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Simply because they menstruate, women and girls are often denied the basic resources that enable them to reach their full potential as protagonists in the establishment of an egalitarian civilization.
During their menstrual cycles women and girls have been banned from temples, sentenced to isolation in huts (which has in certain cases resulted in death), treated as unclean and forced to skip school due to the societal shaming and embarrassment associated with periods, especially when factoring in lack of access to menstrual hygiene products.
Many cultures across the globe teach women and girls to be ashamed of their bodies, and every month they receive a reminder of that shaming – their menstrual cycle. This shaming and the resultant social impacts deprive women and girls of the opportunity to succeed.
The Baha’i teachings point out that women have long been denied equality in education, which has restricted their full participation in the world:
Briefly, history furnishes evidence that during the past centuries there have been great women as well as great men; but in general, owing to lack of educational advantages, women have been restricted and deprived of opportunity to become fully qualified and representative of humankind. When given the opportunity for acquiring education, they have shown equal capacity with men. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 284.
Depriving a girl of her education is tantamount to sentencing her to that same isolation hut, where she is dissociated from society and stripped of her agency. According to UNICEF, girls who leave secondary school are six times more likely to marry young – and in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, the incidence of child marriage would decrease by more than 60 percent if all girls received secondary education.
The Baha’i teachings have a unique view of this injustice: “The girl’s education is of more importance today than the boy’s, for she is the mother of the future race …” – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 91. The Baha’i writings clearly say that if parents only have the means to educate one child, they should prioritize a girl’s education before the boy’s:
Work ye for the guidance of the women in that land, teach the young girls and the children, so that the mothers may educate their little ones from their earliest days, thoroughly train them, rear them to have a goodly character and good morals, guide them to all the virtues of humankind … – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 124-125.
The first obligation of all the Baha’is is to strive by all means to bring up and instruct their children, male or female. The girls are like the boys; there is no difference. Ignorance in both is censured, and in both stupidity is hateful. In reality, looked at with the eye of truth, the education and instruction of the girls is more useful than that of the boys; for in time these girls will become mothers and will have children. The first educator of the child, is she not the mother? Children are like green and tender branches; as they are cultivated, they grow and increase. If the cultivation is right, they grow straight, and if it is wrong they grow crookedly, and until the end of their lives they advance upon the same path. It is thus proved that if girls without education or instruction become mothers, it is they who are the cause of this loss, the ignorance, the stupidity, the want of education of many children. Strive then with all your souls to train and educate all children, above all your daughters. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 137.
Despite this great responsibility of educating her children, women are made to feel ashamed of the very biological processes that enable her to bring that child into the world:
Know thou, O handmaid, that in the sight of Baha, women are accounted the same as men, and God hath created all humankind in His own image, and after His own likeness. That is, men and women alike are the revealers of His names and attributes, and from the spiritual viewpoint there is no difference between them. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 79-80.
How can girls be made to feel ashamed when they have been created in the image of God? Not only is menstruation a blessing from God that should be celebrated – indeed, some cultures do celebrate a girl’s first period – but we should follow their lead by openly discussing this subject in order to engender deeper understanding and appreciation amongst girls and boys, not to mention women and men.
When we hush the issues up, we limit our understanding. Without understanding, we cannot expect to develop empathy, and without empathy, especially on the part of men toward women in this case, we will fail to achieve the equality so fundamental to the progress of humanity. Breaking the menstruation taboo creates the first necessary step toward dismantling the systemic issues of menstrual inequity. So long as that taboo remains firmly in place, we won’t discuss these important issues openly, girls will keep feeling ashamed, and society will continue ignoring the imperative of providing access to menstrual hygiene products. Girls will continue to skip school and miss out on opportunities to contribute to the advancement of their communities. By doing our best to reverse those trends, each of us can strive as a proponent of girls’ education, and contribute to keeping girls in school by facilitating access to menstrual hygiene products. We can all, in that way, support gender equality and help humanity carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.
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