Menstruation and Womanhood in Contemporary India
“Periods are normal. Showing them should be too.”
This is the closing sentence of #bloodnormal, a British campaign from Bodyform and sister brand Libresse released in October 2017. Written by Nicholas Hulley and art directed by Nadja Lossgott, the short ad of “Blood is normal” aimed to break the taboos related to menstruation through the positive representation of it. The video shows women dealing with periods in everyday situations, such as a couple having sex, a man purchasing sanitary products at a supermarket, one woman interrupting a dinner party to ask for a pad, or another one shaving in the shower while menstrual blood runs down her leg. The message is clear-cut: menstruations are a natural part of life; after all shouldn’t period-talks be as normal as periods themselves? The campaign went instantly viral, shown on TV and sponsored on social media; myself, at first I must have watched it at least three times in a row, at the same time amazed and moved by its message. It made me feel proud, empowered and somehow part of a community. Today that I write about it, at the end of my second month in India, needless to say I find myself having a radically different opinion on #bloodnormal. This essay will grasp a new, alternative perspective on the campaign, shedding lights on what is the other side of the story.
I arrived in India almost two months ago and, when in the first day of menses I had gone to the pharmacy, the package of pads I bought got wrapped up with two layers of newspaper. That made me think. Few days later Nikita, one of the girls attending the governmental school I have been visiting confessed me that she had recently got menarche. She added “I feel uncomfortable, I feel dirty”. In her eyes I saw that she did not merely refer to physical uncleanliness, and that sentence made me reflect even more. Showing periods should be normal, argued #bloodnormal, just like periods themselves are; however, is period really deemed normal? Relying on literature review of secondary sources, this piece will tackle women’s perceptions of and narratives on menarche and menstruation—and related restrictions to them—in an attempt to understand how the female body is reinforced as reality and deployed as an instrument for the regulation of womanhood in contemporary India.
In India, menstruation is colloquially referred to as “mahine se hona” (monthly occurrence), “chhutti se hona” (resting period), “pair chale” (bleeding), “time aana” (periodicity), and mc (menstrual period); it is also permeated, however, with nuances of impurity, untouchability and dirtiness. The reason for it is rooted in a myth which, dating back to the Vedic times, is linked to Lord Indra’s murder of the brahman Vritras. Believing that women had taken upon themselves a part of Indra’s guilt, monthly blood would signify the expiation of such a tremendous sin. In the wake of this, the process of menstruation may be described as the expulsion from the body of Ganda khan (dirty blood) the “heat of the body”; arguably, only after this expulsion the body can achieve health, thereby discouraging the development of various diseases. The nexus menstruation-impurity—and consequently segregation—is then glaring, inscribed in Hindu mythological tradition. Just like Nikita had admitted she felt dirty, Sheila, a 22 year old resident of urban slum in Dehli, has stated: I’ve become an untouchable; I am a mahar” (literally, I’m sitting apart).
It is undeniable that menarche signifies a turning point in the life of the young girl, representing a transition from a prepubertal, ambiguous gender status to a stage where gender socialization is both unambiguous and central—that is, sexual maturity and emergent womanhood.
In India, Menarche is publicly celebrated with a ritual ceremony, known as “Puberty ritual”. The celebration encompasses common customs and it occurs after the girl’s first period (on the 7th or 16th day). Here, the girl is decorated like a bride, she is gifted her first silk sari and she is decked up with jewelry and flowers. Once elegantly dressed, the girl is made to sit in the celebration, where rituals are performed; afterwards, she is again given a bath with a special water mixed with turmeric powder and neem leaves, after which the girl is again dressed up in a sari and enjoys the celebration, surrounded by all relatives and friends. Despite some peculiar differences—mainly depending upon the family lineage and the geographical location—all in all these rituals that announce the changing gender and sexual status of girls appear to serve two functions: to protect the young girl and to contain the threat posed by her sexual maturity.
