My nani (maternal grandmother) would never let me enter the kitchen during puberty while I was menstruating. She would make me wash my hair religiously on day three of my period. I was told that it would wash away the impurities I carried from head to toe. Growing up, I often thought I wanted to do something to change this discriminating behaviour towards menstruating women’s bodies.
Later in life, I worked as a trainer in India for imparting sex education to teen girls. Sometimes, the girls attending the workshops would reveal that they had already been married in their childhoods but were still awaiting their gauna. A gauna is a ceremony where a girl moves in to the home of her assigned future husband. The family decides whether the girl is physically ready for the transition or not. Alternatively, this implies if the girl has started menstruating and is ready to have sex. Reproductive essentialism and male superiority has been an underlying principle to this ancient ceremony which now, in its contemporary form, also gives time to the girl’s family to accumulate enough material wealth (in the form of a disguised dowry) to be given along with the ‘transfer’ of the daughter. In its contemporary form, this transfer-of-the-daughter ceremony, has been sprinkled with a selective rights-based approach at least in some places of North India where many girls with whom I interacted were allowed to finish at least some part of their schooling. Mothers buy time by telling their daughters to hide that they have started menstruating, a fact that was revealed by many girls at the workshop. In addition, girls were often told by their mothers or elder sisters that one should keep this fact a secret as one had to be wary of the ‘evil eyes’ of the patriarchal society they lived in.
The girls at the workshop were between the age groups of 12 – 18 years who either studied and went to nearby government schools, or were school drop-outs. The starting of periods in a girl’s life need not necessarily fall within these age groups. As such, it may have been too late to impart any training or education on the same topic to them. Many times, the girls would agree that the correct/common age to start menstruating was between the age group of 12 to 15 years (which is also what is written in their school text books). However, after some reflection, many would then think of some friend who started menstruating when they were in the fourth standard (approximate age being between 9 to 11 years) in Indian schools and then self-contemplate vis-à-vis the popular literature provided through school textbooks.
The initial workshops were conducted in Mongolpuri as there was no other option available at that point of time. This was until the Trust coordinated with the local gurudwara (Sikh temple) for letting out the premises of this sacrosanct place to conduct training by paying a small amount of rent for the same. The space allotted was generally in one corner of a vast hallway. There was enough space for everyone to be able to fit in. However, things became a bit uncomfortable both for the girls and me when parallel workshops started taking place in the other two corners. Sometimes, it was with few mid-aged women (or mothers of the girls attending my workshop) who were getting trained on safe pregnancy by an Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) and at other times, it was their contemporaries who were participating in theatre workshops or workshops on preserving the environment. An interesting episode was when the Trust had a parallel workshop on adolescence running for adolescent boys just outside the gurudwara in their verandah. This knotty situation made the girls shy away from talking about their bodies in the fear of being heard outside and many girls in my workshop became uncomfortable with issues regarding the female body being explicitly discussed.
The girls would often be afraid to talk freely as they thought their mothers might overhear them. Peer-pressure was another factor which made the girls uneasy, as their friends from school often teased them about getting access to such vicarious knowledge. However, sometimes, it worked the other way round because, often, their schoolmates who got to know about these workshops and had no access to gaining information would urge the girls attending the workshops to share details with them in school.
The girls also described special customs that were followed in their households when they were menstruating. Some of them were not allowed to go to school for one week, irrespective of class tests or the increasing burden of homework. They were served food in separate utensils that were washed separately and not mixed with other kitchen utensils. They were even given a separate bed sheet or a floor mat to sleep on, as they were not allowed to sleep on their beds. Many times, they were told not to make any eye-contact with the male members of their families, especially their brothers and fathers, as they were feared of getting impregnated. The girls were made to have a very negative image of their menstruating bodies. The obsession with the fact that menstrusting bodies were considered ‘polluting’ was something that the girls had been habituated to. They were also told not to enter temples or pray at that time of the month, which was ironical for those who were menstruating and simultaneously attending the workshop inside the very premises of a temple.
Along with this, restrictions with respect to what food items were to be eaten and what should be prohibited, were intense and rigid. One should not forget that anemia is rampant among adolescent girls in India especially due to malnutrition, if it is not already chronic. To add to this misery of ill-health, the menstruating girl who requires proper nutrition to combat any weakness, may suffer a disproportionate loss of blood, doubling the burden of ill-health – a common complaint I received from the girls.
I often wonder, why the idea of pleasure to women was something unheard of – a biological impossibility that many questioned me on. Many had never seen a condom and could not believe what it could do. Having sex meant having a baby. I still feel unsettled when I get reminded of the girls with their inheritance of oppression. As for me, I often talk about periods in gendered groups as an inherent practice. I often express that I am having my period out loud, when I do, without shame, and without using negative euphemisms like ‘I am down’ for it. I am not down because I menstruate. I am out and proud.
Ina Goel is a Postgraduate Research student of Gender and Sexuality Studies at University College London. A version of this article was published on Menstrupedia.