Even today, I consider that day to be special – that day when I crossed the threshold of a new realm. I was not a child anymore. I did not know how to cherish that great shift in my life. No one told me how I should enjoy my new self. The only thing I realised was that the new world was so dirty, painful and stinking that I started hating myself.
That day was just like the other days. I returned from school, changed my uniform in the washroom, and happily went to watch my favourite show on television. My life seemed to be something else – till the moment my mother hurriedly came and asked me about the reddish-black stains on my maroon school uniform. Yes, I too had noticed those stains on my skirt. But, who would spare even a single second for some strange, ‘meaningless’ stains, especially when one had to watch their favourite show? Unfortunately, those stains were not ‘meaningless’ for my mother – and they did not remain so for me either, for the rest of my life.
For my mother, my inability to trace the trails of blood was a confirmation that the ‘big day’ had arrived in my life. After initially reacting with a mixture of shock, fear and hopelessness, the first thing she did was to take out a packet from a plastic bag hidden in a dark corner of the room. To my utter surprise, the packet looked just like those which I had seen before in the TV ads. I was eager to know the use of that strange-looking soft stuff made of what seemed to be cotton. However my curiosity vanished after a few hours as I found that nice, soft thing, which my mother had called ‘pad’ (and which, later, I came to know as a ‘sanitary napkin’), to be soiled with similar-looking reddish-black stains on my skirt, with an intolerable smell that could have turned my stomach inside out. I was agitated and confused about what was happening to me. However, not a single person explained the reason behind this continuous bleeding that added a horrifying pain in the lower abdomen area. This was how the ‘bloody’, confused, painful days of my first period passed.
But it came again – and this time, I was told by my mother to use pieces of clothes instead of sanitary napkins (which would cost her extra money). For the first time, I felt as though the most important thing in my life was a packet of sanitary napkins. My favourite chocolates, TV shows – everything seemed unimportant in front of those white, soft things.
The days of disgust and pain continued. Each fold of the cloth-pieces used to create identical patterns of blood – just like hand-printed clothes in boutique. So strong and deep were those patterns that their imprints are still fresh in my memory. Even the most expensive detergent powder available in the market could not remove the dark, deep and stinking trauma caused by washing blood-soiled clothes for a couple of years.
Now, nearly a decade after, when I look back at those days (which I cannot help but do often), the first person I feel disgusted and angry with is my mother. Her silence, indifferent attitude and lack of compassion towards me during those days often compel me to swear to myself to not forgive her ever. But, when I try to keep calm and think critically, I find that our mothers (including mine) should not be blamed for their ruthless attitude towards their daughters during their menstrual cycles. Rather, fingers should be raised towards the system which, for ages, has been compelling them to treat their daughters with a lack of compassion. The trails of blood helped me unravel a cycle which not only includes our bodies and hormones, but also a system that injects the concepts of ‘untouchability’, ‘impurity’ (among others) inside our minds.
Our mothers, too, were victims of this system that once barred them from entering temples, mosques, churches and from touching pickle. This was a system which also confined them inside dirty rooms separated from their homes in order to save the houses from being ‘impure’. A list of dos and don’ts, most of which were based on superstition, were imposed on them by their mothers and grandmothers. But no one cared to remove their anxiety, erase their fear and diminish their pain by explaining the reasons behind this bodily change. Neither did they try to be compassionate and considerate to them or of things which would have brought comfort to them.
Now, the crucial question is: was the condition of our great grandmothers better than that of our mothers and us? The answer is obviously a big no. The tradition of imposing sets of superstitious values, misconceptions regarding menstruation has been going on for ages. The legacy of ‘untouchability’ (that we owe to our mothers, grandmothers and so on), interestingly, was perhaps not created by any of them, but by a society that has been aiming to suppress half of its inhabitants on the basis of their biological identity, using every possible means.
The woes of women have always been neglected, hidden or veiled with glorifying narratives. This time, a crucial biological function in the female body, which demands serious attention, care and concern, has been turned into a taboo, thereby hiding it from public view. I remember the number of times I got strange looks from the men in my family. I have also felt the awkward silence after confessing that I was on my periods, or that my lower abdomen was aching.
It seems ironical to me that the birth of a baby occupies a crucial position in our social life, whereas the very first stage of this preparation (to be able to give birth) does not even hold a niche. By saying this, I do not want to make statements like ‘motherhood is biological’ or ‘every woman must give birth’. My intention is to simply highlight how an extremely crucial hormonal change within women remains unacknowledged in society, while its possible outcome is celebrated everywhere.
Most women internalise this tradition of ‘untouchability’ in such a way that they often forget to sympathise with their fellow sisters, daughters and other women. They even tend to normalise their discomfort and suffering by following and making deeply-insensitive statements like “Every women must go through this”, “This is natural, and there is reason to make a fuss about it” or “Women should be able to tolerate the pain silently”, etc. What can be more scary than this, given the fact that young women are taught these by their elders who themselves have experienced such suffering and pain?
But, at the same time, how can we accuse those who spent their lives serving their families, sacrificing themselves completely at the mercy of their husbands? Deprived of any exposure to the world of education and wisdom, most of our grandmothers did not have the option of protesting or thinking critically about their miserable situation. And most of our mothers, who may have had the good fortune to be acquainted with the world of education, were probably never encouraged to think on their own. Instead, they were asked to accept, internalise and follow the instructions given by their elders. Who, or what, do we actually blame? The system, of course. But where does the system lie? Are not we part of this system? Or, in other words, doesn’t the system lie within each of us?
I do strongly believe that the menstrual woes of women from the underprivileged sections of the society do need serious attention. Awareness programmes, campaigning, workshops regarding menstrual hygiene, and distribution of sanitary napkins are some necessary steps which are often taken by governmental and non-governmental organisations, and sometimes by individuals. No doubt, these are undoubtedly praiseworthy.
However, there are still lakhs of women who feel ashamed to talk about their menstrual problems freely. Interestingly enough, not all of them are illiterate or belong to the unprivileged or backward sectors of society. While enlightening women from the backward sectors, are not we taking their ‘educated’, ‘liberal’, ‘privileged’ counterparts for granted? At times, I feel confused and horrified when I find my ‘highly-educated’ friends and teachers (both men and women) feel ashamed about discussing their experiences of menstruation or even while attending any workshop or performance on menstruation.
I feel that the act of breaking the barriers should be undertaken by both men and women. This is high time for men to break the ice and come forward to learn, talk, discuss and ask questions about menstruation without hesitation. It is very important for men to clear certain misconceptions about menstruation they often have. A free space for expressing and sharing views, discussing issues, and exploring the layers of complex ideas related to menstruation will definitely help in removing the idea of menstruation as a taboo. This free space has to be created by us by breaking down the barriers.
As I have said before, the system is within us – and so do the barriers. Who else but us can break the barriers and change the system?
Featured image used for representative purposes only.