In India, we have a goddess for wealth and prosperity (Lakshmi), and a goddess for knowledge and learning (Saraswati). There are numerous accounts of women in our culture who are deified for their devotion to family, as mothers, wives, sisters, and paramours. Yet, when it comes to a woman’s human side, a simple biological function such as menstruation sends the whole patriarchy into a frenzied tizzy.
The way we react to periods is curiously comical. I remember a friend once narrating her first period and how the entire neighbourhood was invited over for a lavish party to celebrate the beginning of her fertile years. She felt both embarrassed (like any young girl bleeding through her vagina is) and confused because while everyone enjoyed a good party, she was told that she would have to spend a few days in a makeshift room outside the house as she was impure. She wore a beautiful silk saree for the first time, got elaborate gifts, but was not allowed to eat with the rest of the gang. Her right of passage to womanhood was celebrated, but only the part that she was now fertile and ‘marriageable’ was acceptable. The fact that the fertility now flowed out of her in red every month, was considered ‘dirty’ leaving her dealing with the contradictions, alone.
Unfortunately, these practices continue even today, and feed the popular cultural notion that women are ‘impure’ when they are on their periods. Consequently, they are not allowed into temples, some homes restrict women entry into the kitchen when they are on their periods, they are deemed unfit to be in the presence of gods (i.e., visit the temple), or even take a head bath.
Why is the society squeamish about periods?
Growing up I was always amused when it was time to buy sanitary pads. I could sense my mother’s unease; her shame was so overwhelming that she would not make eye contact with the pharmacist while buying period products. That poor guy had his own issues, in a shop full of condoms and shilajit, if a woman walked in asking for pads, he could barely conceal his obvious embarrassment. The two would do a subtle dance of avoiding eye contact, speaking in whispers, wrapping the sanitary pads under the counter in the newspaper, and quietly slipping it across the counter. For a child watching this month after month, it only reinforced the belief that being on your periods meant that you had to hide and be apologetic about it.
The conversation around periods is a difficult one
Parents have always struggled with being open about it with their girls and dare I say boys – but that’s a whole different story. It is certainly not easy for the girls to hear that they will now be bleeding from their vaginas and will need to walk with things between their legs to make sure that the blood doesn’t spill out and God forbid – stain anything. For a young girl, the transition can be very traumatic. She goes from a carefree member of the household to a fertile member of society. She is celebrated and shunned. Both her hormones and her loved ones conspire to confuse the daylights out of her and she’s left wondering – how many more years of this will I have to endure? The answer to that is just as terrifying as the ordeal she is going through now. The realisation that for most part of her life there will be cramps, mood swings, acne, and so much more, feels like she’s been betrayed by her own body. There will be months of excess bleeding, to months when nothing will happen. She will wonder why her breasts are tender every month, or why she feels like crying all the time.
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The imperfect woman and the holy mother
Periods, when they come, change a girl physically and emotionally. On both accounts she needs care, she needs reassurance, and she needs support. Maybe that is why it is convenient for the patriarchs to label menstruation as an ‘impure’ state of being. Because if you contrast that with motherhood, you notice that a mother is the ‘ideal woman’. Motherhood is glorified because it requires a woman to ‘be’ caring, nurturing, and sacrificing. She is the one who gives, she does not demand. Therefore perhaps, it is in the interest of patriarchy to deify the woman who is a ‘giver’ and stigmatise her when she is ‘needy’.
Perhaps it is about time we moved away from the notion that women are gatekeepers of society’s expectations. Drilling little girls with notions of impurity and untouchability is not ok. Menstruation is as natural and normal as learning how to walk. It is part and parcel of growing up. Therefore, the conversation needs to shift from the fertility of the girl to dealing with the pangs of growing up. While her body preps for adulthood, the child in her still needs nurturing. She will now walk a tight rope navigating the changes in her body and she needs to take ownership of that change, without shame.
Do you feel shy or awkward while carrying period products openly, without a black polybag?
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