I stared at my blood stained panties, sitting on the toilet seat, knowing exactly what it was. “Period! I finally had my period!”
Even-year-old Reeti was so happy. I knew about periods from my mother and elder sister, not because they told to me about what menstruation would be like, but because of my sister’s severe period cramps and their “untouchable days,” where my older female role models were not allowed to enter certain areas in the house.
I was ecstatic when my mother taught me to wear a sanitary pad. I still remember that even though I did not attend school that day, I kept checking my sanitary pad every 30 minutes and looking at the blood on it. I was smiling every time I saw the blood in my panties and the “womanhood” I had entered.
But I soon realized “womanhood” was not about getting your period the next day when my mother asked me to tell everyone that I had missed school because I had diarrhea. I did not know why my mother had asked me to lie, but I did so because I wasn’t allowed to question it either. I suppressed the urge to boast my friends about my period. At age 11, I knew womanhood in my society meant silence and there was no place for questions.
I remember not revealing the secret of my period to anyone, not even my best friend, until she found a sanitary pad during the second month of my cycle. I remember being ashamed when she held out a sanitary pad and asked me what it was. Slowly, a few of my friends started to find out and while playing “catch”, in the playground, my friends would tell me, “After your periods, you should not touch or get near boys. Or else you will get a baby in your tummy.”
I did not know whether the statement was true or false then, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking my sister or mother because of the taboo associated with menstruation in my society. But slowly I stopped playing “catch” with boys and started playing “pebble games,” which was seen as a more appropriate activity for girls my age and did not involve running around with boys.
After two or three cycles, I learned what my sister meant when she said that “period means pain” when I started having cramps like her. It was worse for a girl of grade 5 who had to lie about it and simply endure the pain in class.
Slowly, as I entered this “womanhood” I was so excited about, my voice turned from a whisper to silence within a year. During my menstruation I was not allowed to touch or enter the prayer room; I was not allowed to celebrate the biggest Hindu festival of Dashain and Tihar, and after the fourth and seventh day of period flow, I had to purify myself in order to be able to worship again. I couldn’t talk or joke with boys like I had before but apart from it all, I couldn’t even question it. Why wasn’t I allowed to ask why? Why did period talk result in hush and shhh all the time? Why is it a secret when everyone knows that all women in the whole world have their period once every month for almost six days in a row?
In Nepal, I am considered among the “lucky ones,” a city girl whose parents are not orthodox about the traditional practices. In the western and far-western regions of Nepal, menstruation means bad or even dangerous shelter, nutritiousless food and the inability to touch anything. This practice of keeping menstruating and pregnant woman in cow shed is called chhaupadi, which was abolished by law in 2005, but still 12 years later, it is in practice. Women and girls face violence such as rape in the chhau hut. They are bitten by snakes, attacked by wild animals and a few months back a 15-year-old girl lost her life because of suffocation.
I might be “lucky,” but I will not deny that I’m still bound to the shackles of societal norms. Still in my house, period means no prayer. Period means I can’t enter the kitchen. Period means untouchability. A year back, during my period, I visited my grandmother in the city. She may live in the city but she still has orthodox values. When I visited her, I was kept in the terrace to have my lunch, and the lunch plate was slid towards me so that they wouldn’t touch me and make themselves “impure.” I was not allowed to enter the room where all my relatives were sitting. I was kept on a chair outside the room.
Their treatment angered me, but what filled me with extreme rage was my cowardice and inability to stand up for myself. While I was raised in the city, given a quality education, and have taken workshops on how to raise my voice against injustice, I still felt crippled during the time I had to actually use it. The shackles of societal norms silenced me that day. But since then, I have made small efforts like this to get over my inability to stand up for what I believe in. I share my period story today to turn my silence from a whisper to a roar, a roar that urges women to stand up for themselves, a roar to society’s malpractices that silence women, and a roar to help women not be afraid to say, “I have blood in my panties!”