One of the first successful books Urvashi Butalia’s feminist publishing imprint Zubaan produced is Shareer ki Jaankari. Designed like a graphic novel, it was created by some 75 women from villages in Rajasthan who were part of a women’s development programme. Elaborate panels in the book describe the reproductive organs and their relation to the menstrual cycle. “We published it because it is the kind of book every feminist publisher dreams about, a book that comes from a grass-roots experience," says Butalia.

Shareer ki Jaankari is fun biology. The first feedback the book got in villages it was meant for was that it was unrealistic to have a book with so many drawings of naked women, that too, some with red drops dripping from their vagina. So the writers created little flaps over the vaginas. The book’s direct, non-fussy and humorous communication about a woman’s reproductive life is refreshing.

We are a culture conditioned to keep the uterus clandestine—out of the bounds of conversation as long as there is no baby inside it.

Buying sanitary napkins in kirana stores and pharmacies in India is as surreptitious as buying condoms. Women mutter the brand they want. The guy behind the counter is quick and avoids eye contact with the woman. He would usually wrap it with opaque plastic and hand it over. Packet in hand you are supposed to slink away. It is a small, routine experience that we have stopped noticing.

Prejudices against a menstruating woman is ancient history, in cultures all over the world. While Africans and Jews consider it evil or exotic, we have made a bleeding girl taboo, dirty or shameful, depending on where we are.

Only last year, a team from a Bangalore organization, Janawadi Mahila Sanghatane (JMS), found after a study conducted with members of the Kadu Golla community in Chitradurga district of Karnataka, that it keeps menstruating young girls and women outside the geographical periphery of their villages. Meenakshi Bali, a professor who represented the organization, told The Hindu: “In many villages we saw more than 10 women aged between 14 and 40 huddled outside in the open field during our visit." When they asked, the women said it was a monthly routine. Bali also told the reporter that before this the Karnataka government had spent 200 lakh to build bhavans or homes in the area for women to stay during menstruation and after childbirth.

Brahmin families in many parts of India, especially in rural areas, still ask their daughters and daughters-in-law to sleep separately, eat separately, not enter the kitchen or touch objects used by other members of the family while they are menstruating. In some states, a girl is dressed like a bride to celebrate her first period. If an unmarried daughter has a gynaecological disorder, something that modern medicine can fix, families prefer not to speak about it or address it because it is considered detrimental to her marital prospects. Menstrual pain is ignored until it becomes unbearable and is obviously symptomatic of a bigger health hazard. For this essay, I spoke to three women, aged between 25 and 41, who suffer from common gynaecological ailments like uterine fibroids and endometriosis. Requesting anonymity, they said their families as well as doctors believe getting pregnant is a big step towards recovery. “It is understood that I should be having a baby soon," one of them said. In the early 2000s, I consulted a famous gynaecologist in Mumbai for the treatment of acute endometriosis, a condition that affects 89 million women in the reproductive age group worldwide and around 25 million in India. Besides the prescription, she cautiously advised, “Your uterus is weeping. You should get married and get pregnant. The rest will get taken care of." After years of consulting doctors who offered different versions of the same advice, some of them referring me to in-vitro fertilization (IVF) specialists as a cure to a painful inflammatory condition, I was lucky to find a doctor who is a specialist.

Mumbai’s Dr Balabhai Nanavati Hospital recently collaborated with HealthCare Global Enterprises Ltd (HCG) to form the BNH HCG Cancer Centre for women, equipped with the latest technology for detecting very early stages of women’s cancers, and counselling and screening about gynaecological health. Nagraj Huilgol, chief radiation oncologist, who is one of a team of doctors running this clinic, says, “After a cancer surgery or before, a woman and her family needs counselling because taboos around women’s diseases are enormous, especially if the woman is young." An advocate against prophylactic mastectomy which, he says, is catching up in the US after actor Angelina Jolie opted for it, Huilgol believes there is still not enough information available for young women to take charge of their gynaecological health—anywhere in the world.

The lack of information, combined with a culture that perpetrates unscientific, warped views of gynaecology puts young women at risk of pain and full-blown debilitation. We inch closer to being versions of Maragret Atwood’s Offred, the hapless and immensely pathetic protagonist in her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred is a two-legged womb who exists to reproduce, in a dark, theocratic republic.

Sanjukta Sharma is deputy editor ofMint Lounge.

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