How Severe Stigma Around Periods Has Forced Me Into Silence

Posted by Karthika S Nair in #IAmNotDown
April 30, 2017
This story is a part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s campaign #IAmNotDown to start a conversation on the stigma around menstrual hygiene women deal with. If you have an opinion on how we can improve access to menstrual hygiene products or a personal story of fighting menstrual taboos, write to us here.

Menstruation defines feminity in women. It is a sign of fertility. It is also a process that happens in every woman until menopause. Is it something women should be ashamed of or is it a change that should be welcomed in a young girl?

My menarche started when I was 10 and half years old. My mum celebrated this as she was ecstatic after hearing this news. My grandmother, on the other hand, expressed her disappointment. “Now life will be different for you and you are too young to go through this.” That month introduced a lot of changes. My mother told me about menstruation and told me what I should do when I got my periods. I should wear sanitary pads, wash properly and above all, to communicate about the same only with women. It is a shameful process to tell men. It is a secret that should be kept safe.

As a young girl, I followed what she said. I ensured that no one is around me when I went to the school toilet to change pads. After coming out of the toilet, I looked around to check if anyone is there. If someone was around, then I secretly dropped the pad covered in newspaper in the dustbin. I was asked not to say “Whisper”, “Stayfree”, “period” out loud. Amidst all this, one fine morning when I was in 6th grade, I woke up feeling a sharp pain in my stomach. I was having dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps). It was after this, I began to face the stigma and shame related to the same. I found it shameful to ask medicine from him as I couldn’t the ‘P-word’ out loud. Being a doctor, my father knew what the issue was and gave me painkillers.

During 7th grade, I had dysmenorrhea again, in class. I asked the teacher if I could go to the toilet. As I left the class, I saw my classmates giggling and murmuring under their breaths. I will never forget the looks both boys and girls gave each other, a girl is going to the toilet, OMG! They knew why and it gave them a topic to discuss. One of the girls casually came and asked me how I am feeling. I told her that I was OK. As she walked away, they started giggling which made me wonder, will they do the same when they get their periods? My best friend, one day, saw a pad (wrapped with newspaper) and she grinned at me, she even whispered to a girl next to her, pointing at my pocket “look! she has a pad! Look at her pocket“.

I faced another situation soon after. I went to the bathroom but before I entered a girl saw the newspaper wrap in my hand. She gasped with her eyes widened! I looked back at her wonderstruck and thought to myself, why is she gasping, she is over 15 years of age, obviously menstruating every month. What’s with the gasping? 

It is the culture she was raised in that made her gasp. The taboos surrounding menstruation. As women, we were raised to be ashamed about it as much as we should embrace this change. Thankfully I was born in a generation that was less severe in terms of taboos. In my native home, women were made to sleep on floors while menstruating. Their shadows were not supposed to fall on men and women who go to the temples or worship. Menstruating women are called “ashuddham” (impure).

My grandmother recalled a situation in her early teens where a girl in her class faced severe amount of teasing from her classmates because her skirt became stained. She couldn’t move from her seat and was crying. My grandmother felt sorry for her and helped her out of the seat by covering her with a newspaper. She, along with another friend, took her to a nearby house where she washed her skirt and put clean clothes. My grandmother then told her not to worry and to be cheerful. Decades later they met again at a party and recalled this incident. The lady told her that my grandmother saved her dignity that day.

I thought a lot about this incident and feared to be in this situation as I have faced whispering mockery when I went to the bathroom with the newspaper (I was probably the youngest to have periods in my class) until all of them had their menarche. I have seen other girls being teased, even by boys when they were in dilemma. Teachers further upheld this when they asked the boys to leave the class when they had to tell something about periods. During one of the sessions, in 6th grade, I said “yes” out loud when the teacher asked if we knew about periods. The girls around me gasped. One of them taunted me after the class, saying “why did you say ‘yes’ out loud?” as if I committed a crime.

Today, I believe that all the above situations wouldn’t have occurred if the taboos weren’t this severe. However, most of the times, girls are helpful to each other when someone gets periods. They lend their pads, painkillers and other stuff. But the same set of girls sees periods as something equal to a catastrophe.

I tried to be part of the minor change in terms of busting the taboos. I tell my father, straight on, whenever I suffer from stomach cramps, “Dad, I am having period cramps. Can you give me painkillers?” At one point I asked him to buy pads. I have asked my male cousins to buy me napkins and discussed the same with male friends. Due to this opening up process, things are less awkward, though teachers have taunted me for mentioning periods in front of boys.

Menstruations should be welcomed as a change. Now that a lot of celebrities from Parineeti Chopra, Kangana Ranaut have spoken up about periods, things seem to be getting better. Notably, Olympic runner-up Fu Yuanhui openly said that her periods reduced her performance in swimming competitions but despite that, she ended up the runner up!

Taboos are still prominent and have to be busted so that whatever changes that need to be made to help menstruating could be done as still in Indian majority of women don’t have access to sanitary pads and clean resources.