Untouchability, Seclusion and Trauma. This is What Growing Up with Period Taboos looks like in Modern Day India
How did you spend your summer vacations as a kid? Did you play outdoors with your siblings and friends all day long? Well, so did I; it was a wonderful time indeed! My two younger sisters and I would visit our grandparents every summer and live with them for a couple of weeks. However, one such summer was not so wonderful.
I remember going to the bathroom to shower one day when my Mom popped in to clear away my soiled clothes. She saw my underwear and asked me if the stain that was visible on them was blood. At the time, I thought she was worried that I was somehow hurt or ill and that I was trying to hide it from her, so I assured her that I was alright. She told me to wait there in the bathroom and not to shower until she said so, and so I waited. I didn’t understand what the big deal was.
It was only a small discolouration; it could have easily been a laundry stain. It didn’t even look red like the fresh blood that came out of my scrapped knees! Yet, I waited without any clothes, for what felt like hours in the cold bathroom.
A few minutes later I heard my Dad near the door. I peeked out to see him, all prepared to explain to him that I was definitely not hurt. To my surprise, he was smiling! I didn’t understand why. Then one by one, every adult in the house came to the bathroom door to greet me. A while later, I heard my Dad making phone calls to everybody he knew saying, “She’s matured!” My Mom still hadn’t returned. I began to cry, not knowing what was happening.
I was worried that I was in trouble for something, but I wasn’t sure what that was. After all the phone calls, my mother finally returned and told me to wash my hair too. So, I stopped crying and did what she said. When I was done, she was waiting outside the door for me with fresh clothes in hand. I was so glad that everything had gone back to normal, until I realized that my mother was trying not to touch me. She dropped the clothes on to my hands and told me to walk towards a partitioned room that was situated next to the living room, without touching anything on the way.
By this point, I was scared, alone, and had no clue about what was happening. The three days that followed were some of the most traumatizing days of my otherwise happy childhood. I was made to sleep on the floor, wear a rag around my shirt so that it would appear as though I was wearing a saree, and I wasn’t allowed to touch/play with my sisters. I was asked to wet my clothes and dishes which would later be sprinkled upon with turmeric water before anybody else could touch them.
After day four, I was finally allowed to touch things again but was made to participate in prayers and celebrations with relatives and friends who I did not even know. That summer ended, I came back home, and that story was forgotten for the time being.
A month or two later, when I went to the bathroom in my school, I saw blood on my underwear again. I freaked out and told my teacher that I saw blood. She immediately called the Headmistress who then called my mother. While we waited for her to pick me up, she explained that what was happening to me was normal for every female on earth, including animals, and she told me of how she went through it too.
That’s when I finally understood! When I went home, I cried out loud and begged my mother not to make me sit aside again. So, from then on, she let me, and later my sisters, to continue to move around the house as we normally did.
Now my youngest cousin, who lives with my grandparents, is made to follow the same practices that I once underwent, every single month! In addition to that, when she is on her period, she is not allowed to see my grandfather’s food being prepared or even speak while he’s eating. The path she takes from the bathroom to the bedroom is ‘purified’ with turmeric water.
She isn’t allowed to take a pain killer for the painful cramps she suffers from because her parents believe that taking tablets during her period could affect her hormones (even as a healthcare professional, I cannot make them change their views). I doubt the poor girl even knows that this subject is not taboo. My mother still does not let us speak out loud about the issue whenever we visit.
I’m so fortunate that I don’t live in that house and that my parents grew to accept the science behind menstruation, leaving its ill practices behind. Although I never had to go through that trauma again, I know that there are millions who cannot escape from it month after month.
Imagine telling a child not to touch her parents or play with her siblings, and not explaining to her why! Why don’t we, the women who understand, speak up? I feel helpless for not being able to speak the truth, but I so deeply wish that I could.
Author: Dr. Vaishnavi Yeleswarapu
Dr. Vaishnavi Yeleswarapu is a healthcare professional. She has worked with a diabetes team in London. She volunteers with NGOs and educates people on health-related taboo topics.
Editor: Divya Rosaline