A still from ‘Period. End of Sentence’
Early on in my fellowship journey, I had an interesting experience. I got a chance to experience the stigma around menstruation first-hand. Even with the awareness of my community’s relationship with menstruation, I never expected to be at the receiving end of the period stigma. But I was only getting introduced to the various narratives around menstruation and was trying to understand the rationale behind them. At the same time, I was also curious to understand whether the staff members, who worked with a women’s empowerment organization, adhered to practices that were seemingly ‘oppressive’.
My personal experience of having been stopped at the doorpost by a team member, with the aim of not offending an SHG (Self help group) member taught me a lot about what it takes to change mindsets. At that moment, however, I felt an overwhelming urge of awkwardness and discomfort, especially since the women inside the house knew exactly why I sat at the doorpost. They could have easily assumed that I agree with this practice.
At that moment, I had complied with the request and sat outside through the meeting without being able to focus on the ongoing discussion. I was occupied with the mental debate of whether I had done the right thing by stopping at the doorpost. Wouldn’t storming out be a better representation of disbelief in the practice? Or better still, wouldn’t ignoring my colleague and marching right in be the courageous thing to do?
Not to mention the personal attack that I felt. How could my colleague who works for and believes in women empowerment think of menstruation in this way? As I sat there engrossed in this labyrinth of thoughts, I was dreading what was to follow- the walk back to the office with my colleague.
On our way back, I could not help but address the elephant in the room, even though I knew this would be a tough conversation. I asked her if the SHG member had specifically inquired about other women menstruating. She denied but since she knew the member well, it was understood that they would follow this norm. Afraid of sounding disrespectful, I hesitated but eventually explained that I do not believe in this practice and I would not be complying with such requests in future.
She quickly responded that neither did she believe in the practice, but if someone else does, it is only appropriate that we respect their choices. This experience did not hurt my relationship with my colleague because I was able to see that she did not mean to disrespect anyone. Rather, it made me realize the complexities of such issues.
The rage and vehement denunciation of such beliefs was an accessible option to the feminist who lived in a city and had the privilege of recognizing the injustice as well as the luxury of calling it that.
However, up close to the situation, I knew that I could not censure my colleague for holding such beliefs because she truly felt that this practice was not unjust and that holding the belief does not make her someone with ‘chhoti soch’. And that she was not. For her, this was a reality of her life as much as brushing her teeth first thing in the morning or going to the temple on her birthday. Respecting someone else’s belief was her way of showing that she cared.
The paradox of the situation made me feel helpless for I could not have argued in the vociferous ‘how can you not see it’ manner. At the same time, as empathetic as I was, I could not have pretended to adhere to this practice as a way of showing respect to someone. This experience, though induced a lot of conflicting emotions, was essential in making me realize what it meant to fight entrenched beliefs. The answer was not to shake people up and make them realize that they ‘had gotten it all wrong‘ up until this point, but to understand that the beliefs are more of blind spots than conscious acceptance of subservience or oppression.
What I had the luxury of calling patriarchy was just a regular way of living for many. And putting the burden to recognize the cave that they are living in, without any exposure to another way of living, is at best, unfair.
Surely, social injustices may fill us up with rage, and that rage is certainly important. What I felt as a city-dwelling formally educated person was certainly one of the factors that made me apply for India Fellow. However, I quickly realized that rage is not effective in solving the social injustice that causes it. My anger was a luxury when I did not have a full picture of the complexity of the issue. Witnessing this practice in a place where the majority accepts this as the norm, the rage can be exhausting.
Solutions like women should just abandon the abusive husband or stand up to the dominating mother-in-law are based on a simplistic view of the situation that does not consider several factors at play. Radical expectations that the oppressed should rebel against the oppressor or abandon any oppressive practice are formed because an outsider has the luxury of elevating this problem to a pedestal that is not representative of the reality at all. For the majority of the insiders of a system, there may or may not be an inconvenience associated with this practice, but it is certainly not as big a source of misery as we expect it to be. As a result, this majority lacks the incentive to challenge long-standing norms.
These quick-fixes prescribed by outsiders are also based on the premise that there exists a clear divide between the oppressor and the oppressed, where intuitively, the latter should stand up against the former. However, in real situations, the enemy is not a person or any one category of people. It is the mindset and the practices that have influenced the community to a point where there is no clear distinction between the oppressor and the oppressed.
The rationale used for justifying the stigma around menstruation is as fiercely advocated by women as it is by men. To be clear, it is not rooted in ‘respecting traditions and culture’. The women following the norms do not view themselves as being oppressed but as being dutiful by preserving their culture, thereby blurring the line between the oppressor and the oppressed. Understanding these reasons keeps a check on the rage that was otherwise caused by questions around ‘how can they follow such practices’.
Trying to treat the issue in this manner, in my experience, has only antagonized the believer making them closed to any further engagement on a topic. The downside of attaching a negative connotation to the one holding or perpetuating the belief shifts the focus of the problem from the mindset to the person, not to mention the added fatigue of harbouring hate. From what I’ve understood so far, in the last one year, is that an effective way is to often present the options people have, options that can potentially make them feel better. If they are able to recognize an option as a ‘better way of existing’, they would cross over.
As difficult as the experience was to process in the beginning, acknowledging all the complexities ensured that there existed no bad blood between us.