By Barkha Batra:
It’s been six years since I started having my periods; and the learning has been more than I had imagined. And sooner than I anticipated.
As an eleven-year-old, on a holiday to Rajasthan, I visited the magnificent Ranakpur temple. As I took off my shoes to enter the temple, a massive signboard caught my eye. It listed special rules for visitors – amongst the things prohibited were smoking, and ‘ladies during their menstruation period’.
I looked up again to see if I had read it right. I read again – twice, three, four times. I had never been exposed to the idea of periods being a taboo before – and I was utterly confused, particularly because I was on my period.
I tried to enquire and was brusquely told by the ‘relevant authorities’ that menstruating women contaminate the pure atmosphere of the temple, and are disallowed. That did it for me. I felt nowhere close to being impure and refused to pander to a concept of purity based on a construct that was illogical, in the least.
The questions swirled in my head as I admired the beauty of the temple – how exactly will a menstruating woman contaminate the atmosphere? What is the definition of purity? Whose standards of purity am I being expected to adhere to? I wondered – it would be quite all right for thieves and rapists to enter temples, but not women who menstruate?
Periods are a natural bodily function – I was menstruating, but why was that any different from blinking or breathing or digesting?
I was bleeding, but I was most certainly not going to be labelled as impure.
The incident kindled my interest in the taboos around menstruation. I began to read more, meet women and girls like myself and also very unlike myself. There was a common story among most – not being allowed to enter the kitchen, touch the pickle jar, or even be banished, out of sight.
One of my biggest learning was the way our minds are conditioned, and how that stigma affects our vocabulary and behaviour – how deeply engrained the uneasiness truly is.
We are conditioned to perceive periods as a setback, not a fact of life. My friends refer to the condition as being ‘down’. Down, as if we are afflicted with some sort of disease. Down, as if we have been defeated – knocked over, without balance.I am on my period, I am uncomfortable, but not down.
At school, my male physical education (PE) teachers are deeply uncomfortable using the ‘P-word’. “Usse girl-problem hai,” they say referring to girls who cannot participate in swimming or other sports because they are on their period. The only problem here is the inability to even use the term for why I’m not playing the sport.
I am menstruating, but it is not a problem.
The other issue that has irked me is the secrecy around menstruation. It is common knowledge that when a girl buys a packet of sanitary napkins, it is always handed over by the shopkeeper in an opaque black plastic bag, the contents of which cannot be seen. The operation is stealthy – from the handing over to putting the object in a bag, out of sight – lest anyone finds out.I buy sanitary napkins, but I’m not ashamed.
Then there are the advertisements. They sell sanitary napkins, but shy away from the reality – when demonstrating the absorptive capacity of the napkin, a mellow blue fluid is used rather than showing the real deal – blood red. Never do advertisements have a male voiceover; and celebrities, who endorse every product under the sun, from deodorants to medicines and acne creams, never, ever appear in an advertisement for a sanitary napkin – even women celebrities who menstruate!
Intimacy is clearly not the issue – we have no qualms about showing graphic condom ads – it’s when ‘intimacy’ is related to a woman’s menstrual health that it becomes a problem. Is that why there are no television advertisements for tampons or menstrual cups? I wonder.
I speak for the new generation of women when I say that we’ve had enough.
It’s time for us to break the myths around the taboos, and the deafening silence around menstruation.
It is also about time that we raise a din about things that matter. Studies suggest that in our country, only twelve percent of women use sanitary napkins. The other eighty-eight percent use uncomfortable, unhygienic alternatives like old rags, sand, or even barks of trees as absorbents. I shudder as I imagine what those young girls and women would be going through even as they perform their daily functions – in the scorching heat, pouring rain or intense winter.
No wonder then that reports demonstrate that about twenty-three percent of Indian girls drop out of schools because of menstruation – these are the very girls who do not have access to sanitary napkins, or a functional, separate toilet (with water available) in their schools. We need to raise our voice to make a difference for these girls. We need to break the silence and speak up.
Women and girls in some places are estimated to lose up to fifty days of school or work in a year because of menstruation. That’s five years of a lifetime – lost.
On Menstrual Hygiene Day, it’s time we speak up. Only when we’re unafraid to confront the issue, will we work at concrete solutions.
It’s time for us to break the silence. It’s time to refuse.
I refuse to Whisper anymore. I want to Stayfree of the taboos associated with menstruation. Because when I’m menstruating, I want to truly be Carefree. Period.