School, Bengaluru
Even in 21st century India, we face the challenge of taboos around the natural process of menstruation. Many women feel uncomfortable talking about it openly. There are many superstitious beliefs that affect the women’s emotional state, lifestyle, and health and hygienic practices. We chose this topic because we, ourselves, have faced many problems during our periods.
We surveyed 20 women and girls in the community (mostly Muslims, plus Tamil-speaking people from other religions). The girls were our classmates of age 15. The women included teachers in our school, and mothers in our neighborhood.
Our questions ranged from very specific (e.g.: “Where are you not allowed to enter?”) to more open-ended (e.g.: “What do you feel when when you have periods?”).
Five women hesitated to talk to us. Others were responsive. They genuinely believed that their period blood is impure, and that they contaminate holy spaces such as prayer rooms/ temples if they enter. They also told us that during menstruation they were forbidden to do things like touching trees, looking into a mirror, applying perfume, entering kitchen, etc. These beliefs severely reduce the geographies of menstruating women.
We were not ready to accept these customs. So, we designed an awareness programme for people in and around our school. We spoke to our classmates, and went door to door in the neighborhood to talk about the biological process of menstruation and why and how it happens. We tried to convince them that there is no impurity associated with the menstrual cycle.
They presented their research to a mixed and international audience at the International Geography Youth Summit – 2017 in July.
They tried to break the silence on this topic: the taboo about discussing it openly.
The audience received their presentation very well. They were commended for their boldness in taking this topic up for research and their becoming Citizen Geographers to help raise awareness about the issue in their neighborhood and school.
One girl in the audience (a student of the Army Public School, K Kamaraj Road, Bengaluru) asked, “Why did you want to break a taboo just to break a taboo?”
To this, I add the questions: “Why should anyone care? Especially men and boys? How does geography connect with all this?”
I will address in another article.
A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition of 02 August 2017.
Featured image: Cloth sanitary napkin.