I remember the first time I learnt of menstruation as a ten year old. One of our friends had been initiated into the secret club of ‘women’, and her frequent visits to the washroom (though I hadn’t noticed it) became a matter of intense curiosity for a bunch of my classmates. I remember one of them asking me if my mother had told me about ‘something that happens to all girls’. No, I could remember no such thing but I remember feeling cheated, as if my mother had kept a secret from me that made me feel inadequate in front of my friends. I remember standing there in the corridor of my all-girls’ convent school, and thinking to myself, ‘There must certainly be that something which could explain the chasm between us and the adults’. The rest of the Sports period was spent chattering about this, with one girl dishing out details which she had gathered from her older sister. I went back home and immediately cornered my mother, asking her, “Do you menstruate?”, not quite understanding then that it was an essential for producing another menstruating body! She laughed at that and was quite relieved at the fact that I knew now, relieved of the duty to have the talk.
A few months later, I had my first period. It was painful and messy. I sat on one corner of the bed watching the 2003 Cricket World Cup with my family through those days, checking in intervals for possible stains. My family watched cricket as I sat there with my lower abdomen squirming and swirling around. All the red ochre circles on the bed sheet were explained away as tea stains by my mother and I was told to be more careful with these things. And thus began the routine of menstruation for me. I, of course, was not allowed in temples. When questioned, the only answer that followed was, “Aise hi hota hai”. (This is how it is)
And thus began a cycle of monthly rashes, the usual episodes of buying sanitary napkins from shops in black polythenes, having to evade my younger brother who would want to see whatever it is I got from the market, lest there be chocolates that I was hiding from him! My stories are similar to those of many others. The usual hide-from-male-members of the family that you menstruate, who must know very well that your breasts did not pop out of nowhere! The only time I could talk of my periods around my father was when a doctor questioned me about my irregular periods. It was pleasantly shocking! But then one must keep in mind that this was possible only because menstruation was being treated as a subject of medical discourse. It was possible for the doctor to enquire about my menstrual cramps, flow and regularity. It was reduced to a non-secret by these coordinates. However, is it still possible for me to talk about menstruation otherwise at the family table? No. Can I? Maybe. Why don’t I try doing it? Because there is a silent code that everyone adheres to.
The one experience that rattled me, left me fuming came right at my graduation. Having lived away from home for 3 years by then, having been trained in Feminist Theory, I had somewhat forgotten how it felt like to menstruate in a pious household. This otherwise very warm Aunt, upon learning that I was bleeding, demanded why I hadn’t informed her about this before roaming about freely in the house. She had rules you see, and as she allotted me inches of space that I could ‘safely’ inhabit in her house, her hands firmly clutching my arm all the while, I decided I didn’t want to play hopscotch anymore. I looked at my mother in disbelief and she looked back at me apologetically, realising I had just been humiliated but clearly implying that she did not want an argument with her rigid sister and that I just ignore it for the while. This is also how my parents were complicit with my school teachers every time they would complain about me hanging out with boys all the time.
Incidents such as these abound in a woman’s life and some give in to believing that their own bodies are impure. It is violence on the integrity of women when you convince them into believing their bodies to be impure and sinful. So many restrictions – right from not touching pickle jars to not sleeping in the same room as their husband and not entering the kitchen (their very own territory). Indeed all this myth making around menstruation is hardly distinguishable from the discourse around a woman’s body and sexuality. It has everything to do with it! Bleeding women can breed and hence must be protected, their bodies must be guarded, they must be told how to deal with their body, how to carry it around, what spaces to inhabit and ultimately put their fertile body to good use with a man of the right caste and money.
The discourse around menstruation in the medical field is hardly any different for most women. The medical discourse can tell women that their menstrual blood is nutritive and pure, that menstrual cramps are part of the deal. However, in a country where menstruation is a taboo, doctors can hardly change women’s experience. Pathologising women’s experiences of menstruation, sanitising it will not help. 88% women in the country do not have access to sanitary napkins. The situation is desperate! I had heard stories about my grandmother using rags, dry leaves, sand and small pieces of rock a few decades ago. While the females in my family might have, with financial stability, progressed on to use sanitary napkins and tampons, most women in the country are still destined to use rags. Sanitary napkins remain a luxury! While there are narratives coming in about the sharp income divide in India which throws up interesting stories about young boys craving for a slice of pizza, women wanting sanitary napkins does not even feature as a legitimate narrative, symbolic of gender and class oppression. Women are not allowed to even want menstrual care when they can’t even occupy spaces inside their own house!
