By Annie Fraser:
I arrived in India in January 2013, not long after news of the December 2012 Delhi gang rape was making headlines. Friends and family vociferously spoke out against my coming to India. Don’t travel alone, women are not seen as equals there, people told me. They cited examples of rape, eve teasing, child marriage, female infanticide, and more to support their idea that women were second-class citizens in India.
I did realize that many of their thoughts about women in India were misconceptions based on inflamed descriptions of events that had been spoon-fed to them by popular media, and for this reason, I took their opinions in stride. I had always heard of India being a country with potential; a country where rural villages meet urban cities, where aged agricultural dominance is being overtaken by rapidly growing IT and engineering sectors, and where unyielding, narrow-minded values are being pushed aside by progressiveness and social liberation. And so, while I was surrounded by overwhelming negativity, I kept an open mind and remained positive about the future, both for India and myself.
After coming to India, I was surprised to see the wave of public outcries and activism that was unleashed throughout the country. From personally witnessing city-wide candlelight vigils and marches in remembrance of the gang rape victim, and massive rallies and protests against all forms of women oppression, I was proud of India and the direction in which it was moving. Sure, a great deal of progress still needed to be made, but the fight for women empowerment in India was on its way.
Recently, though, I experienced something that was far off my radar, and therefore unexpected, but shocked me equally as hard as those other stories of rapes and foeticide. One day, I went to my friend’s house for pooja. After entering my friend’s house, I noticed my friend’s sister sitting alone in her room. I did not think much of it at first, but when she continued to stay in her room alone throughout the pooja ceremony, the subsequent meal, and the remainder of the afternoon and evening, I grew curious and suspicious. Eventually, I was able to muster the courage to ask my friend about why her sister had not participated in the activities with the family for the entire afternoon and evening. “She’s on her period”, my friend said, “and it’s unhealthy for her to interact with us”.
Unhealthy? My friend’s words lay a heavy blow on my conscience. I looked back to my friend’s sister and observed her sitting alone in the corner of her room, not speaking with or touching anybody. I could not help but feel bad for her. There she was, sitting in complete isolation, because of a monthly biological process over which she has no control.
Periods are not unhealthy. What’s unhealthy is raising girls to believe that their body is a curse. What’s unhealthy is associating the female reproductive system with toxicity and poison. What’s unhealthy is ignoring the prejudice and fear of menstruation from the discussion of women empowerment in India. Let’s talk about periods. Let’s think of periods as a method of cleansing rather than of soiling. Let’s talk about how periods are healthy, not unhealthy. Let’s talk about how periods mean that a woman’s body is ready to give the most beautiful gift in the world, the gift of life.
If we are as passionate about women empowerment as we say we are, then we need to open our eyes. We do still need to fight against prominent threats to women, such as rapes and foeticide, but we also need to realize that some of the biggest battles lie inside our own homes.