It was a playful evening of summer vacations when I got my first period. I was too young at that time to even read menstruation in biology. No, my mother did not tell me anything about it. Not even when I asked her why she uses pads. She just said, “When you will grow up, you will understand.” And when I actually saw the blood coming out of my vagina, I was afraid because I thought it was a vaginal infection. I did not tell anyone, and quietly went to bed. The next day I woke up to stained bed sheet and my mother on a spree of shedding tears, consoling and comforting me. She repeatedly said that I grew up too early and it will be difficult for me to cope up with all the difficulties that will unfold. I on the other side could not understand what was going on but seeing my mother, I was definitely sulking into some kind of fear, shock and sadness. This is how I was introduced to period. But could I have had a better first-period experience?
First period is always an unforgettable, weird experience in a woman’s life. A moment of major transformation, more so because it is not introduced as a normal body function. It is either introduced as a shock, an impurity or a marker of maturity even if the girl is only beginning to make sense of her life. Period is reduced into a disgusting indication that the girl is now a woman and what does being a woman mean? marriage and reproduction. Often, a girl is married off when she starts to bleed or if already married she is seen as capable to conceive. Although we are progressing every day, the introduction to period as a stigma remains the same throughout the generation. When my mother got her first period, she was told it was an impurity. Her elder sister (not her mother) did not even tell her what it is, just handed her a wrapped cutting from the bed sheet and asked to shut up! Being brought up like this, I am not surprised that she cried when I got my first period. In fact, I think she dealt with it better by giving me a pad if not explaining to me why my vagina is bleeding. Although, keeping quiet and behaving normally as if nothing has changed despite the pain and discomfort of using pads for the first time, remained the same.
The point is the way we understand period depends a lot on how we have been introduced to it. We either carry it as embedded in stigma to the next generation or, grow over and defy the stigma forever. But the first option is more likely to happen because now we are only beginning to talk about period openly with our fathers and brothers. While some still see it as a hushed topic. Even today pads are sold as either wrapped in newspaper or in a black polybag. Discussing period in the classroom is still received with giggles, shyness and awkwardness. Period is not talked about as a normal body function but period cramps are seen as normal and even a“natak” for which one cannot take a leave from work or school. And menstrual hygiene is a privilege for many who are forced to use cloth. So where are we finally heading to? Are the coming generations going to face the same disturbing silence on period talks? Will they also suddenly wake up one day realising that they have grown up, have something impure flowing down their vagina that they are not supposed to talk about? Or can we change it?
On Independence Day, the prime minister of the country brought up period talk on the historical ground of the Red Fort. Two things struck me at the moment- first, if a prime minister is talking about sanitary napkins openly then what is stopping us? We tend to have an enthusiastic and opinionated discussion on everything he says then why not on period too? Second, it was done from the premises of red fort and on the day of freedom which is the marker of our cultural heritage. Can we take this as a lead and smash the patriarchy that has gripped us through generations? Can we too change the way we talk about period rather than holding up to the long silence? I don’t know how far will this leap take us but certainly we can ensure that no more a girl should be shocked on the day she gets her period. Let us teach her what it is right from the day she starts questioning about the pads in the advertisements. Tell her what Modi talked about and why it is important for her to know. Because period is normal.