Girls who grow up in India will always have extremely interesting stories to share about the time they spent in school. Here, of course, I am talking about those from privileged backgrounds. Girls whose parents could afford an expensive private school education.
Female students in co-educational settings have a hard time growing up. We have had a hard time, mostly because early on, we are told to hide ourselves, to beware when we’re engaging with the opposite sex, to behave.
We are also asked to pledge ourselves to keeping one particularly big secret: the fact that after a point, we start to bleed. In school, we started a journey, guarding this secret with all we had. From ensuring that there was one hidden pocket in our school bags where we could keep sanitary napkins, to playing a game of pass-the-pad without attracting the attention of penis bearers, non-bleeders.
Wearing white skirts on Wednesdays was nothing short of a Fear Factor episode. The sisterhood would often be of great help. “Is there a stain on my skirt?” was reduced to one particular expression – aggressive squinting for a few seconds at another secret keeper and walking ahead for them to check for a stain.
Behind these seemingly little random set of activities went a lot of planning, discussion, deliberation and a unanimous sense of helplessness. There was nothing we could do to stop bleeding every month. There was no getting away from the expenditure on sanitary napkins. There was no getting away from the fact that we were on our own, that this was not something penis bearers, non-bleeders would ever be involved in.
We never questioned, why not? It never occurred to our patriarchy-conditioned minds that this was important and that men needed to know about it.
We live in a world where skewed gender roles have kept women inside, and men outside, in charge of things. In a world where the penis bearers, non-bleeders get to make decisions that affect those who bleed. It doesn’t make sense to not have them, as part of the conversation on menstruation. Period. No pun intended.
Back in my school, ‘experts’ from sanitary napkin companies would come and talk to us about why we bleed, where we bleed from, and what we should do to take care of ourselves during our period. Great, right? Not really.
The experts would address an auditorium full of adolescent girls, while adolescent penis bearers, non-bleeders would run with utter glee in the nearby basketball court, because well, free games period! These penis bearers, non-bleeders knew. They knew something happened to us/with us every month and that we fight really hard to keep that secret. They had their own stock of – ‘Stay free’ and ‘Whisper’ jokes. They basically were an arrogant bunch of Jon Snows.
The point is, this careful, systematic segregation of the male population from the conversation on menstruation or women’s health in general, in an extremely patriarchal society, is the right formula that feeds into continued oppression and subjugation of the female population. Men continue to exist in ignorance, in bliss, in an absolutely misinformed and desensitised state when it comes to menstruation.
It’s high time we ask some really important questions. In a country where women form a measly 12% of the elected bodies and hardly have a say on how laws are formed and passed, how is it not structural violence that all women in India still don’t have access to menstrual health, and worse, charged by the government on every single purchase of sanitary napkins? How is it not utterly evil that we keep men away (or they ensure they are kept away) from conversations on menstruation?
For any long-term change (attitudinal, structural,etc.) to take place, penis bearers, non-bleeders will have to be included every time we begin to educate our women about menstruation. We shouldn’t have to be in this fight alone. We shouldn’t have to explain why sanitary napkins are not just another commodity. We shouldn’t have to die.