The significance of dialogue and discussion around ‘the red week of our month’.
Why do we hesitate to say that we bleed
Yes, every month for at least thirty long years
It is blood that flows through our vagina
But unfortunately on rags and cloths
Even the privilege of sanitary napkins
Is wrapped in whispers you see
We say it’s that time of the month
And that is enough a reason
To cancel our trips, dance classes
And even a temple visit
Why do we not accept this bleeding
Much biological without societal strings
This is neither impurity nor weakness
This is just menstruation, my monthly routine.
Today mainstream Hindi movies such as PadMan and Phullu have been seen to take a step to acknowledge the taboos around menstruation and unhealthy practices that prevail along with it. With this growth in the discourse regarding menstruation, it is seemingly easier to talk about it. However, hesitance still prevails among women and men while they speak of it. How many men and women actually step out with a packet of sanitary napkins without a black plastic cover or even talk about the importance of menstrual cycle, the need to keep oneself clean?
A term as basic as this is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the process in a woman of discharging blood and other material from the lining of the uterus at intervals of about one lunar month from puberty until the menopause, except during pregnancy”. In biological terms, it is understood as the discharge of blood due to the inability of the ovum in a woman’s body to fertilise, thus causing its discharge through blood and other material at an interval of every 28 days. Despite the simplicity of its definition, we use words and phrases such as “chums”, “that time of the month”, “I’m dirty/impure”, “monthly sickness” to disguise the flow of menstrual blood. Similar descriptions are also seen to be used in multiple vernacular languages.
The problem persists deeper than just the terminology used colloquially, the fact that women bleed renders them impure. Not only does it seclude them from the community, religious and social gatherings, but it also becomes a major reason for girls to drop out of schools. The reason for this being that blood entails shame and curse. “What will happen if others find out”, “She cannot participate in physical activities”, and so on.
Members of a low-income school, run by the Teach for India group working in urban areas, observed that though the number of boys and girls is mostly equal in primary school, the number of girls hugely declines in middle school and stands at the ratio of one girl per six boys. This is sufficient to suggest a worrisome situation in rural India which is further rooted in conservatist practices wherein women sleep separately, are prohibited entry into the kitchen and places of worship during their menstrual cycle.
The issue regarding menstruation is the taboo and secrecy conditioned in us by the society, our families as well as our school teachers. It is high time that we understand that menstrual cycle isn’t any of God’s punitive actions or a result of witchcraft. More importantly, it isn’t blood cancer or any other disease as well. Why should we use cloths or rags and hide them after every wash? These practices and beliefs only worsen the reproductive health of women leaving them vulnerable to infections in the urinary tract and vagina. In addition to this, it places women at the lower end of education levels and weakens their economic contribution to the country. This, in turn, tilts the balance in favour of men allowing them to thrive on their contribution to the society and economy. The reiteration of such conservatism is strengthened by the silence surrounding menstruation. While it is important for older women to unshackle these norms, it is equally important for men to understand the cycle as a natural biological phenomenon. One way to broaden the discourse on the subject is through open discussion within families, open discussions with the fathers and even schools that the taboos may be broken.
In the course of my research about menstruation, I found that the discourse in the English language, although more recently in India, has been flexible about menstruation, its surrounding taboos and the necessity of hygienic conditions while bleeding. It is disturbing to see that information disseminated about the subject in the Hindi language is limited to the discussion about “what is menstrual cycle”, “rules to be followed during periods” and “menstruation and religious prayers”. Elementary google searches yielded that there was a lack of commentary on the subject, hence obliterating any discussion on the prevailing taboos surrounding it. Even a widely read Hindi newspaper such as Dainik Jagran had minimal articles about menstrual taboos or about the recent movies which aim to diminish them. It is undeniable that this orthodoxy is deeply embedded in our socio-religious practices. However, the language also remained obstinate in attempts to transform such beliefs.
While it is essential to talk about menstruation, it is equally important to initiate a discourse in languages which have a wider outreach to the local Indians. It is here that one needs to be able to say without shame “Yes, I bleed every month”. The moment we all accept it as a part and parcel of our normal routine, it will no longer be a reason to outcast us in any society.
Feature Image Credit: chuttersnap on Unsplash
Shivani Gayakwad is a Volunteer Researcher at One Future Collective and a Researcher for Compliance, Forensics and Intelligence at Control Risks India. She has expertise in South Asian politics and an ardent interest in women’s menstrual health and financial independence.
TedX Talks. A Taboo-Free Way to Talk about Periods | Aditi Gupta | TEDxGatewayWomen. YouTube, YouTube, 29 Oct. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v.
Menon, Aneesha. “The Nirmal Bharat Yatra — Breaking the Menstrual Taboo And Other Barriers.” The Better India, The Better India, 2 Nov. 2012, www.thebetterindia.com/6221/the-nirmal-bharat-yatra-breaking-the-menstrual-taboo-and-other-barriers/.
Singh, Tanaya. “Why Should Girls Quit Schools Once They Get Their Periods? Two Women in Mumbai Fight the Taboo.” The Better India, The Better India, 27 May 2016, www.thebetterindia.com/55968/mukti-project-mumbai-menstrual-health/.
Mapping and negotiating power
Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world
Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice