I remember the first time I got my period. It was 10 years back when I was returning from a bhajan (religious gathering) at my aunt’s home. I was nervous as well as excited for having started this new phase of life. It was only months before that we were educated at school about menstruation, in a one hour workshop held exclusively for girls. That was the most satisfactory one hour of my life. It cleared all my doubts and answered all my questions (that I had at that age) regarding periods. Questions that my mother wouldn’t answer until the ‘time comes’, rumours and myths that I heard from the whispers of young girls who had elder sisters, and the curiosity that aroused when seeing the sanitary pad advertisements on TV, before my mom would hastily change the channel without uttering a word, everything was answered in that one hour workshop.
I was excited because finally I could be included in the hushed up discussions that took place among my adolescent and adult female friends and relatives. At last, nature had revealed its secret to me and I got to be a part of it!
In our culture, the onset of menses is widely celebrated with an exuberant function followed by a grand feast.
I longed for that ‘special treatment’ that my cousins got during family meetings when they were menstruating. Most importantly, I eagerly awaited the ‘coming of age’ ceremony where I would be dressed in semi bridal attire, adorned with golden jewellery, and given loads of sweets and gifts.
In our culture (and in the majority of South India), the onset of menses is widely celebrated with an exuberant function followed by a grand feast. The function can be comparable to a small scale wedding sans the bridegroom. The intention behind this ceremony is to welcome the girl into womanhood with open arms and encourage her to be happy and confident about the changes in her body and to embrace her feminity.
Just like in child marriages, where little girls are lured into an ever-lasting marital bond by the material comforts that come with the wedding ceremony (clothing, gold, and festivities) that last for not more than a day, girls who enter puberty secretly look forward to that one big day, where their dreams of becoming a princess would be fulfilled. Sadly, little do they know that period (as the name suggests) is not a one-time visitor, that they’ll have to bleed every (almost) month thereafter for a majority of their lifetimes, and that their subsequent bleeding sessions would be received with extreme disgust and alienation.
Sadly, little do they know that their subsequent bleeding sessions would be received with extreme disgust and alienation.
Coming from an orthodox family background, I was politely given a set of instructions to follow at home during my periods. These rules were quite absurd to me which included things like not to touch anyone at home, not to touch or use the furniture that is used by the rest of the inmates of the house, not to touch the common water pot, or the food (food and water were served to me separately), to wash my hair only on the fourth and fifth days of my period (after which, I would magically regain my purity!), and most importantly, not to go near anything that is religious. Since I was still living under the notion of the ‘princess treatment’ that I got during the first month of my period, I ardently followed all these rules without question, thinking that they made me feel special. Due to the severity of these rules, I had to confine myself to my bed throughout the entire duration of my period when I was at home because it was the only piece of furniture that would be untouched by others. As months passed, I started to realize that I was made to feel guilty whenever I broke any of those rules. I realized that I was being treated like an outcast in my own home. I was completely isolated and frowned upon whenever I got my period during festivals and functions.
I was completely isolated and frowned upon whenever I got my period during festivals and functions.
For almost five years, I followed every instruction put to me without question. I too believed that periods made me impure. The more I believed it, the stronger the rules became. I repulsed my own body and I despised periods to the extent that there were often thoughts of getting my uterus removed to get rid of the discrimination that I underwent! Apart from the intense menstrual cramps that I had to go through, being treated like a leper during those days of the month unknowingly increased my anger towards womanhood.
It was only after the advent of the household internet and the exposure to self-help books that I realized the impact of the ‘period taboo’ on my mind and body. That was when I started to break the shackles that bound me. Though the Sun had just dawned on me, the rest of the world around me was still living in darkness. Forget about sunshine, they did not even know that the Sun existed! Even today, I find educated girls (and women) having poor knowledge on the topics of menstruation, sanitation, and reproduction.
Even today, I find educated women having poor knowledge on the topics of menstruation, sanitation, and reproduction.
A girl dressed in a crop top and shorts, with her hair straightened and let loose, with her fingernails perfectly trimmed and manicured, wearing a bag that says obscene slang words on it, still rushes to the bathroom to wash her hair the moment she gets her period (an age-old superstition) and flushes her pad ignoring the warnings written on the packaging. And yet such girls take immense pride in calling themselves ‘modern ’.
‘Not all girls are like you Sameera, they are very broad-minded. They booze and smoke and they aren’t conservative like you’ said a guy to me recently in Bangalore, in the midst of the stories of his modern family equipped with a mini bar at home. Little did he know that some of these very ‘broad-minded’ girls religiously follow these customs, practices, and superstitions (not only during menstruation!) without suspicion. They incorporate the latest fashion statement and stay up to date with the newest product launches by Revlon and Maybelline (or Mac and Sephora?), but are unaware (or refrain from trying) of environment-friendly, alternative sanitary products like menstrual cups and cloth pads. Modern from the outside, rotting on the inside.
Modernity (as the world calls it) and broad-mindedness are two different entities altogether. Just because a girl is austere in appearance, it does not mean that she’s conservative in thought and action, and vice-versa.
..it is a shame to the womankind and its struggles to justice when we loathe our own bodies and believe that our natural processes make us inferior and powerless, whereas it is quite the opposite.
