“Today I learnt something new at school. Periods. Momma says I’m a big girl now. I should be careful and should not talk about it in front of Papa and my brother. I should also sit with my legs close together and behave properly. ”
These are some of the eternal statements that young girls usually get to hear from their mothers. I don’t really remember the story of my first menses, but there were a few taboos that I found unacceptable even back then as a teenager and upon which I would now like to throw some light.
I find it very problematic that most mothers don’t discuss menstruation with their daughters before they begin to menstruate. This discussion always takes place after the shock and for a girl between the ages of 10-14 years or even younger, it really does come as a shock to see their favorite dress stained with blood one fine day all of a sudden. Some might even think that they are sick or have hurt themselves ‘in the place where they pee from’. Yes, that’s what it is called. I have had experiences of mothers either pointing downwards or using the phrase above but never really explaining things the right way.
Then there is the school which plays its part in further hushing up the topic and creating more confusion in the minds of young girls and majorly in boys as well. I remember when we once had a seminar on menses when I was in the seventh grade. Mine hadn’t started yet, but I had a vague idea about them. While the boys were sent out to play, the girls were made to gather around in a room where they were introduced to menstruation and sanitary napkins for the first time. As expected later, the girls were all giggly and the boys were seen strutting around, hinting that they knew what it was all about and additionally shouting out the names of popular sanitary napkin companies in order to embarrass the girls. Schools really do a great job in messing up young girls and boys in this regard because instead of having a co-ed seminar and focusing on sensitizing the topic, they go for the most convenient route they can find, which is by segregation.
I also remember that during the first few years of menstruating was when other girls and I were taught to keep this hushed up so that this was not even mentioned in front of fathers, uncles, brothers, elders and such. Again, this kind of attitude just reinforces the fact that menstruation is something to be embarrassed about and should be kept a secret. Or the time when you go to buy a packet of sanitary napkins, the discomfort you feel when you tell the man standing there that you need Whisper Ultra which is then compounded by the fact that he in turn puts it into a black polythene bag so that nobody should see what a girl is carrying because it is considered to be a shameful act. In the later years that follow, boys again make fun of girls which further forces them to go further inside their shells.
There was another incident where I got to know about yet another taboo around menses and this time, it was not by an adult, but by a female friend who belonged to my age group. When I wanted to accompany this friend to a temple, I was prevented from doing so because according to the reason furnished by her, I was not allowed to enter the temple because I was menstruating. Since I am not a Hindu and was not aware of this fact, I apologised appropriately as I didn’t want to hurt the religious sentiments of my friend. Later, I was explained that in Hinduism, as women are considered unclean during their period, anything they touch is also believed to lose its power so that if they touch anything in the prayer room for instance, the deity that is worshipped will leave and evil will take over the statue. One will then be praying to an evil spirit and not the deity one has in their mind and the whole area would then have to be cleansed by calling a priest or a saint. The same goes for the kitchen. Menstruating women and girls should not enter the kitchen, touch the utensils or even cook because yes, you’ve got it right, they are considered to be unclean and impure. At that time and during that age I did not realise that I was doing something wrong, that I was even being wronged or that my brainwashed friend should be the one who should apologise in the first place I do not see it as her fault however, as she only reproduced what she had been taught was right.
Sadly, there are still a lot of women and not just middle-aged mothers and elderly grandmothers but also many educated women who still contribute to the tabooing of menstruation and the process of shaming and embarrassing young girls on its account. We still do not take our ability to menstruate as a source of pride.
On this note, I would like to end my take on people’s attitude towards menstruation and the taboos surrounding it and would additionally like to recommend Gloria Steinem’s If Men Could Menstruate for a hearty laugh and for taking pride in your monthly struggle.
Author: Japleen Pasricha is a feminist and a German research scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. An aspiring educator and activist, Japleeen is very interested in Gender Studies and wishes to work with a women’s organisation someday. She firmly believes that she can and will bring about a change. She blogs here and also has a page on feminism to boot.
Editor: Divya Rosaline