Rarely, if ever, is menstruation about women. We work collectively and tirelessly to keep the horrors of menstruation from men, to protect them from this ‘horrible secret’ that most women share. When we discuss menstruation our focus isn’t discussing the health of women, menstrual hygiene, or newer and better ways of sustainable menstruation, instead we try to keep up with the idea that menstruation is a taboo, that shouldn’t be spoken of, that shouldn’t be revealed.
We teach women to take shame in menstruation from when they are young girls. Questions about menstruation aren’t encouraged in most households, young girls who ask what a period is, will be silenced with yelling, piercing glances, or by being told they aren’t to speak of ‘shameful’ subjects. We don’t teach them how to care for their menstruating bodies, we don’t encourage them to see doctors about menstrual issues, we don’t teach them menstrual hygiene, or anything about menstruation as a whole.
When we teach women to take shame in their period, we tell them to take shame in their bodies. We tell them their bodies and the things they go through are shameful, worthy of being hidden away. We cannot inculcate shame in young girls and expect them to accept and cherish their bodies or their female identities.
Women are raised in a culture of shame. We are told our periods are shameful. At the same time, though, in some Indian cultures, it is celebrated when a young girl begins menstruating, but once the first time passes, the shaming begins. This often makes me wonder, is this about menstruation and its horrors or is it yet another carefully devised control mechanism designed for women? This is also used as an excuse by critics of women working outside of their homes. They often say women aren’t meant for the role, for they might take a few days off during their period, thus working lesser than the average man. This is true for women who suffer from acute pain and other ailments when they menstruate, but it isn’t acceptable to keep women out of the workforce due to a biological process they have no control over.
If we don’t propagate, revere, and place morality in this shame, women might start to claim spaces they have been told don’t belong to them, because their menstruating bodies are a burden, and may be this is why, in a severely patriarchal country, we continue to keep this shame alive. In patriarchal societies, anything exclusive to women, anything women don’t share with men, becomes a cause of shame, which then becomes a cause to oppress them.
We can’t make our daughters well-rounded individuals, with healthy attitudes towards their bodies and their womanhood, if we teach them that their body and womanhood brings them shame and disgrace, if we make them look at it like a bane.
I spoke to a handful of young women, to bring to light their experiences of period-shaming and how it altered their perception of their bodies and their identities as women.
18-year-old Madhavi said, “When I am on my period I am not allowed to visit places of worship, I am disallowed to touch pickles or certain other edibles. This often makes me feel terrible and makes me feel weird in my own skin. There have been times I have desired I weren’t a woman, just to escape these arbitrary rules and shaming.”
With a tale about menstruating women being considered impure, Reshma, also 18, adds, “During a religious ceremony in my maternal house, I happened to be on my period. Everyone was instructed not to touch me and I was asked to stay away from everyone for I was considered ‘ashudh’ for menstruating. I was asked not to enter the house until the end of the ceremony, due to my perceived ‘impurity’. Being treated differently and having my body being associated with impurity made me feel bad about my body and its menstruating ways. Although, I still wonder, how do they suppose the outcome of this ceremony would have been altered had I chosen not to declare I was on my period that day?”
My own experiences haven’t been too different from that of Madhavi’s or Reshma’s. Although never disallowed to touch things or visit places of worship, I was often told to never speak of menstruation around men. I was encouraged by teachers and classmates to never call a period by its name and to hide menstrual products in books, pockets, or deep corners of our bags, where they cannot be seen by boys. I took immense shame in my menstruation for over five years, until I saw the only way to break this spell was to embrace our bleeding bodies, with respect for it and no hint of shame.
Menstrual taboos are to be questioned and not followed. We know we have failed women as a society when our collective priority is to make sure young girls and women take thorough shame in their bleeding bodies, instead of promoting safe and healthy menstrual practices.
We should be teaching our daughters how to reclaim public spaces they have been denied and not pass on this shame like a family heirloom, to be kept, to be treasured, to wear as a testament of their morality and respect for their culture, for we need to remember, period-shaming doesn’t take root in culture, it is borne out of patriarchy and all it is is a control-mechanism to keep women on the side-lines, to push them further away from public life, to keep them from claiming spaces that men own and would like keep exclusively for themselves.