Asked to hide …
Those were the last weeks of summer vacation in the campus. I was excited to start shopping for the school and be all prepared to be in 3rd standard. I remember going to the supermarket to buy some groceries and school supplies. My mother had asked the store helper if she could point us towards the shelf of napkins. I got excited and shouted ‘Oh, I want napkins too. This time I’ve decided to buy the ones with flowers embroidered on them…’ My mother gave me the deadliest stare of my life. I stopped talking! As we approached the aisle with napkins, I realized those were not hand towels but the white cottony ones with wings-like flaps showed in the commercials. I had no clue why my mother was buying those. The TV commercials didn’t provide me the required information to understand the purpose. That was my first encounter with the hush-hush around periods, which is seen as the norm to be followed by women. I didn’t speak about it openly to anyone until the next five years.
One day I was sitting on the second last bench with two of my best friends in school, having a great time enjoying the Social Studies class and brimming with excitement for the upcoming annual sports day. By the end of the class, I felt some sort of moisture in my underwear and also realized that my uniform was wet. I ignored it thinking that I may just be sweating but I could do it only until my friends noticed and told me that I had stained my dress. Four of them escorted me to the washroom making sure that no one in the corridor could even see that there’s a girl in between them. Two of them who had gotten their periods by then helped me out with using a sanitary napkin.
They also insisted that I wash off the blood that got on my dress, though it didn’t seem like something I had to be ashamed of. I followed to align with their idea of keeping this a private news.
My class teacher then called my mom and told her that I had “matured”, which sounded funny to me. Matured? I was as matured as I was in the morning and the day before. What kind of maturity is she hinting at?, I wondered. On receiving this news, my mother felt a rush of emotions. She was accompanied by three other family members to the school to pick me up. It was funny to see how my father and aunt acted like they did not know why I was being sent home in the middle of the day. My aunt even went to the extent of placing her hand on my forehead and saying “Oh, there’s high temperature. Take rest beta.“, while I was completely fine and did not suffer from any fever.
Though I missed being at school for 11 days after that day, I liked the sudden long holiday and thoroughly enjoyed the attention as well as gifts I was receiving from family members and relatives. My friends and I shared some common communal practices but surprisingly the ones associated with periods were quite different. In Akhila’s house, it was not allowed to touch anything or anyone when you’re menstruating. I was shaken when she told me that they won’t even let her touch the food plate. It made me sadly curious to understand how a person can function to the fullest of her capabilities with so many restrictions.
Once, I got to see how Akhila ate without touching the plate during her period. Her mother would make balls of rice mixed with curd and shoot them into her mouth from a height of a feet above her head. The water was also fed the same way.
Sravani was another friend of mine whose obedience had only stunned me. She was not only cut off from something as basic as moving around in the house freely but touching other family members too. She follows what she’s told at home so religiously that she would not even touch any of us in the school and see it as a sin to do so. Sravani was completely sold to the idea of being impure and less during her period days since the age of fourteen. At that young age, I couldn’t understand the correlation between a biological process of periods and being treated as a sinner, having to face bad treatment. Though I couldn’t help anyone around me in such a situation, in my mind I was always concerned about women for the sufferings they bear just because they have periods. Young me couldn’t realize that periods aren’t tough but people’s practices make it so.
While in college I was introduced to VOICE4Girls, an organization that works on breaking the cycle of gender inequalities by empowering adolescent girls, one camp at a time. In my experience of interning with them, I learned much more about the taboos and myths attached to menstruation and the pain girls go through silently, specially in rural India.
It was my second camp with them in a government residential school in Telangana. As per the schedule, on 4th day of the camp, we would deal with the sensitive topic – menstruation. The previous evening, I see Ramya, a girl from class 7th being dragged towards me by three of her friends. Ramya was crying her lungs out. I quickly got up and ran towards the girls praying that nothing terrible had happened to them. Because Ramya was panicking a lot and hence, was unable to utter even a single word, I thought to talk to her one-on-one and did so. On asking her, I got to know that Ramya had started to get her periods. Initially, I did not understand why she was crying so much but after talking to her for about an hour, I could get a slight idea of a difficult life she would have to lead from thereon.
All those tears started to make sense as she explained that her parents will now take her out from the school and will not let her study further. She will also not be allowed to casually go out once in a while and play with other children of her age. I could see societal expectations on adolescent girls bogging Ramya down to the darkest of bottoms she has been in her life.
Tulja Bhavani is another eleven-year-old who became close to me in a short span of ten days at a camp. She shared her period worries with me when I got know about the customs that are followed in her community. It felt like I was watching a documentary. Tulja belongs to a tribe in which child marriages are common. Five days after a girl gets her first period, the family throws a party inviting all the community members to showcase the eligible bride; following which the proposals start pouring in, leading to the girl getting married within the next eleven days. Contrary to this, a lot of girls showed a drastic change of being at camps. They went from being shy and quiet to strong and brave, standing up for what they felt right, voicing their opinions. This experience gave me a taste of sense of satisfaction and true meaning of loving what you do. That’s when I decided to go ahead and professionally work in the development sector for a few years.
