Period Dramas: calling out menstruation discrimination

I was chatting with a friend recently and as I often do, I innocuously asked “so what’s on the menu tonight, you cooking or date night?” with a cheeky glint in my eye. “Looks like a takeaway in the living room for me tonight” she replied with a degree of resignation in her voice and releasing an all-too-telling sigh. My senses were tweaked, I knew something was up so I asked “oh, how come?”. “You know, time of the month and all that” she said rolling her eyes.

And then I remembered. For the last 10 years of knowing my friend, I’ve also known her monthly period. Reason being, she lives in a household where her menstrual cycle is a monthly update for everyone. It tells her mother and father in law that progeny has not yet been conceived; it alerts her mother in law that she’s responsible for the family meals for the next week and gives notice to her four brothers in law that they can organise a mid-week lads night out with her husband since he’s not sharing a bed with his wife so not a lot else will be going on.

being untouchable

You may be wondering how on earth anyone would be alerted to my friend’s menstrual cycle but she lives in a household where periods are considered ‘dirty’ and so when mother nature pays her a visit, she’s not allowed to go in the kitchen, use the waste bins in her house whether it’s to dispose of a sweet wrapper or yesterday’s contact lenses (yes, even in the dead of winter), touch anyone or share a bed with her husband (there’s a double mattress permanently propped up against the bedroom wall ready for it’s monthly seven day usage).

She’s been married for so long and this situation has played itself out so many times that I can see her initial anger and resentment towards it all has now boiled down to forlorn acceptance of her situation. We’ve talked about her moving to her own place where her periods can become less of a public event but her husband is the eldest son and maintains that it’s his responsibility to look after his ageing parents. And but for the whole period publicity, she actually has a very happy relationship with her rather strict in-laws which is significant because she came from a liberal family where no one knew (or asked) about her periods and life was free and easy – from what she studied, to whom she hung out with – so the transition to this household required concerted adjustment.

reflections

Our chat caused me to reflect on how periods were treated in my own household when I was growing up and for other girls I knew at the time. I remembered one girl whom I went to Gujarati classes with (generally the only exciting activity on the weekends when I was a teenager) who had to leave home every month when she got her period and stay with her aunty. It never made sense to me that if periods were dirty, why would it be ok to sully someone else’s home but not your own?

In my own example, as a family we used to pray together everyday and so when I was on my period, I wasn’t allowed to enter the mandir* for five days after which I’d have to wash my hair and then my access would be reinstated. I was never told what the significance of the hair washing was but I assume it was symbolic of cleansing.

And no-one ever explained to me what the cleansing of hair on my head had to do with what was going on in my uterus.

religion vs. culture

From my experience, I can see a conflict between religion and cultural practices which we just seem to have accepted without question. I say this because in the Hindu religion the feminine aspect is considered holy; Shiva (part of the Trinity) is said to be completed by Shakti; the female aspect. During Navaratri, the three female energies of Laxmi, Saraswati and Durga are worshipped.There are female deities and these are worshipped with the same degree of reverence as the male representations.

In the Asian community a fertile woman is considered to be a blessing because after all, periods reflect the potential to conceive a child. But our present treatment of menstruating women doesn’t reflect this same reverence and respect – and we don’t seem to question this.

old practices, outdated thinking

In an article by Mythri Speaks [mythrispeaks.wordpress.com], the author talks about the ancient reasons why women were secluded from their homes and avoided cooking and eating with others at this time. She says that the reasons were all generally positive and spiritually enhancing but these scientifically Vedic based reasons aren’t the ones we hear today in our community. Instead the words associated with periods are “dirty” and “impure” and serve only to cast out the afflicted female enduring a process created by nature and into which, she didn’t have any input.

o great man!

We really need to question what message about our culture we’re delivering to our children; in many cases, are we even providing a culture based explanation for this treatment or are we just telling our daughters that they’re dirty? Whilst it may be rooted in ancient culture or historical practices, we need to consider the wider impact of this treatment on the self-esteem of our girls, in today’s society. By blindly following anachronistic practices, it seems to me that we’re inadvertently reinforcing gender inequality because men don’t suffer the same ‘dirtiness’ warranting segregation and by default, are the more superior.

shame

We have a duty to empower our daughters but also to educate our sons, fathers in law and other male figures around us not to malign the image and respect they give to women because of a sense of impurity associated with periods. If we don’t correct this, then periods will continue to be synonymous with shame and don’t we already have enough battles with shame without adding more to the pile?

Dr Brene Brown** defines shame as: “the intensely painful feeling that we’re unworthy of love and belonging”. Ultimately, by maintaining practices which reinforce this ‘shame’ feeling in our girls, we’re reinforcing an inner dialogue in them that they are not enough; that they must subscribe to these rituals to maintain their worthiness and place in society and the Asian community.

Brene Brown says if you were to put shame in a petri dish and “douse it with a little secrecy, silence and judgement then it will grow exponentially”. She describes shame as “lethal” and that we’re often “swimming in it” however, she also says that shame cannot survive being spoken about. Therefore, in western society where hygiene is no longer a problem, I think it’s time for us girls to openly question why we’re following these practices and be brave enough to make choices based on what reinforces our self-worth; not choosing to follow something because we’re afraid of the consequences but positively electing to do something because we want to do it.

nurturing the inner, not just the outer

As parents we do a grand job of nurturing our children physically – preparing fresh food, ferrying them to extra curricular classes, clothing and accessorising them and more, but we need to put as much focus and attention on how we’re nurturing the self worth of our girls.

