It was a warm summer morning. School vacations meant all the cousins and aunts staying with them for holidays. Meera and Mukund were excited as it was their turn to prepare jugs full of cold coffee for breakfast for the nearly 20 of them under one roof. Mukund was a sort of expert when it came to making coffee and he simply loved all the compliments he got for it each time.
As the kids were getting out of bed and waiting for their turn to go to the toilet, some of them started brushing their teeth at the small sink in the dining area where everyone washed hands prior to and post the meals. Meera too was brushing her teeth when she was pulled back to a side by her aunt Gayatri. Meera resisted the pulling but Gayatri took her to a side and told her to go for shower immediately. This puzzled Meera and she being a boisterous young girl, argued with her aunt but Gayatri wouldn’t listen to any of her arguments and pushed her into the bathroom and followed her in.
Once inside the bathroom, Gayatri told her about her pants being stained and explained about menstruation. Meera was shocked to hear that she was bleeding and that it was a normal phenomenon of the body. What shocked her even more was that her young aunt who was perhaps only 10 years older to her had to break this information to her and not her own mother who had hesitated to speak to her about it.
This little episode of life was a game changer for Meera. Her adolescence was tagged with restrictions –
Don’t do this when you have periods, don’t do that when you have periods
Do not walk in the sun when you have periods,
Do not walk under the trees when you have periods
You are not allowed to eat pickles when you have periods
Don’t play with boys when you have periods, etc. etc. ……
In her innocent little age, when there was no exposure to the world of media or social media and there was not even a television in most houses Meera failed to understand this sudden disparity between her and Mukund. He was free to do whatever at whichever day and time but she was suddenly considered as a grown up and no longer permitted her frilly, fancy frocks. Her wardrobe was now similar to her mother’s – consisting – Salwar suits, long dresses and in due course of time sarees. She accepted that in her dignity as she was convinced that this was a done thing for all girls. After all, she was told that this was a secret that every girl maintained and never spoke about it to anyone – not even her brother, her father or the grandparents.
Thankfully Meera grew up in the time frame when sanitary napkins were available freely in the pharmacies so those were not alien objects unlike her mother’s times. She now understood where the bundles of cotton had disappeared from her mother’s cupboard so often. Pieces of the puzzle fell in place as to why her aunts often asked for cotton when they came to stay with them as she never saw them nursing any physical injuries. Her mother cared for her; she introduced her to sanitary napkins even if that meant added expenses in her household budget. She would call a lady home and buy the packets from her and give those to Meera to hide in the lower shelf of her cupboard so her brother couldn’t spot them. Going to buy them from the stores was still a taboo for her mother and so for Meera.
Once she got married she was made to follow even more rules when menstruating and realized that her mother was actually more liberal than most conservative mothers. The rules were quite awkward for her to follow but she had no way out. Adolescence was long over but now her womanhood was tagged with these rules:-
Meera was now supposed to report to her mother in law as soon as her period started each month.
She had to immediately have a shower and wasn’t allowed to touch anything – even her own cupboard until she showered. Someone (in this case her mother in law) had to place a fresh set of clothes for her in the bathroom.
She wasn’t allowed to touch any stock of groceries or their containers including the everyday wheat flour for chapatti, oil, rice and sugar as she would contaminate the stuff. She later learnt that her very conservative mother in law was also in fact more liberal than others as some women weren’t even permitted to enter their kitchens during periods.
She wasn’t allowed to wear reds or pinks during her periods (she never understood any reasoning behind this rule)
She wasn’t permitted to touch the prayer altar or even do her prayers. She also learnt that in other religions when people are supposed to be fasting for a long period, women weren’t meant to be fasting during their periods. Some of the women weren’t even allowed to step into a temple or even the prayer room in their own house if they had periods ongoing.
These rules gave Meera a suffocated feeling. This was a natural occurrence and menstruation should be celebrated as a pathway to procreation she thought. How could this body function be treated as a ticket to discriminate and make girls and women feel like outcasts? After all it was just like getting new teeth after the falling off of milk teeth, the development of breasts and genitals, the growth of nails and hair and all other body systems.
The tales seem endless about Meara’s experiences with her periods. She had found it strange that what she could discuss with her class mates at school were taboo topics at home. She had several questions in her mind about the rules that were thrust upon young girls, yet even asking those meant she was being rebellious and discourteous to her elders. She had somewhat got into a habit of being told off by elders due to her inquisitive nature. She was an enquirer without appreciation of being one.
Meera decided that she will not let this differential attitude rule her life anymore and as her daughters grew up, she didn’t impose any of the out casting rules upon them. She couldn’t have compromised their dignity the way hers was sacrificed. They grew up to be young women, living in pride of their feminism and periods without taboos of the old times. These girls now support her in the menstruation drive by providing sanitary needs of those girls in Africa who have never known their basic sanitary hygiene.
A move away from the barriers of the gender inequality where priority had been given to needs of one gender over the other Meera now speaks about Menstruation as freely as she speaks about a cup of coffee without raising an eyebrow in today’s aware society. She advocates health and hygiene in the remotest parts of her country and lifts the female dignity even in the slummiest of slums, hard to reach villages and encourages the girls to their right to Education by providing them with the basic necessity of panties and sanitary napkins.