Growing up in a home, where I wasn’t allowed to touch anything except the bedsheet on my bed and the utensils in which I ate, during my menstrual cycle, the issue of menstrual blood and my relationship with it, is one issue that has perplexed me as long as I remember. On the third day of my menstrual cycle, my mother would insist that I bathe, after ensuring that ‘my’ bedsheet and ‘my’ utensils are washed or given in laundry separately. Since I would rebel most times, she would wash them herself and then take a shower.
The rules on taking a shower – “the ritual bath” were also laid down with surprising detail. For instance, after completing the bath, (I usually used a bucket and a mug), I had to pour some water from the top of my head to mark the “completion” of the ritual. Also, it was necessary that I washed my hair (shampoo or soap) and didn’t just wet my hair. After the bath, my mother would give me a new towel and pair of clothes. Now, I was clean to touch everything else at home.
For the first two days of my menstrual cycle, every month, my existence at home depended on remembering every second that I was not allowed to touch anything – sit on sofa, cushions, towels, enter the kitchen, touch my siblings, my father or my mother, definitely not the temple. If I did touch something by mistake, it would go for laundry (if it was a cloth), washed separately (if it was a utensil), and I would invite much wrath of my mother (if it was my father or siblings I touched). My mother would somehow always save herself from my accidental touch, as she too would remember every second of those two days that my periods were on.
So much for the personal narrative! Yet, this is the reality of most girls growing up in India. It is not just another issue for us then. Now, I have had the opportunity to read conflicting views on the matter. It has been said how menstrual blood is considered impure across all religions and cultures. It has also been argued that there is science behind keeping women separate during this time and that it is for their own good. It has been claimed that women are goddesses themselves during their menstrual cycle, and therefore they cannot be allowed to come to temples or other public places.
One thread that’s usually common across the different narratives on menstrual blood is that it is very powerful. Whether this power is positive or negative, it results in excluding women for a certain period of time from everyone and everything around. This exclusion is mostly without the choice of the women, as they are forced to buy-in a certain narrative on menstrual blood at an early age, without the freedom to question it.
I am not going to go into whether the menstrual blood is positively powerful or negatively powerful, but what I know from experience is that most girls in India have a very negative experience with it. Imagine, going to a wedding and not being able to participate in anything, thereby signaling to the world indirectly that your periods are on. Imagine coming to the lunch table, when you are about 15 years old and being given a separate chair to sit on, far from everyone else, so that everybody including your father and brother know that your period is on. Imagine, you have visitors at home but you can’t get them water or tea, thereby having to tell them discreetly (if she is a woman) or say nothing and leave to his understanding (if he is a man) that you are on period. So much for a girl’s purity!
A girl’s relationship with her menstrual blood, something that every woman in a certain age bracket, every month, should be something left to her discretion alone. Whether she chooses to celebrate it, use it as a time to relax and not to do the daily chores, or carry on like it was just another day, should be her choice alone. The personal is political.
The saga of menstrual blood is not as trivial as it may sound. It is deeply embedded in the cultural practices of the people, which further takes away any choice on the part of the women to choose their disposition towards it. For instance, in some cultures, menstrual blood is said toattract evil spirits. This leads to excluding women from religious festivities and rituals. In other words, the strong cultural practices around menstruation means that girls just have to buy-in the narrative, even before they are mature to understand or debate the science and the morality behind it.
Denying young girls an opportunity to question, debate and make their own opinion on something as personal as menstrual blood, is denying them a choice to engage with their bodies on their terms. It is taking away a right to ask questions that affects their gender identity. We need to encourage an open discussion with young girls and boys on this topic. Making it a part of their formal educational discourse could be one solution. However real change demands a change in the mindsets of the individual who
comprise a society.
Around the world, different creative means have been resorted to break the taboo around menstrual blood. The Romanian artist, Timi Pall made an artwork out of her nine months of menstrual blood. As long as these initiatives are limited to a handful of people, we will not see the breaking away of the taboo associated with menstrual blood. We need this discussion to take place in homes, on dinner tables.
If you are a parent, an older sibling, a
friend, speak to a young boy and girl around you about menstrual blood. Tell them that it’s natural and nothing to be horrified about. Tell them that there are different notions about menstrual blood and don’t tie them down to your own notions of it or your mother’s notion of it. Your views on menstrual blood is not a legacy you need to necessarily hand down to your kids. Hand them down the culture, tell your kids why you do what you do, but always teach them the value of questioning – everything!
What do I do with you my menstrual blood?
For every month, you just show up!
They tell me that you are full of disgrace
How come I never see that on your face.
You are red, just like all other blood,
Except you come from my vagina,
And look me straight in my face.
No, I didn’t call you.
May be you too didn’t choose to come.
But tell me O, my menstrual blood,
Why do you just show up?
I don’t know if I will have a baby,
I don’t know when I will.
But seeing your face every now and then,
Makes me think,
If you like existing, nonetheless.
It will all be fine,
If they just left it to you and me,
For they call me dirty, impure, an obstacle,
With you around, you see?
I don’t know why God created you,
And yet I can’t complain to her directly?
Tell me, O menstrual blood,
What do I do, when you just show up?
Okay, let’s make a bond.
I will never complain to you,
About your form.
Whether you come from my vagina,
Or circulate in my heart,
I will see you as blood,
And that’s all.
Let the pundits and the priests,
Say what they want,
You and I,
O, my menstrual blood,
Now have this bond.
Come again soon.
I shall wait for you,
Baby or no baby,
I love you.
(Avani Bansal is an Advocate in New Delhi and an Oxford and Harvard Alumni. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)