Yeh kapde pe lage daag bhi na, kabhi kabhi jism pe lage ghav se zyaada chubhte hain.
Mujhe kum. Lekin Logon ko zyada.
(This stain on my clothes sometimes hurts more than a wound. But it affects the society more than me)
I was 13 when I got my first period. Locked up in a bathroom stall in my school staring down at my blood-blotted underwear, a wave of inexplicable shame swept over me. My mother had already had the talk with me, so I was aware of what to expect, but nothing prepared me for the awkwardness and guilt that would soon follow. That was just the beginning. From hiding sanitary napkins in anything-but-discreet black bags, to referring to my period in code words, silently denying my cramps as inexplicable “stomach pain,” to avoiding discussing my period altogether, my shame made deep inroads into my everyday life.
For many years I didn’t think to examine where this embarrassment stemmed from. I was lucky to be born to Indian parents who smashed every stereotype possible with an upbringing that encouraged us to question gender binaries all the time. My mother cared enough to have the conversation early, while constantly reinforcing the fact that menstruation was nothing to be ashamed of. Our periods were openly discussed at home alongside my father as well. This is practically unheard of in most Indian households.
Born into an educated and liberal Indian family, I have access to information and sophisticated period care. From a health and hygiene standpoint, this means my daily life isn’t disrupted by it. I have the ability to choose safe, sustainable menstruation products, and get medical aid in times of need. But I’m in the privileged minority. By some estimates, 88% of menstruating women in India have no access to sanitary napkins, and 200 million women lack awareness of menstrual hygiene.
But even in the social context, I’ve seen rampant taboos and myths related to menstruation that stifle women every day. In India, across socioeconomic classes, girls are often considered impure, contaminated, and dirty when they menstruate. This manifests in severe exclusion, segregation, curtailed movements, and dietary restrictions for young girls and women. From being forbidden from entering the kitchen to eating in isolation, these customs and mores stem from seriously oppressive notions attached to menstruation. There’s also a widely popular myth that if a menstruating woman touches a pickle jar, it will most certainly go bad. Myths like these further propagate a culture of silence, in a patriarchal society where girls and women are already mistreated.
Silence feeds shame, shame feeds silence and this vicious circle has hampered the dialogue around menstrual hygiene from reaching some of the most disadvantaged women in India.
Period-shaming gives tangible form and meaning to the extreme discrimination millions of girls have experienced, and continue to experience across the country. 39% of girls in India use just water, no soap, for washing their menstrual protection. In many cases, these are cloth pads, but can even be made of wood shavings, dried leaves etc.A further 20% of girls reported that they do not have access to a toilet when menstruating.
The silence around menstruation is so culturally ingrained that despite living in a home without restrictions, around me, I saw innumerable examples that silenced me. Extended family firmly objected to girls visiting religious places during their period, for fear of hampering the ‘purity’ of the place. We were routinely told to wear black pants to “avoid embarrassment.” There was nothing worse than the world knowing you bled!
I live in perpetual dread and avoided going camping or on field trips during “that time of the month.” Well into my adulthood, period talk was reduced to a vocabulary of disparaging words. “I’m down” or “unwell” is still a common way to escape talking to family, friends, and employers about being on your period. Why is it so hard to just call my period a period?
I’m used to carefully hiding the excruciating cramps I experience every month. I often reflect on my shame and silence, despite growing up in a home that encouraged just the opposite. But the truth is, menstruation is an easy vehicle for gender inequality. It is much easier to dismiss a menstruating woman as impure, condemn her to isolation, and forever silence an entire aspect of her femininity. But that is also precisely why as a society, we must work extra hard to shatter the silence. To speak up and not cower behind innuendo. That’s just the first step to collectively override the socialization that so often dominates even the most liberal messages we may have heard at home.