The piece is a part of a collaboration between Breakthrough India and Youth Ki Awaaz for the #StandWithMe campaign. Join us as we seek to get conversations going around how we can create gender inclusive safer spaces. #StandWithMe, Be my safe space.
“How many of you will be comfortable with walking across the college garden with an uncovered packet of sanitary napkins in your hand?” asked Karthika, a final year student at the Calicut Medical College. As she posed this question to the members of the literary club, I knew no hands would go up. It was our monthly literary club meeting and Karthika was trying to invite attention to the taboo that is menstruation and garner support for the Happy to Bleed movement. I smiled skeptically.
My two years at Calicut Medical College had taught me that despite being budding doctors, most students here had prehistoric mindsets. This was especially true when it came to gender issues. There were boys who refrained from examining female patients. There were girls who meticulously covered their sanitary napkins in black covers and considered their own body, a dirty secret. All my previous attempts to conduct an open discussion in support of the Happy to Bleed movement had been futile and most of the girls were comfortable with the shrouds of silence that surrounded female sexuality.
When Karthika repeated the question, I could sense the disappointment in her words. The girls in the meeting room were silent, most of them coyly staring at their laps or mobile phones. I knew it was time to break the silence. “It is a fact that all the textbook knowledge we have gobbled up has not prevented us from treating female bodies as dirty and unspeakable,” I said. I talked about a large number of women who suffer silently from health problems just because menstruation is a taboo topic. Most of us had seen women using dirty rags during their periods and girls with little scientific knowledge about their bodies. “If medicos don’t speak out against this, who else will?” asked Karthika again and this time her question received several nods of agreement.
“So what are we going to do,” Maiz, a junior of mine, asked enthusiastically. We brainstormed for ideas. Some of the suggestions which came up in the meeting included conducting awareness classes for the public, poster making, essay competitions etc. However, we needed something that would really reach out and make a difference. James suggested conducting a micro tale competition. “Let us weave our protest, agony and hope into micro tales,” he said and plans were laid out to conduct a micro tale competition titled ‘Haiku’. As soon as the posters were put out, entries flowed in, wiping away all my pessimism and apprehension.
The first tale we received was from Gowtham, who talked of the taboo associated with menstruation as crucifixion. Another person, Anuna, sent in a small poem about the red stains that adorn her skirt every month. One Anjana wrote about the paranoid girl who checks the back of her skirt every now and then. The micro tales contained a myriad of emotions, ranging from happiness to anger and hope. The posters were shared on social media by students of other colleges as well. Haiku soon became a national level competition, with many participants from Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and even France.
In four days, we received more than a hundred entries. Writer and activist, Dr. Asma judged the competition, selecting five winners. “It is indeed a bold attempt,” she commented as she announced the names of the winners. Nikita Azad, Arjun Unnikrishnan and numerous other social activists from across India voiced their support for Haiku. Our proudest moment was when we compiled all the micro tales into a book. Each page in that book conveys a different emotion and a different viewpoint.
Every time I feel unsure of myself, I clutch the Haiku book close to my heart, and remind myself of all the difference that a single act of courage can make. Flipping through the micro tales makes me feel hopeful and energetic. The book was quite a big moment for us but the most important achievement of Haiku would be that we made menstruation a topic of open discussion in the college. I think of my 15-year-old self who underwent a flood of negative emotions when she saw blood on her skirt for the first time. I think of all the restrictions that were imposed on me the moment I stepped into womanhood. Somehow, now I had found the courage to pick myself up and fight back. The micro tales tell me to continue doing the same; to argue, to rebel and to make a difference.