Males Are in a Paradoxical Dilemma When It Comes to Knowing About Menstruation

A scenario from a television commercial for sanitary napkins has been on my mind for a while now. The commercial starts with a wife waking up, and her husband gives her a packet of sanitary napkins with a smile. But does this reflect reality?

In an effort to find answers, last year I conducted a study on the knowledge of unmarried adult males about menstruation. The study covered their sources of information and their perceptions of menstruation. Among the findings, the most remarkable is that unmarried adult males hold a paradoxical view of menstruation.

What are the dilemmas?

In my study, the young men acknowledged, without any hesitation, that they needed proper knowledge and understanding about menstruation so that they could help women with this health condition. But in the same breath, they also emphasized the need to maintain privacy between men and women on this issue.

This in-between stand indicates a dichotomy between their need to know and their reluctance to discuss it. One college student said, “I can’t ask the girls about this, even if I want to because we’re taught to stay away from ‘girly’ issues.” A similar view was found in the statement of a university student who suggested that women might want to keep their private issues private.

The tendency to avoid any discussion of menstruation, it appears, largely stems from a religious understanding of the issue. While the majority of young men I interviewed saw menstruation as a natural and biological process of the female body, perceiving no inherent impurity in it, some held the belief that their religions had valid reasons for prohibiting women experiencing menstruation from fasting or praying. Specifically, they stated that menstrual blood could be contaminated and carry infectious agents. However, when they were asked for further religious explanations regarding this, they could not elaborate much.

Instead, they tried to justify their ambiguous perception of menstruation by referring to existing religious instructions for women to stay in veils, maintain privacy, and uphold social norms and values. To them, menstruation is a private issue, and discussing it in public violates the boundaries that religions have set for both men and women. They believe that women are responsible for managing their health issues by themselves, and if they face any trouble, they should tell their families first and not the men around them.

What story do the dilemmas tell?

These paradoxical dilemmas align with anthropologist Mary Douglas’s exploration of the human body. In her books Purity and Danger and Natural Symbols, she differentiated the physical body from the social body. She understood society as a beyond-individual phenomenon, which predetermines the way in which the physical body is perceived and how physical processes are experienced. She claimed, every culture assigns a meaning to body functions and parts; some of them are considered unclean or dangerous, while others clean and desirable. The concept of the body, its functions, and the meanings assigned to bodily secretions are images of society and the intensity with which it guards its borders.

In my study, the stance of unmarried adult males towards menstruation was clearly self-contradictory. They tend to view menstruation as something natural and desirable which allows women to give birth. This embodies the idea of the physical body, as noted by Douglas. Simultaneously, they also consider menstrual blood as dangerous and undesirable because their religions and the existing social norms have decreed it as such, which represents the idea of the social body.

In our society, these two ideas—physical body vs social body—are currently at odds with each other. But they need not be. It is possible to tear off the label of taboo from menstruation. To achieve this feat, we must educate people about menstruation, not based on the one-size-fits-all approach but a tailored one. We need to understand our sociocultural context and align it with initiatives to educate the youngsters about sensitive issues like menstruation. And the first step towards education is generating discussion—a discussion we all must take part in.

Rabeena Sultana Ananna is a Research Associate at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD)