I had been only recently married when a religious festival came around and my mother-in-law, a liberal by every yardstick, asked me if I was having my period.
I belong to a generation where body fluids, male or female, were never discussed in public, or come to think of it, in private. My mother gave me a handbook with anatomical diagrams that listed out what to expect, and considered her job done. I had grown up steeped in standard good-girl protocol that required me to mumble the name of that unmentionable product to an equally mortified shopkeeper who then handed me my plastic-encased packet as if it was contraband.
So, my college roommate Sohaila Abdulali’s response to my suggestion that we keep our sanitary napkins out of sight—“We are supposed to be ashamed of being women?”—came to me as a revelation.
Nearly 30 years later, Sohaila now writes a column on being a woman for Mint Lounge. And I am beginning to understand when and how menstruation became a feminist issue.
But, let me complete my story about my mother-in-law and the religious festival. Since I was to participate in a puja, it was essential that I was pure, which meant not menstruating. I was embarrassed by her question, but also affronted.
If our culture places such a premium on being a mother, I asked, then how could I be ostracized for a biological function that was designed to ensure procreation? Weren’t the goddesses of the Hindu pantheon also mothers?
My mother-in-law was convinced. Although she died in 1994, I couldn’t help remembering this exchange after the head priest of Kerala’s Sabarimala temple—ironically named after Sabari, Ram’s devoted female disciple—declared that he would allow women entry only after a machine was invented to scan if it is the right time for them to be admitted.
The man of god shares modern India’s traditional squeamishness. It is the right time that determines whether women are to be allowed into many kitchens. If it’s not the right time, the mere touch of a polluted hand can cause such calamities as a jar of pickle to spoil.
These are mere inconveniences compared with what journalist Maitreyee Handique, then with Mint, saw when she travelled in 2011 to villages in Madhya Pradesh where women spent five days every month in the cattle shed, sitting bleeding on a rag, or its substitute blotters that included straw, wood shavings, ash, newspapers, hay and plastic.
In 2012, Karnataka-based NGO Janwadi Mahila Sanghatane documented how women of the Kadu Golla community were literally banished from their villages and kept in open fields while menstruating.
On the rare occasion when we do talk of menstruation, we talk of self-help groups and their social mission of providing affordable sanitary napkins. Menstrual Man is a documentary on A. Muruganantham who won a National President’s Award in 2009 for his efforts; Anshu Gupta of non-profit organization Goonj won a Magsaysay Award last year and makes sanitary napkins from waste cloth. Hurrah for these wonderful men.
What we still don’t talk about is menstruation itself. Even ads that use a blue liquid to demonstrate the superior absorbing power of sanitary napkins resolutely shun the terms ‘menstruation’ and ‘blood’ as if these words would cause our TV screens to dissolve in horror.
Let’s be clear. There is nothing salubrious about any body effluent, regardless of gender and which orifice it emerges from. But menstrual blood alone is regarded with such horror that it demands the social exclusion of the offending woman. How is it that across time, culture, religion and geographical border, something that is so biologically humdrum for half this world’s population remains so firmly hidden out of sight?
So, while I am somewhat late to this party, I have to applaud a new generation of women trying to break the silence. Not for them the euphemisms and the general shame-faced avoidance of my generation.
#HappyToBleed is a week-long social media campaign that was launched on 21 November in response to the Sabarimala head priest’s purity comments by Nikita Azad, a second-year BA student. Speaking on the phone from Patiala where she lives, she said that her campaign aims to “fight against menstrual taboos that exist across all religions”.
She is not alone. In Toronto, Rupi Kaur sparked a controversy last year when her photo essay on menstruation fell prey to Instagram’s social media guidelines. In March this year, anonymous campaigners for the Pads Against Sexism campaign went about Jamia Milia Islamia and Delhi University, sticking sanitary napkins with feminist messages on trees and walls. “Menstruation is natural, rape is not”, one declared. “Period blood is not impure, your thoughts are”.
Battling private stigmatization will take some work. But if these feminist guerillas could get gentlemen like the Sabarimala head priest to perhaps reconsider their ideas of purity, they will be off to a splendid start.
Namita Bhandare is the gender editor of Mint.