The recent menstruation strip-search in Kerala’s factory to find out the woman who was on her periods and left an used sanitary pad in the toilet has highlighted the presence of one of the biggest taboos in our Indian society. Here is the account of this ‘deadly disease’ from the perspective of 12-year-old Madhu.
An uncle died of heart attack, my grandfather was diagnosed with diabetes, a distant relative came to our place to stay for his chemotherapy sessions after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. My inquisitive self wanted to know about these diseases and dad explained to me each of these diseases along with their respective causes, effects and treatment with interest as he wanted me to be a doctor. But he never told me about the disease known as periods.
Wondering why have I called it a disease? Because we treat it like a disease where a woman has to behave in a certain way, has to stay at home and away from her husband, kitchen, regular sitting area as if it can be transmitted to others by the means of water, air or food. Also, because as a 12-year-old-girl, I actually thought of it as a disease and was sure I am going to die. After spotting blood on my panties, I ran to my mother crying and fearing that I am suffering from an unusual deadly disease like cancer. I thought she would scold me for being careless while playing that day’s kho-kho match; she always used to call out whenever I used to play with my friends just to warn me to be careful. Luckily, she didn’t scold me. I changed into another pair of clothes but my stomach was hurting. I was asked to go to my room and rest there. I was lying on my bed when my grandmother entered the room followed by my mother and aunts. My aunt handed me over a cup of tea and explained me a few norms that I have to follow now. Among the list were the things like I cannot enter the kitchen, touch fridge, enter temple and have dinner with my father. While the first few meant that I wouldn’t be called to help in kitchen, the last made me protest. Dinner with dad was the protocol that I have been following for years, why can’t I have dinner with him now? They told me I cannot and also I cannot go out to play for the next few days, which I was fine with since the stomach ache was too much to bear. I couldn’t go to school next day due to pain and spent the day at home with frequent visits from female members and kids. They all were being nice, made food of my choice and my younger cousin gave me his chocolate. But, none of the male member visited me. I felt bad. Dad doesn’t love me anymore, I thought.
On third day my mother asked me to wash my hair and in the afternoon she called me to help her in the kitchen. The thing which I hated so far made me so happy that I would have jumped had wearing sanitary pads wasn’t that uncomfortable. I went to kitchen, helped her, had dinner with dad and life was back to normal. Dad asked me about the exam, since that was the excuse my mother gave, and I felt a bit relieved; nothing has changed between us and I am still the apple of his eye. But I was a bit confused, I was still bleeding. I wasn’t sure if my mother knew it or not, but I chose not to tell her anything by myself, staying in my room all along seemed scarier than history teacher.
In another couple of months, I realised that I just have to stay in my room for only two days and after washing my hair on the third day, I could go back to the normal life. But, I was still confused about the two-day logic while I bleed for 5 days. I asked my mother and she told me aisa hi hota hai, tum bahot sawal karti ho (this is the way it is, you ask too many questions). I wish I could ask dad about it, he always used to answer all my questions. While I was dealing with this, school wasn’t of much help. I shared this news with my female friends. They shared their experience; a few of them have faced similar issues. One of them had to wash her clothes including bed-spread and quilt covers. It was Delhi’s December and I suddenly found my problems smaller. I also learnt that guys make fun of girls when they are on their periods. This made girls give it a code word so that guys won’t understand it. Whenever anyone used to get their periods, they would say that they are ‘down’. Even in the co-ed school, my guys friends seemed distant to me. Soon, I got used to all the does and don’ts but was still clueless about the logic behind this monthly cycle. Biology books came to rescue a bit late, internet wasn’t in reach and the unbearable-pain wanted me to get rid of this cycle as soon as I could. Finally, I went to my youngest aunt and asked her if there is any way this monthly routine can be avoided. She didn’t explain me the logic behind it but told me how lucky I am since there are many rules that have been ignored for me, like sleeping on a separate mattress on floor and washing clothes, since I am their only daughter and also because we now live in city and they are a bit modern. This indeed made me happy. But, I told her that I wish to be a boy.
Madhu lives in a city and still follows this practice like many other women across the country. The practice of not entering kitchen and temple is common in states like Rajasthan, Haryana, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala among others with the educated class limiting it to barring the woman from entering the temple.
But there are many villages where women become untouchable during her menstruation and lactating period. In some villages of Karnataka women have to spend first two-days of her menstruation cycle in ‘Mahila Bhawan’, a small one-room constructed outside the village for women to stay on periods. The state government is aware about this fact and is also allocating fund for the construction of these bhawans. In villages where Mahila Bhawans haven’t been constructed yet, women spend the day under tree and nights in Anganwadi centres.
Note: Madhu might be an engineering student in IIT Madras, or a doctor at a private clinic in Dehradun, or an MNC executive in Gurgaon or maybe a lawyer in Mumbai High Court. She might be a dancer, painter or athlete. She could be the author of this article or the reader. Madhu is every woman who has been following the myths attached with periods, be it the most widely spread rule of not entering temple during menses or not using the word periods but some other term.