I am a man, and the first question I asked myself, when I learnt about this contest, was – do I really need to take part in this?
Yes, I must. As the father of a two year old boy, I write this letter in the hope that when my boy turns into a man, our thinking around menstruation would have changed – it would just be a ‘non-event’ – a body function, that happens with women, and that’s that. Nothing more, nothing less. He would not have to write open letters any more, he would not have to talk about it as a separate subject, he would not have to participate in discussions on social and cultural change regarding periods.
Then, I wondered who should I address this letter to? The rules of the contest says – an important decision maker in your locality – a local MLA, panchayat representative etc.
Three separate incidents, which I shall shortly talk about, tell me that this letter needs to be addressed to every woman – the most important decision maker in this process – and hence I address this letter to her.
The first of the three incidents happened when I was in third or fourth standard. TV wasn’t the twenty-four hour idiot box that it is currently. Programmes were aired for a few hours in a day – it was a scarce commodity, and hence a little more valued. Families would gather around the only television set in the house (most cases a black and white tv, which looked like a wooden cabinet) to watch the weekly dose of hindi/bollywood cinema, that was aired on Saturday or a Sunday. As the telecast began at 5 o’clock, (I forget the actual time, but that’s not that relevant) and before the feature-film began, there would be ten to fifteen minutes of advertisements.
Knowing this, many families would conveniently switch on the tv only after the initial ad-routine. But adverts were fun, and I loved watching them. An advert that used to be aired regularly was that of ‘Carefree’ – a largely popular brand of sanitary napkins, those days. I remember asking my elders what was Carefree, and how it was used. I never got a clear answer. They were always evasive, distracting me from my question.
Then one day, during summer recess, I noticed a green plastic basket, under my parents’ bed. I think it used to be always there, but somehow it never interested me. That afternoon I opened the box, and found a few packets of Carefree – a few pads were lying around open. I took a pad in my hand, touched it, felt it, still didn’t know what to do with it, neither did I know whom to ask. So, I waited for my mother to return from office.
Excitedly I ran up to her, shared my find, and told her that I had found a good use for it – to wipe off any liquids that I spilled on the table. Actually, I had already used one for that purpose when I accidentally spilled some water that afternoon. Far from being happy, she was livid. I was reprimanded by both parents, and that box, which was always under the bed, vanished from there. But, I still did’t understand what was my mistake apart the obvious one of prying into a box deemed private. No one had an open conversation with me on it.
Growing up whatever information I gathered about menstruation – it was something that happened to girls, and they felt sick then – it was from some erudite male friends of mine in school. Where did that knowledge come from, and how credible was it – no one really knew. It was all hushed up boys’ talk in the toilet. And Google was not as omnipresent as it is today. There was no way to find it out by myself.
The second incident is from my MBA school days in Pune. The first marketing research project assigned to us, 3 boys and 2 girls, was to conduct a survey on usage of sanitary pads, and devise strategies to improve the sale for one particular brand. I distinctly remember the discomfort in our group on being assigned this project, and the relief on the faces of other classmates. The first discussion went something like this – the boys to the girls – “this is your area. You do the research, and we will help in preparing/drafting the report.”
But, the professor was smart. He divided the group into two sub-groups – one girl in each sub-group. The two sub-groups would conduct the survey separately, in two separate areas – an area with a higher concentration of women from the middle/upper middle class, and a slightly less privileged part of the city – a slum near our college. I was part of the first group. We decided to conduct research around our college on Senapati Bapat Road. For those who are not familiar with Pune, this area has a high concentration of colleges, many of them part of the Symbiosis brand, and the students are mostly from the middle and upper-middle class.
What would you expect from them? They will be open about periods, talk about sanitary pads, which brands, their advantage/ dis-advantage, tampons – why they don’t sell etc. What we witnessed was on the contrary. Most of them were uncomfortable talking on this subject, let alone sharing their preferences. They would only talk if the girl member of our group was asking the questions. Or they would just ask us to leave the questionnaire, and wanted the responses to be anonymous.
This wasn’t that far back in time, and not in any city of India. This was Pune – cool, urban, young, unabashed and the year was 2006 or ’07. One woman we met on the street, probably in her late thirties, married to a merchant navy officer, most possibly lonely, invited the boys ( mind you, only the boys) to her apartment to talk about ‘girly’ topics, since she didn’t feel comfortable talking about it in public.
Yes, this too happened; but not the conversation on periods. Somehow we managed to gather data, and present some findings to the professor, and felt relieved that finally the project was out of our way.
The third incident occurred a couple of years later, and closer home. I got a job with a big brand, and moved to Chennai. For a few months I moved in with a cousin of mine. One day as I returned from work a little early, she opened the door, and told me, “It is such a relief you have come early today. I was so thirsty, and all the bottles are empty. Can you fill up a bottle from the kitchen please?”
I asked her if she was unwell, had fever or something that needed medical attention. If not, why did’t she just fill the bottles herself – something she did everyday.
She told me she was ‘down’, and during ‘those days’ she did not enter the kitchen. Her kitchen, in her own house! Mind you, she used to live separately, as in, not a joint family. So, not entering the kitchen wasn’t enforced on her by someone else. It was how she had grown up, internalised that she was not clean in those days, and hence, she chose to stay away from the kitchen.
Not just stay away, she even used a separate set of utensils, and washed them outside the kitchen. Having grown up in Calcutta, and in a fairly easy-going family, (agreed,we didn’t talk about periods with parents, but it was never a taboo) this was a complete shock to me.
Unless and until our women stop heaping such indignity on themselves, what change can we expect?
Even today they speak of periods in coded language – ‘my days’, or ”I am down’ etc. Napkins are still sold, at kirana shops and local medical stores, wrapped in old newspapers, just like country liquor bottles and pack of condoms, and quickly hidden from sight.
Many mothers don’t feel comfortable in speaking about their normal, healthy, body function with their children – daughters and more importantly their sons. If they don’t educate their sons, how do they expect them to hold an informed conversation with any woman – their future girlfriends and wives? No wonder so many women find out that their husbands have no clue what period is, till they learn it from them!
So, woman – till you become the change that you so wish to see, change ain’t gonna happen. Whether you like it or not – it is a fact that most cities are designed by men, most decision making roles are still held by men. While gender equality catches up, please educate the men in your families about menstruation. Feel free. Talk. Engage. Accept. Remove the shame and the stigma, that many times women impose on women, especially mothers on daughters. Lead the change till we, the men, catch up with you. May the force be with you in this journey.
A father of a 2 year old boy.
(P.S: while sharing the incidents I did not seek explicit permission from the two important women I referred to. I should have, but I did not.. I felt sharing the incidents was important, and it is time to talk about them in the open. If I have hurt them in the process, my sincere apologies.)
#menstruation #periods #bethechange #periodpaath #fatherofaboyspeaksperiods