I’ve thought about this timeline more often than I could count. Especially in the recent times, after the much-needed conversations around menstrual hygiene, the lack of it, the taboos that we as a society continue to fight and the perils of them all constantly undermining a woman’s health. But as I sit back and think about the many biological battles that women face during their lifetime from cradle to grave, a bizarre sense of hopelessness clouds my thoughts. I realize how even in the 21st century, conversations around a woman’s body are still nothing but a hush affair.
From menstruation to the monstrous PCOS, from infertility to miscarriages, from masturbation to sexuality, from reproductive health to sexual independence, she hasn’t yet managed to break those shackles. She continues to long that her health and necessities be discussed and supported, she secretly hopes that the world realises her flesh and blood are not a point of stigma or taboo but merely human.
As I look back at my own journey down this jaded path as a 90s kid and try to reminisce the conversations that my life has enabled me to have about the same, I realise the privilege I’ve had on being brought up in a fairly open-minded, educated and humanistic household. In spite of that, I was always of the firm opinion that ‘Period’ was a topic that was forbidden from being discussed in the presence of the boys.
I was 16, a student of class XI, on my period and dealing with those unpardoning cramps of day one. It was the chemistry lab hour when my teacher was quite pursuant that my classmate (a boy) and I finish off with the remaining experiments that we had pending from the previous session. I constantly tried to get her to notice my plight of not even being able to stand, without ticking off my male partner’s senses because God forbid he gets to know that “I was on my period”.
As I finally tried to tell her that I had my breakfast and my stomach ache was because of something else, she yelped at once, “Oh gosh! Periods! That’s alright! I know! I had the same problem when I was your age. I couldn’t even manage to get out of my bed. That’s OK! It’ll pass” she said in a matter-of-fact way. I stood there dumbstruck with the disbelief that my teacher as opposed to being my confidant and coming to my rescue in what seemed like sheer agony at that moment had just openly discussed my period in the presence of a boy. It all seemed eerily unbelievable.
The question here was of whether I was actually embarrassed by the whole ordeal of my secretive period being shoved out in the open?
No, I wasn’t. Even then I knew my period isn’t a thing to be embarrassed about, that it was my bodily function, It was universal, it was human.
What was it then, that I was worried about? It was just the sheer shock of having something fall out of the line of what was deeply ingrained in my head, that menstruation was a secret affair which was not supposed to be discussed publicly.
Who taught me so? No! it wasn’t my mother. She never directly preached about not discussing my periods in front of others. But I saw that she herself never did so, and whenever she did, she made sure there was none around other than my father. The child saw she emulated, she believed, and her world just turned upside down with her teacher’s deed.
I didn’t know what got me more agitated at that point, in that Chemistry lab on that sunny afternoon. Was it the sheer lack of her apathy towards my plight or the fact that she just burst my secret bubble and she appeared like she couldn’t care less? As I stood there continuing to gawk at her in horror, she seemed to sense my disapproval of her act when she replied “What? Is it him? (pointing at my classmate) That’s okay! He’s a big boy now, he understands. Finish off with your experiment and I’ll see you in a while. No excuses.” And off she went and changed my world forever and the way I handled my life and my periods. It was a sermon delivered like a bullet as two facets of realisation silently dawned on me. One, a period is normal enough to be discussed and two, I could be stronger than I was in fighting my day one jitters.
Would I have remained prudish for life if not for her actions on the day?
Not really. But the change and the learning would have taken longer and come much later with age and perception.
I grew up into a woman who always has open conversations with both her male and female friends about periods and the relative issues that we women face as more often than not I did find my friends casually throwing away the word ‘PMSing’. I even had to convince my girlfriends that it was ‘okay’ to talk and that they needed to stop acting like their bodies were a myth. I tried to constantly preach that boys will only be able to understand when we make them understand because in all likely hood they hail from homes similar to ours where taboos are rampant.
I was always that girl who straight up told my guy friends that I couldn’t join them for the day or not make it to college because I had period cramps, instead of mixing words to come up with verbiages like stomach ache or fever. I was always that girl who tried to reason with my mom that not entering the ‘mandir’ during periods is the grossest taboo ever. I haven’t been able to persuade her to let go of the ritual till date. But I nevertheless I tried to make my point.
So I cringe with despair today as what seemed like a relatively smooth ride in my life continues to be the biggest challenge in today’s India as we grapple with the problem of not including the other gender in “The Conversation”. A potential answer to the country ’s multitier problems which include among the many other things: the lack of apathy and support to a woman’s biological needs to negligence, misconduct, eve teasing, perverseness, moral digress, rape culture and misogyny. The forces which create an unbreakable cycle of compulsion to remain silent and bury their problems deeper.
While the urban and rural divide of education aided thought process seems pretty evident and needs to be worked upon, many women who belong to the relatively privileged backgrounds have it on the default that the men in their lives get the issues right. Which many a time is not the case and which is why one must insist that young girls and women try to stir a conversation with the other gender when they are met with wrong ideas.
I remember once having a candid conversation about family planning with a male friend of mine. I remember how this educated and decently well-groomed gentleman said he would never be “the one” to take on the onus of getting a vasectomy and it had to be his wife. The shock that crept over me then made me realise that male privilege and disregard for a woman’s body and health is not such a distant thing after all. It could actually be those people who are very close to you. It could be your colleague, your childhood friend, a school friend, a college friend, your cousin or your very own brother. It could be anyone. It could be that someone who you knew all your life and never once doubted to be harbouring such thoughts. And we were kept in the dark because in all likelihood we never really discussed such issues with them. And we were blissfully unaware of the lack of apathy of these male counterparts.
The power of conversation stands obviously in the light of such encounters. In my life, I stirred a conversation. Not in the whole world, but at least with my near and dear ones and made them respect my body and my woes and my space. I couldn’t persuade my mother to change her prayer room habits but I got her to understand my point of view, she, in turn, respected my thoughts and never forced her rituals on me. I confronted my friend about his hugely misinformed notions about vasectomy being viewed as a peril to manhood and showed him the gamut of patriarchy he seems to be nurturing without even realising. He realised he was wrong.
From doctors who treat PCOS only as a fertility issue to the lack of even primary health care when it comes to sexual and reproductive health of women to having zero conversations about genital hygiene and safe sexual practices to the sheer absence of responsible sex education for adolescents and young adults in our country, the problems around reproductive health and women’s’ bodies seem insurmountable.
But the access to care, hygiene products and medical assistance, the infrastructural, economic and social requirements can only be fulfilled when we begin to have conversations. The importance of parents and teachers sitting down young girls and more importantly boys to talk to them about female health issues is vital. It’s time we introduce our children to their bodies as we introduced them to the world. It’s time we took steps to make it a natural progression and a compulsory human trait. The more the delay creeps in, the more we are bound to see ourselves stuck in trying to still fight the rudimentary stigma which shouldn’t be existing in the first place.