Sanitary products remain inaccessible as business companies have become the sole providers of menstrual products. The government must realise that menstrual products are not luxury items but are essential utilities. They are used by women every month and remain a financial burden with companies overpricing sanitary napkins. Cheaper sanitary pads are manufactured by a few NGO’s which also aim to provide employment to women. There are certain State governments in the country which claim to distribute sanitary napkins to school girls. However, the quality and the outreach of these pads remain questionable. If we do not have an environment in schools where a girl can go up to her male Physical Instructor and ask to be exempted from sports due to menstrual discomfort, then we cannot claim to have provided a conducive atmosphere for her. If we cannot see a girl’s skirt with a bloodstain without being grossed out by it, or without making her feel embarrassed about it, then such an environment is hardly conducive for her to study in. There are bound to be dropouts as is in our country where girls often sit back at home once they reach puberty. If we cannot provide women the vocabulary to express and legitimise their menstrual experience, if we cannot provide menstrual care, subsidised menstrual products, even free pads, tampons or cups, then we can hardly claim to provide them equal opportunities in life.
Environmentalists have raised serious concerns over the issue of menstrual waste. Indian women in their ignorance and for lack of better facilities, dispose off tonnes of menstrual waste every day. Sanitary napkins and tampons have non-biodegradable plastic in them. And hence, menstrual cups are a better alternative. Most women do not know about this. Menstrual cups are not only more hygienic, facilitate better mobility but are also a cheaper alternative. They can be re-used for years if used with proper care. As such, it is time we allowed women access to products such as these which improve the quality of their lives while also minimizing the environmental costs.
However, in a society where menstruation as a subject remains taboo, it becomes difficult to generate debates such as these. And with their padlocked vaginas, it will be even more difficult to promote a product that is to be ‘inserted’ inside the vagina without raising debates around masturbation and virginity. More women need to revolt daily against these prejudices, and fight back and clamour for better menstrual care. If we cannot deal with the fact that every time one walks on the street, takes a bus or a metro, works in an air-conditioned office or studies in a stuffy classroom, there are beings who are doing the very same activity but with blood trickling out of their vagina, then we cannot think of a world which does not discriminate based on gender. It is indeed some performance when women must not let a drop show on their clothes, strut around as if their insides are not screaming out, and pretend to enjoy the day! One sees that it is not only rural areas, but urban spaces that need to be tackled too. The kind of aggressive jokes around PMS only go on to show that while menstruation may have entered conversations, people are not ready to understand the mechanism. It is offensive every time a woman is questioned whether she is PMSing if she has an opinion or is in anyway irritated!
When a group of us took to the streets, putting up sanitary napkins with slogans against sexism and rape culture on the Delhi University Campus, trying to fight the invisibilisation of menstruation and menstrual products (my genuinely concerned male friend was amazed when he touched a pad for the first time), we overheard people complaining. They were not happy about the use of pads in our campaign, but they claimed that they were okay with the slogans, of course. When we marched on the streets, calling out for everyone to come out and see the blood on our skirts, I received messages telling us to donate sanitary napkins instead of waving them around because it grossed people out. The only answer one has for people like these is that women must not have to menstruate comfortably owing to the charity and goodwill of a few. NGO’s can only cover small locales and a limited number of women. Why must others be denied and forced to bleed into rags only to suffer from chronic reproductive diseases or even die due to induced cervical cancer? It is time we address this and we must begin by talking more about it, by fighting these taboos. It is time that we ensure menstruation is not a nightmare of an experience for another woman! Until women cannot legitimise this one experience of theirs, it is unlikely that they can contribute equally to society or even live as beings with dignity.