The onset of menstruation, nonetheless, marks an oscillation between states of pollution and purity throughout the reproductive life of a woman. With the first period, not only the puberty ritual, but also taboos and restrictions—merely linked to notions of menstrual and female pollution—occur. Studies have shown that menstruating women may be prevented from entering certain domestic spaces such as the kitchen or the place of worship; they should curtail their contact with men and to a lesser extent with other women, particularly premenstrual girls. Sindhis also refers to restrictions such as not washing their har, not wearing the color red, not watering the Tulsi plant and not consuming milk and milk products. Along with these limitations comes the fear of revealing traces of menstruation; that is where the significance of taking “proper care” comes about. Puri writes that in their narratives, women appear preoccupied with observing rules of personal cleanliness and making sure that they manage the menstrual blood and not stain their clothes or other items. What is striking is the way sanitaryproducts become pivotal in maintaining personal hygiene. Sanitary products, such as tampons and pads, are not only integral to managing menstrual blood but also consistently held to be improvements over the past—represented by cloth and cotton. The fact that over 77% of menstruating girls and women in India still use an old cloth, often reused, and that 88% of women in India sometimes resort to using ashes, newspapers, dried leaves and husk sand to aid absorption, is another story.
Regardless, the dimension of “managing” herself is particularly significant. On the one hand, it highlights menstruation a marker of the female body, and consequently as a matter of the personal and individualized body; on the other hand, however, this very dimension threatens to spill beyond the individualized boundaries of the female body. Any sense of individual control is easily undermined: because fathers, brothers, sisters, and other relatives know about the event, the aforementioned restrictions in everyday life serve to contradict the notion of menstruation as private or entirely personal. The concept of self-management then suggests the treacherous nature of this self-control and the emphasis on personal hygiene paves the way to the language of control and concealment to blurringly overlap. What follows is the contradiction between the social significance of women’s bodies and the premise of the body as a private, personal domain of experience.
Given all this, it is then not surprising that women’s narratives of menstruation are depicted not as a normal, but rather as a traumatic, incomprehensible event. Here are some of the experiences—of, respectively, Prakiti, Nargis and Malini—collected by Puri in “Woman, Body, Desire in Post-Colonial India”:
“My mom did not explain anything to me. My sister told me. She told my mother that she had. The day I got it I felt “Oh God, what’s happening.” Someone explaining is different from it actually happening. When I got it she [sister] showed me everything. To get back at me she told my father. I felt like drowning. Today it’s OK my father knows I am not well, but that day it was different. He just smiled. I could not face him for a few hours. I was so embarrassed. My Mom told me he knows. Indian families saying something like that is a very big deal, so it was very embarrassing for me.”
“The worst was if I got my periods, they [the husband family] believed in all that. “Don’t touch this, don’t touch that, don’t touch the gas [burner].” I mean it was like too much! My mother-in-law said, “Don’t touch your cupboard, if you want something, I will remove it for you.” If I want a panty, or a pad, or anything, how could I tell my mother-in-law to remove it? It is something personal, I wouldn’t like anybody to do that.”
“First I was not happy. I said, “What a problem.” I used to sit at home, I had so much pain. I couldn’t go down to play, I used to feel very shy. Mom said, “Don’t tell anyone.” Now I feel it’s good it comes—otherwise there are pains anyway. My mom says don’t wear red. Earlier elders used to say don’t go to the mandir [temple], and don’t put water in Tulsi [an auspicious plant], it will die. I put water on that day and nothing happened. I wore red also, nothing happened. I don’t know why. It’s God-given, so it’s no sin. He is the father of the world, then how can it be wrong?”
In a culture where menses may be still considered to be expression of dirtiness and impurity, where even mothers are often uncomfortable about providing information to their daughters, narratives of menstruation problematize precisely what it means to be “normal” in the Indian cultural context. Is it not profoundly unsettling that an event that may be described as so “natural” and socially significant is effecting such havoc in women’s narratives? That is how my reading of #bloodnormal has changed: what one year ago I considered brilliant and empowering, today feels only partially relevant—and deeply Eurocentric.
Pune, India, August 2018.
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