I grew up in a community where a girl’s first period is celebrated with much rigour and vigour to prepare her to take on womanhood. For the first few days, the girl is restricted to a room and has only limited access to food, mobility and social interactions so that close family members and relatives (only women) can monitor and teach her how to conduct herself during her periods for the rest of her life.
When I was younger, the celebrations always fascinated me – girls used to be laden with clothes, jewellery and gifts during a ceremony called Tuloni Biya. When I hit puberty, it dawned on me that the celebration is observed at the expense of the girl’s freedom.
While I silently followed the restrictions that were imposed on me for a long time, I also secretly started questioning the practices.
The recent incident where 68 women from a college in Bhuj in Gujarat were shamed over something that naturally happens to almost every woman in the world is yet another example of an incident that allows obsolete practices to be validated, serving to further strengthen discriminatory belief systems.
However, period taboo is hardly new in India. Girls and women are often the victims of restricted mobility when it comes to their periods – while many women suffer from period related difficulties and would rather rest than moving around, it is a question of choice.
Inside the four walls of their own homes, which should be safe spaces, young girls are often taught that their period is impure. They are made to sleep in separate beds, eat using separate plates and stay away from everyone – as their touch perpetuates impurity. Or so they’re told.
While there are many women who continue to fight against such dogmatic views, the hurdles becomes more stringent when institutions of learning propagate taboos to the extent that the girls are forced to strip down their underwear to be checked if they were menstruating – all over one dirty sanitary napkin being found on the grounds near the hostel.
While the home and the family as an institution can in many ways be expected to be harbingers of superstitions and taboos against periods, an institution of higher education should have served its female students better. Schools and colleges should be free of such practices instead of allowing them to play out at such a structural level.
This stigmatisation of periods in educational institutions further strengthens discriminatory practices that reduce women to just a bleeding being whose life revolves around periods – essentially, a uterus. The use of punishment and mental harassment of women is particularly perplexing since it is not as if women have a choice regarding the onset of their period or their entire period cycle.
Incidents such as this only serve to further silence women about menstruation. In India, as it is, according to a study by AC Nielsen, about 70% of women do not have access to hygienic sanitary napkins and many succumb to diseases related to reproductive health.
I grew up in the small town of Sonari in Assam. I still remember this one time when a neighbour was taken at the last moment to a civil hospital only to be declared dead due to a urinary tract infection. Her inability to alert her relatives or friends was utterly due to our culture of silence and shame associated with our privates and periods that by the time they speak up, it can be far too late.
Educational institutions should be a space for unlearning and and re-learning – not reinforcing beliefs that are discriminatory. Young minds are expected to speak up and break barriers related to menstruation and reproductive health and think of ways to make menstrual hygiene accessible to each of those millions of women who are still dependent on alternatives like old rags, ashes and husk sand.
But in light of this recent incident of ‘punishment’, the possibility of a day where the Indian populace at large has a better grasp of just why periods should hardly be a taboo subject still seems like a farfetched notion.
Vijayeta is a social worker from Assam and a graduate of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
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