One might ask me, ‘What harm does it do by following the rules?’ On the facade, there’s no harm in following these age-old practices of discrimination and neglect, if the girl voluntarily chooses to do so, out of sheer ignorance and innocence. But in this day and age, where women are educated on par with men, where women are fighting for their rights to equality, it is a shame to the womankind and its struggles to justice when we loathe our own bodies and believe that our natural processes make us inferior and powerless, whereas it is quite the opposite. We are living in a retarded society where instead of educating the poor and uneducated girls regarding sanitation and self-worth, we ourselves promote these nonsensical practices from generation to generation. By ‘we’ I mean both men and women.
The role of Men:
Men have a very crucial role to play in this matter. In a patriarchal society like ours, these rules of untouchability during menstruation were set by the men from the upper castes, the priests and the purohits, the theologists and the philosophers, in the name of God and religion. Although the original intent for these rules was to allow the woman to take rest during her menstruation, owing to the physical pain and the hormonal changes that she goes through, the practices were manipulated as time passed and became so severe that the very sight of a menstruating woman was seen as a bad omen. Not only did the women consent to these practices and make themselves even more inferior in the eyes of men, but they also forced their daughters and daughters-in-law to do the same. I understand that men do not have a uterus and hence they do not feel the pain of cramps and childbirth or the suffering caused from isolation and discrimination, but I blame my heartless female ancestors for accepting these meaningless customs and imposing them on me and my society.
Menstruation is a harbinger of fertility, of tolerance and motherhood, of birth and joy.
Menstruation is a harbinger of fertility, of tolerance and motherhood, of birth and joy. Why would God ever want his daughters to be ashamed and disgusted by his gift of feminity and maternity? Condemning menstruation is condemning the very process of life and birth. The latter, on the other hand, is again considered auspicious and celebrated, while the very cause of that happiness, which is due to the release of the egg (and hence, the period) is detested and shoved into the world of shadows. I am reminded of a dialogue in the infamous Television sitcom ‘Friends’, where Rachel Green, the lead role says ‘No uterus, no opinion’ to her guy friend Ross, which serves as an apt retort to these rule makers.
Period – The Taboo word
On the first day of my yoga class, five years ago, I nervously approached my yoga instructor and asked her if I could get a concession on certain days of the month. I deliberately avoided using the word ‘period’ or its synonyms. I had never used that word before, and I knew I would never use it, neither did I ever imagine writing a four-page essay on it for the whole world to read. The period was a non-existent, shameful word to me and my friends and family. Instead, in my family, we used demeaning words and phrases in our language which literally translate to ‘should not enter the house’ or ‘sit outside’ to denote a period. Since we had been using them since ages and no-one questioned the use of these words, we did not find them offensive. It was only years later when I had an epiphany about the profanity of these phrases, that I stopped using them and encouraged others to do so. Among friends, code words are used instead so that our male counterparts wouldn’t get offended or embarrassed by our freedom of speech.
The period was a non-existent, shameful word to me and my friends and family.
Back to the brief conversation I had with my yoga teacher on the first day of my class. While I was trying hard to explain my doubt through repetition of the question asked and by voice intonation, my teacher replied by asking ‘You mean, during periods?’ My heart skipped a beat and dropped into my stomach. I got goosebumps all over. She said it! She said the taboo word! But interestingly, nothing changed after that. The sun was still shining, the earth was still rotating, the universe didn’t collapse, we were still alive, and we were not punished by God! That was when my bubble burst. I realized that I had been living under an illusion all this time. What was that invisible force that stopped us from calling our periods by its name? It’s fear. The fear of embarrassment. The fear of judgement. And yet no one judged when the first period was being celebrated. Why should we fear for something that is inherent in us? After all, Dumbledore was right in saying ‘Fear of a name increases the fear of the thing itself’, to Harry who refrained from calling Voldemort by his name and called him You-know-who instead, in the Harry Potter.
I had to think twice before writing this post. I understand that some people might find this post extremely offensive, and it is those very people that I am addressing to. Usually, I write for myself, expressing my thoughts, experiences, and views about life. But this time, I’m writing to contribute to a social change. The period taboo was something that I wanted to address ever since I became a part of it. Though movies like ‘Padman’ and radical advertisements from sanitary product brands like Whisper and Stayfree are taking baby steps in spreading the ‘period consciousness’, I felt I needed to sensitize these issues of untouchability and isolation, which many boys and girls are ignorant of.
Dear fellow girls and women, whether or not you come from a modern family is immaterial, as long as you believe and follow these meaningless superstitions and practices, that make you repugnant of your own selves.
Dear boys and men, since you played an integral role in the creation of this taboo (knowingly or unknowingly), please take the charge of ending it too. I want you to be observant of the discrimination that takes place in your vicinity against your sisters, mothers, friends, girlfriends, and wives, be empathetic towards their struggles and act in defiance.
Dear fellow girls and women, whether or not you come from a modern family is immaterial, as long as you believe and follow these meaningless superstitions and practices, that make you repugnant of your own selves. Ignorance can happen to anyone (I myself was ignorant for more than five years!), but it becomes a crime when, even after realising the extent and impact of this taboo, we fail to take a step forward to criticize and question these deep-rooted notions about menstruation, and rebel against them, if necessary. It is upon us, the educated urban population, to bring about a social change, and to inspire the rest of the nation to do the same. Happy Women’s Day 🙂
Click here to read the Episode 1 of ‘The Introvert’s Diaries
Here’s my art journal video that I made on this topic, while showing the process of creation of the painting: