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Pads wrapped in black bags, talking to other women in 'code' about periods, changing channels when pad ads come on TV: we do our best to hide the truth of menstruation from boys and men.
Last week I saw this brilliant ad from Stayfree.
For the uninitiated, it involves situations where little boys got curious about the various signs of menstruation. There was a boy asking his mother what a period is. A little brother on spotting his sister’s pad asks her about it. A son asks his father to explain a sanitary napkin commercial.
The video then went on to show how all of them get shifty, and uncomfortable. They refuse to answer such simple questions from the genuinely curious boys.
I showed this video to my husband, and recalled how I’d have to hide my pads away. Whenever I had to change my pad, I used to tuck it in my skirt’s elastic so that it wouldn’t be visible to my father. I even remember sitting and waiting for the ‘right moment’ to go to the bathroom, disregarding my own discomfort.
It has taken me almost 20 years to undo this shame and keep my pads in plain sight. Now I do not make any attempts to hide them as I take them to the bathroom.
But it led me to think about why as a 13-year-old, my priority was to make sure my father never got a glimpse of the unspeakable pad.
As I stood in the feminine hygiene aisle of a supermarket last week, my head spun as I saw about 5 sanitary napkin brands and several variations in each of these. There were ones with and without wings, different lengths, day or night pads, scented and unscented just to name a few choices.
I was trying to figure out what would personally suit me and spent a considerable amount of time going through the packs and choosing them.
I understand that being able to do this itself is a huge privilege, although this should be the bare minimum. We bleed for an average of 5 days every month for close to 40 years of our lives. Shouldn’t there be access to resources that can help us in whatever way possible during such times?
If I had chosen to shop for a pad at a medical store instead, the shopkeeper would’ve asked me what brand I needed in a tone that might have made people think we were doing some sort of illegal trade. He would have then proceeded to wrap it in a newspaper, and conceal it further in a black polythene bag. This is a crucial step to keep it away from poor, unsuspecting men for whom the sight of a sanitary napkin would be traumatizing!
Even our TV commercials use blue inks to pour on sanitary napkins because anything resembling menstrual blood is a strict no-no. The same audience will watch a bloody, gory movie without flinching. But show them a sanitary napkin commercial, and they will reach out for the remote the next second.
Have you ever referred to your period as “chums” or “Aunt Flo” or with other ridiculous names? This is shockingly prevalent even among grown women having conversations about menstruation. Since our society has conditioned women to never openly talk about our periods, we sadly continue this cycle of shame without attempting to question them.
I remember a particular incident when we had guests at home during Navaratri during my teens. Since I had my period, I was strictly prohibited from going anywhere near our Golu. I was asked to lock myself up inside my room until the guests leave.
Even as I heard a lady ask my mother where I was, she responded that I was “out of doors”. I don’t remember how I felt about it then, but as I think about it now, I can certainly say it was a strong lesson for me to really go out and “stay away” if I had periods.
In India, there are some tribes where the families of menstruating women and girls banish them to “period huts” during their menstrual cycles. This is followed for women bleeding after childbirth too. This has been widely reported from Nepal, where these period huts are called ‘chaupaadi’. There have even been cases of girls and women dying in these circumstances, often due to smoke from fires lit to keep them warm, during winters, and it also exposes them to wildlife. Women literally paying for being women with their lives.
The phrase “out of doors” is actually indicative of this oppressive practice that was once very common across communities and social classes. The women who stay alone in such dilapidated huts undergo trauma month after month, without a way out of it. I say trauma because these huts are devoid of bare minimum facilities, with some of them not even having a door.
The stigma attached to this practice is so deep-rooted that, charities who are trying to help such women, have resorted to providing these women with period huts that are better equipped. Doing away with the practice altogether is a much tougher battle.
Some women themselves believe that if they dared to break this tradition, they will invoke the wrath of their gods and earn bad karma for their families.
So, this tradition of keeping menstruating women away from their own homes, saving the men from the discomfort of having to be around such “impure” women continues generation after generation, in some communities.
On the other hand, urban women have moved on from sanitary napkins to tampons to the relatively new and liberating menstrual cups. And while we have made some progress from the times when our families did not allow us to venture out during our periods, we still have different battles to fight.
Our workplaces are now thankfully seeing more confident, opinionated, decisive women who are more participative. This is new to the fragile male ego, which is struggling to come to terms with the fact that a woman can challenge their ideas unapologetically.
If a woman expresses herself in any tone or voice typically not considered “feminine”, her colleagues unleash a barrage of PMS jokes on her. This is ironic to me and prompts the question – If PMS symptoms are serious enough to interfere with a woman’s work, wouldn’t menstrual leaves be the norm in workplaces?
But even if the law mandates it, how many women will avail of menstrual leaves? How will a woman call up her manager or a colleague every month and inform them that she wouldn’t be able to make it to work because she is on her period? The horrors!
My 5-year-old daughter quizzed me about the sanitary napkin. I am sure my toddler boy will ask me at an even earlier age. I confess that it initially threw me off-guard, and I struggled to come up with a measured and composed response. But I worked on it and went back to respond to her later, explaining about periods in an age-appropriate way.
Since our conditioning runs deep, it takes a fair bit of effort on our part to normalize periods. But if we want to raise a better generation of boys and men, who will neither be horrified nor laugh at the sight of period blood on a woman’s clothes, we must destigmatize menstruation.
Image Credit: Screengrab from the TV advert of StayFree.
Spatika Mozhi - The crystal clear language of my soul, untarnished by societal expectations.
I am passionate about women's issues, and I sincerely try to expand my understanding of events beyond my current social standing. read more...
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