I was 9 years old when I started my menstrual cycle. My mom had a ‘talk’ with me one day. She told me I would see some blood in my panty and that it’s normal and I don’t need to worry. It will happen every month. I would need to use a pad and when it happened she would show me. That was our only talk on menstruation. Soon after that ‘Aunt Flo’ came and would show up at my door promptly every month. I remember, the 1st time it happened, mom made me skip school, it was my day off. I guess she wanted to monitor and see how I felt. I was only in grade 3; too young to understand why it was happening to me when all of my friends didn’t experience it till almost a year later.
Growing up in India ‘periods’ was a topic never openly discussed at home. I learnt about it briefly in my biology class but that was all the ‘education’ I received. What I do remember were horrible cramps the first two days of my cycle and being heavily dependent on pain medicines to get me through the days. Some days I would lie down screaming on the floor with menstrual cramps. My mom was always there to help and take care of me.
As I grew older, along with my periods came a sense of embarrassment and an urgency to hide the experience. As if it was my fault that I was bleeding and I had to make sure others didn’t know about it. Those 5 days were my secret days, I had to act like something secretive was happening to me and I had to hide it from my father or brother. Don’t let them know. Use code language like “I am on my cycle”, “It’s that time of the month”. The pharmacist across the road would wrap my pads in brown paper and then in black polythene before giving it to me. I felt like I was buying drugs from him and we had to keep it all under cover. My grandmother and aunt believed that girls (and women) must not visit the temple when on their periods. I was repeatedly told not to enter the ‘puja’ room when on my cycle. A custom I would love breaking. I would secretly step into the tiny room at home while on my periods just to see how ‘God’ would react. Trust me he didn’t mind it.
In a recent twitter discussion (#sayftychat) organized by Sayfty, women shared various cultural practices they grew up with around periods. Some common themes that emerged across the board were that periods are considered impure and women are made to feel ‘dirty’ when on their menstrual cycle. Silence hounds the topic and most people (specially girls) are uncomfortable discussing it in public.
In Swaziland, if a woman is on her periods she is not allowed to do household chores, like cooking, washing dishes and is suppose to keep a distance from the kitchen. She is considered as someone who is ‘dirty’. Girls on their periods are punished and not allowed to play with other kids. They are expected to stay at home. The elderly women of the house instill fear and sadness in them.
In some parts of Nepal (mostly rural) girls are banished to sheds during their periods. Most sheds have thatched roofs and some have walls but in some cases, that’s missing too. It’s a traumatic experience for girls to be banished to these so called “sheds’’ while on their periods. While one would expect that it’s usually the men who would ostracize women during their periods, it’s actually the grandmothers who enforce such rules in Nepal. In fact they have a national holiday so that women can wash themselves of menstruation sins.
In countries like India and Pakistan, everything and everybody is hush-hush around menstruation. One must keep it a secret. Hide it from the male members. It starts from wrapping sanitary pads in brown paper bags to preventing women from entering places of worship. In fact it is such a big taboo in Pakistan that one of our Pakistani male participants discussing menstruation during the twitter chat received an SMS chiding him for talking about this subject publicly on Twitter. The community frowns upon it. Ironically, there is deep-rooted global shaming around menstruation in every country at different levels, even in developed countries like UK and the US. In some Indian houses, girls and women on periods are not allowed to visit the temple, touch pickles, tulsi and in some cases their kids and husband.
While there are not many menstruation-positive cultural practices, in some Punjabi culture, it’s absolutely normal to have your periods and read the Guru Granth Sahib. In a temple in Assam, menstruating goddess Kamakhya devi is worshipped and considered auspicious, thereby signifying that it’s not the religion that brings the shame, it’s the culture. The younger generation has started challenging tradition. Some menstruation-positive cultural practices could include providing education before menarche. This will help break the taboo and develop healthy habits.
Currently there exist no formal or informal rituals around the start of menstruation. A big hug, chocolates, pads and sharing own stories and period education would be a great way to bring attention to the subject and eliminate fear and embarrassment. Periods need to be normalized and the only way to do it by talking more about it. A casual sit down chat about it by moms and educators would be a great place to start. Regardless of gender, we should talk to our kids about the concept of menstruation. Provide them the necessary education to remove the stigma associated with it. What better day than today to get this conversation started and take a step towards breaking the taboo.