1.5 years since then, I’m in a village at Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh, working with Agastya International Foundation where I was placed as an India Fellow, and now continuing to stay there.
I got my periods while my land lady’s husband was in some 20-day Hindu prayer ritual which requires the whole house to be clean, because of which they denied my stay in the house and asked me to go to their relative’s place, 6km away. I walked all the way and reached another village in the hope that I will be treated like any other member of the house. As I approached this two-storied building with a shop downstairs playing tacky songs and a group of women sitting and chitchatting. I saw the new landlady welcoming me with a wide grin. She also happens to be my closest friend in this otherwise strange village.
Contrary to what that wide grin suggested, she pulled a garage’s shutter up and showed me one tiny grain storage area filled with sacks, maggots and insects. She said that I could stay there for the next few days (until I stop bleeding) and use the area behind the adjacent dirt pile as a washroom. I was shaken. Women next to me clearly understood that I wasn’t happy with this treatment and started sharing their stories to make me feel better.
Neena*, a young mother said that she had to stay in an abandoned cattle shed every month all through her teens. Once on a stormy night, she couldn’t help but cry to sleep out of fear. Aditi*, a young college student said that she gets her period every ten days and then she stays in the hen rearing area outside her house, for almost ten days every month. A couple of more women shared their routine during periods, staying outside homes, getting water and food served by the men in the houses from a distance. In their words “Food is thrown in our plates like it’s done to dogs”. All these stories and experiences had only increased my agony and I couldn’t help bursting out into tears.
- Is menstruation that horrible a thing for one to go through?
- Why are these women normalizing this kind of harassment?
- Isn’t this discrimination?
- Won’t this affect the younger generation negatively?
I was keen on understanding the reasons and beliefs behind the behavior these women were exhibiting. After several conversations, what I could understand is that no woman/girl knows the reasons behind these practices. None of them had strong points to justify what they were doing. They blindly believed in, and followed what they were told by the elders in the family and society. The idea of questioning such strict norms never crossed their minds even once. The inherent nature of our society being patriarchal does not really help in this matter.
Coming back to my accommodation hassles, from the last few months, I’ve been living in a different house in a village, a bit far away from my workplace. This house owners’ are far more progressive and open-minded than others in this and previous village. They are okay with their daughter taking up a career of her choice and do not see her as a liability. The landlady, a woman in her 30s seems quite sensible to me. But sadly, this image vanishes for three days a month. Their senses are dumbed down completely as they follow strict untouchability during their periods.
A menstruating woman in this house is not allowed to use any furniture, electronic devices and utensils in the house. There is a market spot of mere 2×4 feet allotted to spend all her three days. The men in the house cook and serve the food from a distance. When asked about this treatment, Charitha (the landlady) was confused initially but went ahead to explain that she enjoyed these three days as she gets to rest from the regular household chores. I wonder how that’s enough to nullify major ill-treatment. The difference between my old village and the new one is that the confinement place has shifted from outdoors to indoor.
I come from a nuclear urban family. We are four people in my house. My father, mother, elder brother and me. It was taught to me right from my first period to keep it a secret at home. Home? Yes, I was expected to not express my pain or any kind of feelings I experienced as a teen around menstruation, at my safest place, home. My brother, on the other hand, had grown up completely ignorant of the fact that two women in the house menstruate. Leaving even the tiny papers that cover the sticky part of the sanitary pad in the common washroom would disgust him so much. I can’t forget the amount of turbulence that was caused in my house this one time when I forgot a used pad wrapped in paper in the washroom. If this is what my parents and I could collectively teach him about women, we failed terribly.
I can only imagine how a young boy of his age in rural setup would react in similar situations with the kind of role modelling and information available around him, when all this seems like an issue that could be worked upon.
Neeta* (a lady here in Kuppam) once commented, “What will happen to us if we eat the food served by a woman on her period?” It was extremely disturbing to me. More than anyone else, it’s the women who are often against other women. I am partly disappointed for the complete lack of rationale and understanding in which they are living. How and what can I do to improve the situation from here on? It is one thing to want to change and completely another to sit down to decide on action items. Along with a local girl of my age, I started knocking on every door in my village to spread the news about sessions that we are going to take in the village while making note of the time that would be comfortable for them to attend these sessions.
For the first session, forty women promised to come but only two turned up. Ten others stood outside the room, mocking us for being jobless and wasting time. This continued to happen in three different villages. By the end of the third session, we were left with no audience.
I think I tried my bit to bring about a change but have to admit that it was not enough. It was not enough to break the barriers of hate and intolerance that have been ingrained deep in their brains.
My hypothesis that women are pitted against each another to stay separated as coming together of them all will only make them stronger which will make it difficult for the external entities to suppress them as a collective, is proven right. I am struggling to come to terms with it before realigning to move ahead, may be using a different approach.
*Names changed to protect identity