Last week, when I read Corinne’s post on #PeriodPride, I was very inspired to find out more about it – more so, because it is a topic that is considered such a stigma and an embarrassment. I have always felt so strongly about this issue that I knew I had to put in a post to say the things that I’ve always wanted to say. Here goes mine:
People call it by various names …’Leak Week’….’Crimson Tide’…’Flo Jo’…’riding the cotton pony’. Instead, why not just call it periods? That’s just what it is, isn’t it?
Women have to deal with it every month – it makes us cry, scream, wallow in misery, pop pills, lie low, lie-in quietly, overwork, because, most of the time, we can’t seem to spell out that we need a little rest. Instead, we suffer in silence, pretending everything is normal, suffering quietly because we do not wish to talk about it.
It’s a perfectly normal function of a female body – this routine shedding of the uterine linings every 28 days, when you bleed for 3-7 days each month. It’s perfectly normal to feel abdominal cramps, moodiness, depression, food cravings, fatigue, headaches, or worse still, migraines and bloating, acne, tenderness in the breasts and muscle aches. That is quite a lot of things happening to your body during those few days. Believe me, it is tough during those days. It really is!
Knowing what to expect makes you ‘prepared’ before the day first arrives in your life – the ‘menarche’. In some societies, there are traditional ceremonies associated with this ‘coming of age’. I remember this because I once attended one, and I found it strange that this girl (she was only 12) dressed as a bride and showered with gifts, as she sat silently before a roomful of ladies. I’m clueless what she was going through but, that day, she certainly didn’t look happy to me! I was still unaware of what it was because I had two more years to go before my ‘first’ day arrived.
Here, I feel, mothers have a duty to explain things to the girl child before she experiences it for the very first time. If you are prepared, you may already feel half the battle is won. I know I did because my mom had explained everything to me well in advance. What I was not prepared for, however, was the emotional turmoil that came with it each month, and it took me a long time to accept my body, but, only after going through years of inner turmoil, and realising how challenging it was to be a girl with all those changes happening to your body.
I clearly recall, what a shocker it was, to discover how the world at large saw it, especially when dealing with social mores and religious customs. This was most obvious when we were visiting elderly female members of the family, who kind of stigmatized you during those days, instead of helping you to deal with it.
Through the centuries, one of the earliest things driven into our collective consciousness is the shame and embarrassment that comes associated with the word ‘periods’. From a young age, girls are taught that they’re not meant to talk about it or discuss it in public or in the presence of men. A ‘period’ is thought to be so shameful that it is made a taboo. So much so that parents have an awkward time discussing it with children. Even period commercials show a blue metaphorical liquid, instead of red to signify blood!
Historically, menstruation has always been seen as a stigmatized condition that has not only reflected, but also reinforced women’s perceived lower status in relation to men. Feminist scholars believe this negative attitude towards women’s bodily functions is rooted in the stigmatization of menstrual blood that is seen as one of the “abominations” of the body and has always reflected a gendered identity among women. As a result, women have been socially conditioned to perpetuate that by continuing to thrust the tradition of social seclusion on bleeding women, in varying degrees, through customs and tradition, that have been handed down from one generation to the other.
So, how do we make the change?
My thinking is, any shift that needs to be made in such a situation, is an obvious challenge because it involves changing mindsets, one of the most difficult areas to work upon!
Religious practices only help to make this worse. I know Hinduism considers menstruating women ritually impure, barring them from entering kitchen premises and temples, participating in holy rituals, touching certain food items, touching other males and females and sometimes (rather bizarrely) even talking loudly. This, in many ways, has been humiliating, insulting and demeaning to women.
This is exactly, what we need to change.
Time and again, we’ve seen how religious practices have only helped to ensure that women stay in hiding, and the topic of menstruation is generally slipped under the carpet. If we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. In urban societies, it is the sense of ‘shame’ that forces women to suffer in silence. In rural communities, the problem is far worse.
Can you see the link between period stigma and women’s economic oppression?
Firstly, girls are not allowed to talk about or reveal that they experience periods. Next, we make it extremely expensive and inaccessible to actually conceal it – pads are a luxury for most rural communities, and tampons are not a practical solution for most societies that are extremely protective of women’s virginity. Hygiene is a contentious issue.
For a lot of women, being silent about it and the fact that it is expensive to clean up, happen to be the two main factors that make them end up staying at home each month, missing school and growing up to feel ashamed about their bodies. Moreover, when accidents do happen and a girl stains herself, boys often make fun of them and this only aggravates things further. When the girls miss school, they lag behind the boys, because they lack the knowledge, the information and the confidence which immediately puts them at an economic disadvantage.
Truth be told, if you feel you have no power, you will behave like one who doesn’t have any. It is as simple as that. This can happen to anyone – irrespective of gender.
It perpetuates a cycle of women that have low self-esteem, lack of information and lack of physical and emotional resources that can alleviate them out of poverty.
Although menstruation stigma is only one of many systemic factors that perpetuate gender inequality, it is one that is frequently ignored by all. The best way to deal with this is to combat the silence, and dialogue is the only way for innovative solutions to occur.
We have a lot of work to do as a society to build together a world, that understands and respects the needs of every woman. In this respect, Naari a social enterprise, working in the space of Menstrual Hygiene Management has been consistently working towards providing safe and hygienic periods for all women in sustainable and eco-friendly ways, by encouraging women to accept menstruation gracefully. Their three main pillars of strength are education about green menstrual practices, adoption of basic hygiene and safe disposal of sanitary products.
If any change needs to be brought about, the first thing that needs working upon is our attitude. As women, we need to talk more openly about it, accept that we may have difficult days, talk about why we are unable to be at our best on those days, when pain holds us back and become more accepting of our bodies.
This can only be done by addressing women’s needs more openly than we do now and ensuring that women especially from the under-privileged strata of society are offered the right kind of knowledge, support and resources that allow them to live with dignity which effectively helps to break the shackles that keep them tied to their homes.
It needs courage to let go of what we’re comfortable with, and embrace the new. Are we ready to accept #Periodpride? Are we ready for change?