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I was taught that a menstruating woman was impure, and that sex always causes pregnancy, among other things, by my mother and teachers, and had to search for my own answers later.
While watching the film Padman set in rural India, and which shows the menstrual myths amongst the rural un-educated or under educated women, I realised that the scene is not much different in urban India. Growing up in an urban family, having a sophisticated, working mother, I too was socialized into believing that menstrual blood is dirty.
When I had my first period at the age of 12, I was given an irresponsible crash course on reproduction. Years later a few of the things I was told then would come back to haunt me, and I would find out on my own about the mysteries of reproduction.
As a child I was only told this by my mother: that every month an egg is released and it waits for getting fertilized by a sperm, and when it doesn’t, it’s expelled from the body along with the lining (endometrium) formed in her uterus. This was all the information I was given (even if technically correct), and on which I survived for many years to come, till I myself sought information about reproduction and the female body.
Along with the idea of ‘dirty blood’ being expelled from the body, I was also inculcated with the idea of women’s untouchability during their menstruation by my educated, urban mother.
As a child I always saw that in those 5 days my mother wouldn’t perform puja, and would instead instruct me to perform it. I also noticed how my mother would avoid my touch while I was on my periods while she performed puja. For years to come she would always justify this as something she did out of her own choice; just a harmless practice that she followed.
No, in urban India, a woman is probably not banished from the kitchen or made to spend her nights in the veranda while she menstruated, but the fundamental idea that menstruation is something ‘profane’ as opposed to the idea of ‘sacred’ pervaded my middle class urban home, and does so in many urban homes even today. A few of my friends were socialized with even weirder notions about menstruation. I had a friend who was told that women need to shampoo their hair after their fourth day, or she would still be ‘impure’, and she followed it.
At school, great care was taken by girls so as not to stain their white uniforms on their menstrual days.
Our school which happened to be a co-ed school, never provided information on menstruation. It was a school were chapters on plant reproduction were taught more zealously and in greater detail than human reproduction, where questions from a boy of class 7 about how the sperm gets to meet the ova was shushed by “That is not in the syllabus” by our biology teacher.
For many years I was under the impression that unprotected sex can lead to pregnancy at all times. I didn’t know about the process of ovulation – the cycle of 28 days, and that women are fertile for 2 days in each cycle,… I sought out this information at a much older age.
I had also come to know about the existence of tampons much later, when I was seeking out relevant information about menstrual hygiene by myself. When I came to know about tampons, I had asked my mother why hadn’t she inform me about their existence during my teenage years. To which my mother had replied, that she thought tampons couldn’t be used by ‘unmarried’ women. Here by ‘unmarried’ what she really meant is ‘virgin’!
While the dialogue around menstruation in the West and other developed countries is mostly about dispelling myths about tampons, and the idea that you can’t get pregnant when you are menstruating, in our country and many developing and underdeveloped countries we are still fighting to dispel the myth of menstrual blood being ‘dirty’.
Not only do we have to fight with others to allow ourselves to accept our own bodies, we also have to grow up with inadequate information as imparted by our parents and teachers, and finally we also had to face the consequences of being imparted inadequate information.
Of course children hitting puberty in today’s times don’t necessarily have to face the problems we did as a 90s and early 2000s’ children. The internet was only used then to obtain information for doing school project work; the infinite corpus of knowledge that the internet contained was unknown by children of that time. As a result children such as us grew up into ill-prepared, ill-informed women.
Header image is a still from the movie Queen
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Research scholar with a passion for writing, music, art, cinema and animation.
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