In all that she put her foot in her mouth in making her comments, and took liberties with truth too, Smruti Irani did all us Indian women a big favour!
She brought words like ‘periods’ and ‘sanitary napkins’ out of the closet into the public domain.
Otherwise generations of girls, both in India and I suspect abroad, have grown up having to be secretive and even ashamed about those 5 days of the month.
I remember as a child, when I visited our ancestral village Warud, I used to often find some aunt who used to sit apart, not to be touched.
“Touched by the Crow”
Being curious and outspoken right since then, I would keep questioning.
“Why can’t anyone touch them or go near? What is wrong with them?” I would query. (My mother, a Mumbai born and brought up Graduate, did not follow these practises in our home in Delhi so it was a novelty for me.)
“We have been touched by the crow” they would reply, but I was not convinced.
“How come the crow touches women in Warud only, not Delhi ? And why does it touch only women? Why not men… why not children?” I would continue probing.
Then among much merriment, my aunts would reply ” wait! The crow will touch you too… be patient.”
I could see my mother squirming uncomfortably at such talk, but she never thought to enlighten me. I was just a wee girl, she was waiting for me to grow up I suppose. She had not given me any pep talk about ‘Sex’ which they used to call “talking about the birds and the bees” in western culture then.
Which I did, much sooner than she imagined I would.
But first I would like to say, I was a complete innocent about biology and what was termed then as “the birds and bees” (euphemism for sex education.)
Even when, at the age of 9 a boy tried to stop and molest me and my friend in a dark lane of Dharampeth I had no clue what he was trying to do… and why? After I had foisted off the ‘attack’ my mother gave me a big lecture about being fearless and strong, but not a word did she utter about sex. Or my uterus…or breasts that would begin growing. All these aspects, when they finally emerged were a source of pain and embarrassment for me, a Free Bird till then. My granny always used to call me a ‘tomboy’ who God mistakenly sent to Earth as a girl. (I later realized she used to mean it as a compliment, but when said it first I had been offended. I had liked, even loved being a Girl. Instinctively I had always felt superior to my guy friends, even when I was just 3, and I used to bully them and make them do my bidding. Which, bless their souls they did timidly.)
I was very athletic and played many sports in school. I was a 100 meters sprints champion, ace at long jump, throw ball, swimming etc. Perhaps because of this, I was only 11 when I began menstruating.
I remember having unusual stomach cramps the whole day and then spotting began. Panic stricken, I went to my mother. When I explained what was happening, her face looked ashen with shock, even dismay.
She tried telling me about the uterus and how it sheds its lining every month; and ovulation… but it was mostly Greek and Latin to me. The only part I understood is that this would happen routinely, once every 30 – 40 days now. I was very depressed and for the first time in my life cursed Fate for making me a female! I had asked my mother categorically if EVERYONE has it and she said, no just girls, because only we become mothers. I was not even a teenager yet, I didn’t care about motherhood in the least. I just wanted my ‘normal’ life back. For the first time, I hated being a girl that day!
The monthly nightmare that followed
The physical discomfort, the pain was only a small part. Having to use a recycled cloth was horrible! You had to wash it yourself and then dry it so that the men and the boys of the house could not see it. Boys, specially younger brothers would be eternally curious and ask a lot of stupid questions.
Sanitary napkins were not in vogue then and the one brand that was there, was considered a luxury only for the super rich. We, the middle class, had to do with ‘old clothes’ – cotton sarees, even men’s banians! Anything that was absorbent and comparatively stain resistant. My mother would pull me up if I did a slip shod job of washing ‘my cloth’ and then she would have to throw it away and issue new ‘old ones’.
Later, I realized that even disposing used cloth / napkins was a big problem. We could often not throw them in the house dustbin – the garbage collectors would object to it even if wrapped up in newspaper. So it had to be transported secretly and furtively outside and then thrown into a public garbage bin – if we could find one!
So apart from the physical discomfort and the hormonal changes a girl’s body goes through during this delicate growing up period, I had to deal with ‘keeping it a shameful secret’ – even from my girl friends in school.
The Social tabboos
And one still had neighbours in a city like Nagpur, specially in the upper caste, orthodox area I lived, where women cooked in ‘Sovla’ and were isolated to an inside room during those 3 days. Why they did so began making sense to me finally. It brought more uncomfortable questions, from my guy friends.
“Who cooks in your house when your mother is ‘dirty?’ Why is she never isolated??”
I was amazed when I heard all the list of taboos, mostly from my ‘galli’ friends about what women were supposed to ‘keep away from’. They were not supposed to enter the kitchen, enter the puja room or even touch things like pickle jars or washed clothes in ‘those days’. Not go out, not mingle in public ( lest others were sullied by her inadvertent touch)… I was shocked to learn – not even take a bath! On the 4th or 5th day, she could enter the bathroom and take a ‘head bath’ to denote that she was ‘pure again’!
