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I Am A Feminist But Still End Up Whispering About Having My Period. Why?

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WASH logoEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #NoMoreLimits, a campaign by WASH United and Youth Ki Awaaz to break the silence on menstrual hygiene. If you'd like to become a menstrual hygiene champion, share your story on any one of these 5 themes here.

By Rohini Banerjee for Cake:

Editor’s note: Over 92% of women in India experience some form of harassment, yet, we hesitate to speak up. To help create safe spaces for conversations around these experiences, Youth Ki Awaaz and Breakthrough India have come together to encourage more individuals to speak out and support one another. The piece below is a part of this collaboration. We ask people everywhere to come, #StandWithMe.

Last week, during a particularly difficult and cramp-ridden day of my period, I asked a co-worker whether I could borrow a sanitary pad from her. It wasn’t an uncommon conversation, and in fact, one that I have had often with other women—asking them for pads, tampons, or painkillers—but this time, the reply I got was different.

“Why are you whispering?” My co-worker asked, slightly befuddled, as she handed me the sanitary napkin, and then, I realized something that I hadn’t in all of those earlier conversations—that, without even being conscious of it, I lower my voice while talking about my periods in public.

As someone who is vocal about feminist issues, I have, on many occasions been outspoken about menstrual taboos. Just a few months back, I explained to my 10-year old cousin what periods are, and why they’re completely natural and valid, and had felt a rush of pride on instilling in her the will to fight against myths and biases surrounding the same. I often talk about and stand up for menstrual hygiene in my writing and in real-life, and I often discuss certain aspects of my period in graphic detail (so much detail that it often falls in the ‘Too Much Information’ category) with close friends. However, these friends are all female, because I’m more comfortable talking to them about it because of the shared experience and zero judgement.

Why, then, did I drop my voice to a whisper when asking for a pad in a somewhat public setting – even when that particular space was as liberal and accepting as my office? Why couldn’t I just shake off the taboos?

The Conditioning Goes Deep

I was 11 when I first discovered blood between my legs, and, since nobody had bothered to give me ‘the talk’ from beforehand, I thought I was dying. I ran to my mother, and it was then that she, with shifty eyes and euphemisms, explained to me that I had just got my period for the first time. It was supposed to be a feminine rite of passage, she told me. It was a sign that I was “becoming a woman.” But I had to hide all traces of it, at every turn. I had to be careful to the point that even my own father couldn’t be made privy to my menstruation—whether it be a stray sanitary pad lying around the house, or a discarded wrapper.

Age 13 was the first time I was barred from a puja mandap, because it was the second day of my period. I remember that day very distinctly—it was Durga Puja, and like every excited kid on an Ashtami morning, I had woken up at the crack of dawn and gotten dressed for the pushpanjali. But my mother, again with the shifty eyes and euphemisms, explained to me how I couldn’t even go near the goddess because of the blood between my legs. “You are not pure enough,” she had said, reiterating the age-old patriarchal myth that her predecessors had internalized in her, and I had believed it. The belief had spanned years—and had lasted well into adulthood and through my embracing of feminism.

During Durga puja last year, I was again menstruating on an Ashtami morning. It took a herculean effort to allow myself to break out of my earlier conditioning and to brave the disapproving stares and walk up to the mandap. I was apprehensive throughout—scared that someone would call me out, even though I knew how irrational and ridiculous that fear was (or was it really?). It was hard for me to break out of the conditioning then, and even though my resolve has gotten stronger in the following year, I still find it hard to challenge this conditioning. Even though the heavens don’t come crashing down when I talk about it, and I know how unfounded these myths and fears are, I still, at the back of my mind, hold myself back somehow.

How Do I Unlearn?

It’s a reflex by now—to deny the existence of it, to lower my voice automatically when it comes up. There’s even an actual sanitary napkin brand called ‘Whisper’ – selling their products on the basis of this cultural silencing.

My mother still calls it ‘shorir kharap’—which literally translates to ‘illness’ —and when I’m incapacitated by cramps at the beginning of my cycle every month, she asks me to ‘carry on like nothing’s wrong’. ‘All women experience it,’ she says, ‘Do you hear them complain?’

But that’s the thing, Ma. I never hear them mention it, leave alone complain.

It was only in my second year of college that I found friends with whom I could talk about its nitty gritties. I remember feeling equally ecstatic and relieved while discussing the heaviness of our discharge, the irregularities, as well as other tiny details and symptoms—because I finally felt like I didn’t have to hide.

There are, of course, moments when I successfully defeat the taboo—and those moments come more frequently these days. In writing about it, in discussing it with other women, in imparting that knowledge to my young cousins, and, in challenging various family members on their biases—I feel triumphant, and less like that scared and heartbroken little girl who was stopped from entering the puja mandap on her favourite day of Durga Puja.

To engage in these discussions with men is much more difficult. My father still shies away at the mere sight of a pad, and with male friends (even those who are feminists), there is always a certain point in the conversation after which they are rendered uncomfortable. It’s something that they have been taught as well – to ignore the existence of it, and to gloss over the gory details – and they struggle with breaking out of that conditioning as well.

Hence, that scared little girl still lurks within me somewhere, always cautious when it comes to her periods, even when there is absolutely no need for such caution.

However, the situation isn’t entirely bleak. Every time I engage in discussions about it (with anyone), every time I enter a place of worship while menstruating, is a step in the positive direction. With more time, maybe I’ll stop whispering someday.

If you’d like to share your own experiences – from dealing with everyday sexism and gender stereotyping, to period shaming, harassment and abuse , do share your stories using #StandWithMe, and help take this important conversation forward.

The original article was published here on Cake.

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Featured image source: Wikipedia

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  1. Pavithra Vijayaraghavan

    A wonderful article Rohini. I completely agree with the notion that we all are much forward in our beliefs as far as periods are concerned but, still today we lower our voices in public.
    I am a very proud women to share that I am a professional Dancer who often perform in temples. It was just because of my Acharya ( who happens to be around 65+) that I picked up the courage to throw away the shackles based on the myths our society still lives on. I used to be surprised thinking that she belonging to that generation is so forward when compared to many women y who are in mid 30’s and 40’s never even gave a thought.
    My Husband, when we got married, disclosed that he believes in the myth and therefore, I should stay away for 3 days from everything. It gave me a big time shock and that was when I realized that our society is still living in the world where we need have not proofs. I started fighting for my own right and explained him about what we actually go through and about which I am not shy at all.
    Our generation which is well read and advanced is still struggling to come out from the rooted superstitions is seriously a matter of deep regret and concern.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

  • Mobilising young people between the age of 18-35 to become ‘Eco-Period Champions’ by making the switch to a sustainable menstrual alternative and becoming advocates for the project
  • All existing and upcoming public institutions (pink toilets, washrooms, schools, colleges, government offices, government buildings) across East Delhi to have affordable provisions for sustainable menstrual product options

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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