Talking about menstrual hygiene or just periods was considered a taboo when I was in school, and this was even though I came from a privileged background. Although my school did have the provision of providing a sanitary napkin whenever there was an emergency, it was mostly a ‘hush-hush’ or ‘keep it under the wraps ‘topic. A topic that should not have reached the boys of our school. It is still a taboo to talk about periods.
I had written an article that was published by the Assam Tribune in 2017, on the occasion of menstrual hygiene day, and it was loved by all. Here is a short excerpt from it:
“I have had many friends back in school who had never talked on such issues with their fathers or brothers. If they ever happened to talk on this matter with their brothers, often times the discussions were for mere doses of laughter. It’s absolutely fine if you let your father or your brother get you a packet of sanitary napkins. In my case, I was never shy to tell my father to get me pads when I was menstruating. Some of my friends gave me such disgusted looks with the thought that asking from your father what you need in your uncomfortable week was beyond imagination.
There was even an incident some six years ago when I had stained my white summer school skirt so real bad that I had to tell the boys in my class to leave for 10 minutes so that I could ink the large red patch in blue. Luckily the teacher was late. All of them had witnessed what I was going through. One of the boys even went on to comment, “Is she bitten by a leech?” I wasn’t hurt by his remark but I felt bad for him. Will he ever say the same thing if his mother, sister or his partner had undergone the same situation like mine? But my conditions got so worse that I had decided to take a half leave and go home because of constant abdominal cramps and we all know that they aren’t a good experience at all. On being asked by the teacher for my reason to go home, I simply said,” Sir! I am on my period. I want to go home!” The teacher was understanding enough and immediately let me go. The reaction on everyone’s faces left me surprised. Some of the girls said, “What is wrong with her? How could she even tell that to a male teacher?” This happened in class XII when one is way matured than the rest of the school and also the fact that most of them wanted to be doctors. For a gender-sensitive society, reforms have to begin in the classroom scenario itself.”
I have seen many of my friends, from my hometown, in the traditional attire of Mekhela Chador under a proper marriage pandal when they celebrate their first period. Assamese society is famous for celebrating ‘Tuloni Biya/Xanti Biya’ which is nothing but puberty marriage. It also indicates the celebration of a girl’s fertility. Although in many urban settings, the celebration of puberty marriage has receded to a great extent, it is still an essential part of being in Assamese society.
As I was growing up, it was interesting to see my friends from classes 5 to 8 missing out on their classes for one week and observing the traditional norms about menarche. Some even got their first period while our annual examinations were on and celebrating or observing norms of ‘Tuloni Biya’ got preference over exams and studies.
As the small township of Duliajan in Assam, (where I grew up) is privileged and highly influential, children studying in our school had the upper hand. Parents would make special requests for their daughters to sit for exams on some other day, just before the results got declared.
The question papers were obviously different. But since nobody wants to score badly in their exams, all of us were helpful to each other by providing our question papers and other sample materials.
Now compare this situation with a rural setting in India, where traditional norms are followed in a rigid or orthodox manner. Would a 10 or 12-year-old be given the same access to writing an examination if she got her first period while her annual examinations were on? Girls drop out of school, not only because of a lack of access to sanitary material but more importantly, because of a lack of access to information pertaining to menstrual hygiene. Where will a girl go if there are no toilets in the school? And this is a reality in many parts of India. Although we have made great improvements by bringing about awareness, we have a long way to go.
We have made so many films on period taboos, some commercial ones too, starring famous names from the film industry, yet it is extremely sad to see some of my friends and colleagues behaving abnormally whenever this topic pops up! I am just assuming there is a sheer lack of empathy. And this holds true not only for men but for many women, who tell girls just to shut up and bear the pain because, why not? It’s absolutely normal to ‘bear pain and distresses’ or have our moment of ‘peedha jhelna’ according to such women who, in my opinion, are equally responsible for promoting patriarchy!
As a girl who got her period when she was only in class 4, I was totally unaware as to why we get periods in the first place. And I was not informed well enough by anyone until I entered my teens. There is so much taboo associated around it. The only thing Assamese society taught me when I got my first period was –“Etiya suwali Joni dangor hol.” Which roughly translates into, the girl has grown up now. But how do you define ‘dangor hol’ or ‘grown-up’ for a 9-year-old?
We had some neighbours who were extremely patriarchal, misogynistic, and absolute son- lovers; they would actually pity those who had daughters. One such neighbour lived right below our building. The lady actually enquired if I got my periods; because obviously, she had seen my secondary sexual growth and was visibly worried, as I had ‘grown-up’ already when I had reached class 5.
She also embarrassed us when she spread it as gossip among other women in the neighbourhood. They took a deep interest in knowing how I attained puberty at such a young age. There were other interesting things that my mom had to hear, apart from the usual ‘impurity talks’. For example, they would say, early puberty made girls weaker in the subject of Mathematics because blood loss meant lesser iron in the body; hence lesser oxygen supply to the brain!
I still wonder if iron deficiency and more blood loss through periods made girls weaker in social sciences and literature as well. Obviously, my mom dealt with all of these women with great grace. But having to listen to such illogical things traumatises a young mind.
I really hope these ‘grown-up’ aunties mature fast and teach something really useful and valuable to their granddaughters when they get their first period! The irony is all of this trash talk came from a society which is known for worshipping ‘Maa Kamakhya’. A society where it is believed that even Goddess Kamakhya bleeds for three days when the famous Ambubachi Mela is on, in the month of June.
I have come across so many stories around menstruation which make me utterly sad. And I can only conclude one thing; periods and patriarchy go hand in hand. What I mean is, when bodies get controlled, when pain and distress, both are silenced, and there are zero talks on reproductive health, we are somehow leaving out the major stakeholders. We don’t involve them in the conversation when it comes to talking about access to basic healthcare and providing solutions to tackle hygiene in general and menstrual hygiene in particular.
I sincerely wish schools would make their Adolescence Education Programmes more sensible so that there is no lack of information, and no one is left behind when it comes to access to menstrual hygiene products. Because these products are not a luxury but a necessity!