It was a hot, August morning in 2014. The bright sunlight peeking through my bedroom window woke me up at around 8 am. I reluctantly walked to the bathroom, eyes half closed, tired and sore from all the frenzy exercise that I took part in the previous day. I could hear my grandmother nagging me to take a bath and come to the kitchen for breakfast, in the background.
Lazily, I undressed myself and stood under the shower, letting the cold water soothe my nerves. While I was only starting to enjoy my time in the shower, humming to the music coming from my grandfather’s radio that he always made us listen to; loud bangs on the bathroom door jostled me into the world of reality. My grandmother asked me to be quick with the shower and unlock the bathroom door. As a super pissed teen who was just asked to “hurry-up”, I hastily washed myself and unlocked the door, prepared with a speech on ‘Why I should not be disturbed while I’m in the bathroom’ but what came next, was not something that I was prepared for.
My grandmother held my unwashed underwear in her hands, one that I had kept aside in my pile of dirty laundry. She asked me to stand aside and not touch anything around me. While I was only trying to wrap my head around what was happening this early in the morning, I noticed brown stains on my underwear. This was something I had heard about a hundred times from my aunts and older relatives in the past few years, the beginning of menarche; although not in an explanatory way that taught me anything about my anatomy but in a way that enforced taboos like the purity complex, virginity and the sole purpose of my body being able to bear children someday in the future. However, they hardly ever mentioned the stigma that would automatically be attached to my bleeding body for the rest of my life.
I come from one among many cultures where a child entering menarche is celebrated as a huge occasion, symbolizing their fertility or in more honest words, indoctrination of young minds into submitting to patriarchy. If you’re wondering the reason I’m complaining about a party thrown in my name, let me tell you 'why'. I was made to sleep on the floor for three days without any natural sunlight coming in through the windows; I wasn’t allowed to go out of my room, appear in front of or god forbid, touch my male relatives; I could go to the bathroom only at dusk or dawn; and I wasn’t allowed to consume any solid or liquid food for 24 hours until a Brahmin astrologer read my charts and advised my grandmother on what I can or cannot consume. As any orthodox religious person would do, my grandmother too made sure that I had no other option but to follow the above mentioned rituals, all for “my well being”.
Now, let’s take a moment and imagine the confusion inside the head of a 12 year old child who just found out that they are going to bleed for 5 days each month, for the coming years of their life and will be alienated repeatedly without explanation. For me it was utter, inner chaos.
One afternoon, when I was in high school, back in 2016, I was lying next to my grandmother, listening to stories of her childhood. We were discussing her experience with living in a joint family and the love that she shared with all of her siblings and cousins when the topic of her celebration of menarche came into being. She told me that I was only lucky to be born at a time where menstrual hygiene products existed and periods didn’t mean the end of education. For a moment I silently acknowledged the fact that I was indeed born with far more privilege than she was; neither did have to use old rags to soak my period blood nor did I have to sleep in a bed of hay for 4 days every month and the worst part of my self-realization was that these practices are still not extinct from many rural areas. I softly held her hand and whispered that I was sorry that she was forced to go through such a traumatic experience with her periods, to which she replied, “Am I really doing the same with you?” That conversation made me realize that we live in an environment where expressing one's anger against patriarchy is also a privilege and not each of us have access to that.
India has one of the largest adolescent populations in the world, also making us the largest group who are mostly unaware of how their own bodies function. Along with the cultural and religious stigma attached to menstruation in our families where we aren’t even informed about the changes that our bodies go through during puberty; our education system also does a poor job in disseminating the required information and creating an inclusive, pleasure-positive environment for the adolescents. However, the underlying reason why since ages menstruators have been denied agency over their own bodies is because everything, starting from the institution of family to marriage and reproduction; is based on the superstructure of patriarchy that is threatened by people taking charge of their own anatomy.
It took me years to initiate conversations around the traditions that I was forced to adhere to. Every month I made sure to take part in one secret act of rebellion for myself, starting with touching things around me that I wasn’t allowed to touch and with my growing restlessness I even lied about my periods to attend a few religious ceremonies even though I have never been religious. The notable fact here is that period stigma will exist as long as the communication gap between the menstruators and the non-menstruators exists. It is the patriarchal power dynamic and the lack of information that prevents people from questioning and breaking free from societal norms that never even made sense to them.
For the longest duration, I blamed my grandmother for the trauma that she passed on to me in the name of tradition but as I grew up and got my hands on more resources; I realized that the only reason this entire exploitative system has survived through centuries was because it was successful in preventing the marginalized sections from unionizing. As a staunch believer of the phrase "personal is political”, I finally began to understand how deep rooted the problem is and that my grandmother was only another victim like me. Fast forward to 7 years and hundreds of conversations about human anatomy, political power dynamics influencing menstruating bodies later; I am here telling a story.
We all know how intensely the society would have enjoyed seeing one victim pitted against another but that’s not how this story ends because every question raised against the patriarchal system, including the ones inside our head, is an act of rebellion in itself. So, what’s your story?