I come from a fairly orthodox family and my upbringing could be described as traditional. Although, the terms ‘orthodox’ and ‘traditional’ vary drastically depending on the context, content and topic in question. The topic, here, though is my period and how the concept of menstruation shaped my life as I grew up in my hometown Jamshedpur (in East India).
I was 13 when I got my first period and I recall it was no less than traumatic. Despite having an older sister, who had already reached puberty, I was unaware and uninformed about menstruation. I remember my first glimpse of blood ‘there’ and all the questions that came with it. Was I suffering from some strange kind of cancer? Had too many cells multiplied in my body and burst and produced so much blood that now it was leaking out of me? This, of course, was my conclusion based on my limited knowledge of biology.
When I told my mother what was happening to me she laughed and explained the process. She explained that this was normal and that it will occur every month. Every month! I was now going to bleed every month for at least three days! The thought of it was scary, gross and unfair! It was perhaps enough to sow the seeds of hatred, perhaps even jealousy, towards men, in general.
If this horrifying knowledge weren’t enough, I would soon learn all of the things that came along with ‘bleeding.’ I would learn that not only had I attained puberty, but, by extension, I had also attained reproductive maturity. My body was now able to conceive an entire new form of life. Again, the thought scared me. I was 13. I hadn’t even had my “first crush” yet and I was told I had the potential to give birth to a baby. Holy crap!
This was a big deal to my family. All my relatives were informed that I had “grown up.” My grandmother, who was alive then, had a private chat with me (which almost never happened as long as we were together) advising me to have as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible to enhance blood flow. My sister just watched as I went through the same process she did, with her “been there done that” face on. And my father, to my surprise, shock and embarrassment, bought sweets home that evening to “celebrate my fertility.”
Try as I might, I could not avoid the enormity of what had just happened to me.
Meanwhile, stomach cramps were killing me. They still do. Not to mention the PMS (Pre-menstrual stress).
My family, conventional as it is, had certain ground rules. In our ‘culture’, a woman on her period is considered to be “impure” and “unclean” and hence not permitted to enter the kitchen or the prayer room, so now I was expected to follow them. I was bleeding, suffering physically from all that comes along with it and now I had to suffer from these ‘cultural’ restrictions! This baffled me. It baffles me still that even today it continues to be practiced in most Indian households. Sometimes, it is so extreme that a woman menstruating is confined to a damp dark room for three days!
I spent the first few months of my newly attained teenage life fighting and arguing with my family, particularly my mother, on these bizarre, outdated rules. I did not understand how, something biologically decided (or theologically ordained, as the case may be) be offensive to ‘God’? Would it really be offensive if I entered the prayer room, or any room for that matter? Why is it seen as a curse? Is it a curse that comes with womanhood? If so, why was the fact that I had attained reproductive maturity celebrated, in the first place? Does that not amount to hypocrisy?
It was surprising, even gratifying, when my mother, who herself comes from an even more orthodox upbringing, gave up on me. Perhaps she threw in the towel more out of exhaustion than acceptance of the validity (if any) of my arguments. My father never believed in such rules, and he showed this by being the ‘liberal dad’ buying mine and my sister’s sanitary napkins when we felt ashamed to purchase them in the supermarket ourselves.
Of course, today, at 22, I purchase my own sanitary napkins. And I’m sometimes so brazen about it that I embarrass the store clerk. I get the “I can’t believe she’s doing that” look. But, frankly, I don’t care. I buy my sanitary napkins, and I buy them openly.
I’m appalled to hear stories of friends, cousins, relatives, acquaintances who still have to hide their menstruation or undergo the agony of being treated as an untouchable, isolated from the rest of humanity for incomprehensible reasons. Please leave the bleeding woman alone. You don’t have to offer sympathy (which some irritating folks do in an attempt to cheer her up). Neither do you have to offer her advice. Just let her live her life bleeding or not, and let her do it on her terms. Don’t thrust rules on her to announce your domination or power over her. The ‘your’ being one of the oldest forms of oppression that ever existed: patriarchy (and its many agents).
Just let her be. She’s already leaking blood.
Author: Deepa Ranganathan
Deepa is a part-time writer, full-time reader, rumoured activist and an alleged feminist. She likes coffee, dark chocolate and books (but not necessarily in that order). An experimental cook and an enthusiastic bathroom singer, she basks in the wonderland of procrastination. Her areas of interests include gender sensitization rights for sexual minorities and gender and media. She is @SinfullyAlive on twitter and blogs at: Colours on my palette
This article has also appeared here.