Because my mother and me clearly did not follow all this, many mothers in our area forbade their daughters from making friends with me. No such instructions were clearly given to boys, so my gang of guy friends only increased!!
“Aunty Flo visiting”
When I went to the US to study, I was amused to learn that even there, girls used euphemisms for ‘periods’. My aunty Flo is visiting was one of them. “I am on the rag” was another. It was also refered to as the ‘curse’. But curiously, there were no taboos there, like don’t cook or don’t go to Church. But probably there were no female clergymen or pastors for a long time due to this factor?
The hilarious ads for sanitary napkins when TV finally made its appearance
In the 1980s, almost all parts of India got commercial TV – though it was not privatized for a long time. Also, we finally had many brands of sanitary napkins and at least educated middle class, living in cities had given us use
of cloth. So napkins began to be openly advertised. After all, a study has shown that a woman will use at least 17,000 napkins on an average in her fertile stage.
Do you recall, that ad when blue ink from a beaker was poured over a napkin to show how much ‘blood’ it could
absorb? That ad must have singlehandedly misled so many impressionable girls who must have expected to ‘bleed blue’ ( and somehow from a beaker!!)
It was quite recently, in the 2000 early years that ‘Always’ brand of tampons and napkins brought
red into their ads. but just a tiny dot. The brand has been featuring the red dot on their packaging and in their ads since the launch of their cleverly named ‘Red Dot’ campaign in 2000. What makes Always’ new print ad buzzworthy is that the red dot is seen right in the middle of the pad, instead of being hidden as a design element in an otherwise safe, vanilla ad.
Why the social fuss and taboos over menstruating women?
If menstruation is a completely natural process, and very essential for human kind to reproduce, why has it not been treated naturally and accepted universally?
A perusal of history will show that because this scares men and challenges their theories of Male Supremacy.
In the earlier days, before we got the present Institutional Religions, most of which are male dominated, a menstruating woman was considered powerful and sacred.
In some historic cultures, a menstruating woman was considered sacred and powerful, with increased psychic abilities, and strong enough to heal the sick.[ According to the Cherokees (Red Indian tribes), menstrual blood was a source of feminine strength and had the power to destroy enemies.[ In ancient Rome, Pinty the Elder wrote that a menstruating woman who uncovers her body can scare away hailstorms, whirlwinds and lightning. If she strips naked and walks around the field, caterpillars, worms and beetles fall off the ears of corn.[Menstrual blood is viewed as especially dangerous to men’s power.[ In Africa , menstrual blood is used in the most powerful magic in order to both purify and destroy.
Kamakhya celebrates the menstruating Earth!
Kamakhya temple in Assam is considered a very popular and also ‘potent’ temple where lakhs go on pilgrimage every year. In Kamakshi, the Earth’s menstruation is celebrated during the Ambubachi fetival, an annual fertility festival held in June. During Ambubachi, the annual menstruation course of the goddess Kamakhya is worshipped . The temple stays closed for three days and then reopens to receive pilgrims and worshippers. It is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world, attracting millions of visitors each year, particularly for Ambubachi Mela which draws upwards of 100,000 pilgrims per day during the 4-day festival.
Among modern religions, it is only Sikhism that does not follow this man made phobia.
Guru Nanak has said, according to the Granth Saheb:”The requirement of the Mothers’ blood is fundamental for life.”
Thus, the menstrual cycle is certainly an essential and God given biological process. In other faiths blood is considered a pollutant. However, the Guru rejects such superstitious ideas. Those who are impure from within are the truly impure ones. ‘Should cloth be reckoned impure if blood-stained, How may minds of such be deemed pure, Is blood of mankind sick? Says Nanak: With a pure heart and tongue God’s Name you utter: All else is worldly show, and false deeds.’
In South India, a beautiful tradition was followed which is still in practise.
As soon as girl reaches puberty, she is decked up in a new saree, given lots of ornaments to wear and her hair bedecked with flowers. Just as if she was a bride…even a Goddess!
Then a professional photographer would be beckoned to take photos of the girl. She was typically made to stand In front of a mirror so her long braid decorated with flowers could also be seen.
Copies of this photo would then be sent to all close relatives.
My cousin Nanda, whose father grew up in Dharwad (Karnataka) remembers ” when I began my periods, my father bought me green bangles. And then he bowed in front of me reverentially.”
If we want to get back to ancient Hindu religion and practises, this is what we should remember.
It is through her menstrual blood that a Mother is born! Celebrate it…