THESE QUESTIONS go out to the ladies who have lived any part of their lives in India: Ever been sanitary napkin/ tampon shopping? Ever had your purchases wrapped up in a newspaper/ bag, “safe” from the eyes of the world? Now here’s my gnawing question: Why?
Menstruation is a topic that is very rarely talked about in any public space. Although experienced by a little less than half a billion people in India, any conversation or debate about the same is conducted within the confines of one’s home, more specifically, the bathroom, and only between members of the gender experiencing it. Mothers and daughters. Sisters-in-law. Aunts and nieces. Grandmothers remembering how it was in their day. Most Indian cultures have initiation rituals connected to menarche, with the girl being made aware that her body has changed and there’s no going back. It is considered a matter of joy, this newfound maturity, her entry into the baby-making force of the world. Some girls have older female members of the family explain what their bodies are going through. Others are left to discover it for themselves when they wake up one fine day to find parts of themselves bleeding. But with each individual experience of menarche, a girl knows that something has changed. Irretrievably so. And no matter which way she views herself, the world will look at her differently from now on.
Once the wheel is set in motion, however, very little mind space is accorded to this 28-day occurrence in a woman’s life. Which is fine by most people. I’ll take that any day over snide remarks about PMS and “that time of the month” every time someone wants to blame their stupidity on my hormones. But what I cannot comprehend is the public shame factor attached to a natural bodily process. The embarrassed, subdued tones in which one is expected to ask the shopkeeper for one’s needs. (Thank the Lord for supermarkets now!) And the supposedly respectful way they wrap your fluid-absorption device of choice in a newspaper, assuming you wouldn’t want the world to know you’re a normally functioning woman. With that logic, if I am pregnant, am I to hide the bump so people don’t realize I was sexually active? Is my body going through the natural cycles to cause shame to society? I know people from my mother’s generation who won’t even go up to a chemist and ask for napkins directly. They’ll send household help to do “the deed”. Er…why exactly? Are we too la-di-da to have a normally functioning reproductive system?
Of course, I own up to days when I curse the whole darn mess. And grumble about having to go through the inconvenience of it all. But at the end of the day, it is part of my body. And I refused to be ashamed of the way nature made me. Especially when I have been endowed with the ability to procreate because of it. Whether I choose to have babies in the future is an entirely separate issue. But for now, I will not have my sexuality cloistered under newspaper wrappers because it may offend the world that I am a reproductively healthy woman. So I walk into the corner store, head held high, ask for my usual brand firmly and unhesitatingly say “no, thank you” to the surprised assistant who is all set to secret away my stash. That the product itself is called ‘Whisper’ should tell you something about society’s attitude toward one of the most important human bodily functions we have.