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.
Last week, during a particularly difficult and cramp-ridden day of my period, I asked a co-worker whether I could borrow a sanitary pad from her. It wasn’t an uncommon conversation, and in fact, one that I have had often with other women—asking them for pads, tampons, or painkillers—but this time, the reply I got was different.
“Why are you whispering?” My co-worker asked, slightly befuddled, as she handed me the sanitary napkin, and then, I realized something that I hadn’t in all of those earlier conversations—that, without even being conscious of it, I lower my voice while talking about my periods in public.
As someone who is vocal about feminist issues, I have, on many occasions been outspoken about menstrual taboos. Just a few months back, I explained to my 10-year old cousin what periods are, and why they’re completely natural and valid, and had felt a rush of pride on instilling in her the will to fight against myths and biases surrounding the same. I often talk about and stand up for menstrual hygiene in my writing and in real-life, and I often discuss certain aspects of my period in graphic detail (so much detail that it often falls in the ‘Too Much Information’ category) with close friends. However, these friends are all female, because I’m more comfortable talking to them about it because of the shared experience and zero judgement.
Why, then, did I drop my voice to a whisper when asking for a pad in a somewhat public setting – even when that particular space was as liberal and accepting as my office? Why couldn’t I just shake off the taboos?
The Conditioning Goes Deep
I was 11 when I first discovered blood between my legs, and, since nobody had bothered to give me ‘the talk’ from beforehand, I thought I was dying. I ran to my mother, and it was then that she, with shifty eyes and euphemisms, explained to me that I had just got my period for the first time. It was supposed to be a feminine rite of passage, she told me. It was a sign that I was “becoming a woman.” But I had to hide all traces of it, at every turn. I had to be careful to the point that even my own father couldn’t be made privy to my menstruation—whether it be a stray sanitary pad lying around the house, or a discarded wrapper.
Age 13 was the first time I was barred from a puja mandap, because it was the second day of my period. I remember that day very distinctly—it was Durga Puja, and like every excited kid on an Ashtami morning, I had woken up at the crack of dawn and gotten dressed for the pushpanjali. But my mother, again with the shifty eyes and euphemisms, explained to me how I couldn’t even go near the goddess because of the blood between my legs. “You are not pure enough,” she had said, reiterating the age-old patriarchal myth that her predecessors had internalized in her, and I had believed it. The belief had spanned years—and had lasted well into adulthood and through my embracing of feminism.
During Durga puja last year, I was again menstruating on an Ashtami morning. It took a herculean effort to allow myself to break out of my earlier conditioning and to brave the disapproving stares and walk up to the mandap. I was apprehensive throughout—scared that someone would call me out, even though I knew how irrational and ridiculous that fear was (or was it really?). It was hard for me to break out of the conditioning then, and even though my resolve has gotten stronger in the following year, I still find it hard to challenge this conditioning. Even though the heavens don’t come crashing down when I talk about it, and I know how unfounded these myths and fears are, I still, at the back of my mind, hold myself back somehow.
How Do I Unlearn?
It’s a reflex by now—to deny the existence of it, to lower my voice automatically when it comes up. There’s even an actual sanitary napkin brand called ‘Whisper’ – selling their products on the basis of this cultural silencing.
My mother still calls it ‘shorir kharap’—which literally translates to ‘illness’ —and when I’m incapacitated by cramps at the beginning of my cycle every month, she asks me to ‘carry on like nothing’s wrong’. ‘All women experience it,’ she says, ‘Do you hear them complain?’
But that’s the thing, Ma. I never hear them mention it, leave alone complain.
It was only in my second year of college that I found friends with whom I could talk about its nitty gritties. I remember feeling equally ecstatic and relieved while discussing the heaviness of our discharge, the irregularities, as well as other tiny details and symptoms—because I finally felt like I didn’t have to hide.
There are, of course, moments when I successfully defeat the taboo—and those moments come more frequently these days. In writing about it, in discussing it with other women, in imparting that knowledge to my young cousins, and, in challenging various family members on their biases—I feel triumphant, and less like that scared and heartbroken little girl who was stopped from entering the puja mandap on her favourite day of Durga Puja.
To engage in these discussions with men is much more difficult. My father still shies away at the mere sight of a pad, and with male friends (even those who are feminists), there is always a certain point in the conversation after which they are rendered uncomfortable. It’s something that they have been taught as well – to ignore the existence of it, and to gloss over the gory details – and they struggle with breaking out of that conditioning as well.
Hence, that scared little girl still lurks within me somewhere, always cautious when it comes to her periods, even when there is absolutely no need for such caution.
However, the situation isn’t entirely bleak. Every time I engage in discussions about it (with anyone), every time I enter a place of worship while menstruating, is a step in the positive direction. With more time, maybe I’ll stop whispering someday.