We could take the perspective that we’ll continue with these familiar, age old customs and then allow our girls to choose what they want to follow once they’re married and independent. But this seemingly liberal stance serves only to condition our girls to do things a certain way whilst growing up and then feel guilty or conflicted when the opportunity presents itself to make choices for themselves, i.e. once they’re in their own marital homes.

This leaves women feeling guilty if they don’t follow what their mothers have taught them and quick to assume the blame should anything unforeseen happen in the family as bad luck brought on by their violation of the cultural ‘rules’.

Shame, shame and a dollop of more shame.

choosing authenticity

As parents and carers we get to choose how we parent our children – and it’s ok to change track midway if after we look inwards and ask questions of our behaviour we realise something feels counter intuitive.

Another friend’s mother in law knows when she’s on her period because after marriage she lived with her for a while. Now in her marital home, she does as she pleases and has left all period discrimination and related practices behind. However, every month she’s on guard and ensures during that time that no pans with freshly prepared food are left on the stove and the spare room is made up and looking to be ‘in use’ just in case mother-in-law come over. It’s a monthly charade that’s kept up because like a sentinel, she wanders around the house for a general nose about. I can’t imagine anything more stressful than having to prepare to enact a scene on a monthly basis and my concern is the effect of this wearing of different personas for different audiences leading to us losing sight of our own identity [more about this in “Did you hear about her son?” – Shattering the Stigma around Autism in the Asian Community].

Authenticity is so paramount to our own well being and our self-nourishment – by just being whom we are regardless of the audience – we don’t just value ourselves, we give permission to others to do the same.

beetroots

In another case, a London friend was recently invited to a cousin’s baby shower in Ahemdabad. A week ahead of the event, her dad received a call to ask whether she was likely to be on her period at the time of the event lest she should have to sit outside of the main religious proceedings. Her dad’s cheeks reportedly went an interesting shade of beetroot as he digested what he’d been asked to do – to enquire of his 40 year old daughter for the first time in his life whether she was on her period. So he approached her sister to undertake the reconnaissance and then feed back the reply for him to deliver to said relatives in India. I found the whole episode superficially comical but at it’s core, fundamentally degrading.

I’ve been able to easily relegate my period experiences to the past and not carry them forward into my married life because I’ve married into a family where period discrimination simply isn’t a thing. For a long time, I assumed this was a thing of the past  but from the conversations I’m having with friends and wider, I’ve learnt that this is far from the truth.

Historically, Asian women would have shouldered these rituals and accepted them as a symptom of their gender, but today women are outwardly conforming but feeling inwardly divided about why they’re still subjected to such archaic rituals; they’re afraid to stand up and disagree or even to bring it up as a topic of conversation because of the perception that they’re abandoning their culture and inviting bad luck upon the family.

baaaa!

We need to stop the sheep-like mentality of just doing things because they’ve always been done like that. We also need to stop thinking that whether we do something or not won’t make a difference in the grander scheme of things. In the words of Anita Roddick: “If you don’t believe one person can make a difference, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito”.

Each one of us has the power to influence and role model and by following period discrimination practices we don’t believe in, we’re not serving anyone wholeheartedly; at best we’re just poor excuses for actors enacting a charade for a non-fee paying, judgement doling audience. Essentially, accessories to a crime against women’s self-worth.

If you don’t believe in it, then it’s time to stop. And the choice is entirely in our hands.

Period.

photo credit: http://www.sbs.com.au

*mandir = shrine room where deities are kept

**Brene Brown talks to Ophrah Winfrey on Super Soul Sundays, the podcast

 

Don’t cut your nails on a Saturday

To understand the context of this statement let me tell you a bit about me. I’m a Hindu Gujarati. My father was born in the Indian state of Gujarat and was one of six children whilst my mother was from Kenya and one of seven children. Both grew up with every imaginable hardship – financial, hard discipline, emotional starvation – and their marriage was arranged via elders. There was no dating; they simply saw a photo of each other. Hinduism and Gujarati customs were an everyday part of theirs (and my) childhood; certain days were observed as ‘vegetarian’ or ‘semi vegetarian’ (fish but no meat), certain foods were prepared on particular days and I was completely accustomed to hearing what not to do to avoid bad luck.

The language of Gujarati is my mother tongue but I confess that whilst I can speak it, understand it and read a little, unless I’m speaking to someone (usually) elderly, I default to speaking English even when I’m being spoken to in Gujarati.

My parents brought me up to follow many things (including the nail thing on a Saturday   which effectively reduced my weekend opportunity to get my nails done by more than 50% when you take Sunday trading hours into account). It’s only later in life and especially after I’ve had my own children and am more spiritually inquisitive and aware, that I’ve started to question why we say and do certain things in our culture.

walking the tightrope of luck

The beliefs I was taught were a mix of what I would loosely call religious and cultural. Religious practices included praying, going on pilgrimages and observing key festivals whereas cultural practices would include things like:

  • Not putting the household rubbish out after dark because good fortune would leave through the open door
  • Never leaving a shoe or slipper upturned because it attracted bad luck
  • Not washing your hair for the entire nine months of your pregnancy to protect mother and child from infections (dreadlocks anyone?!)
  • Not tapping/waggling your foot because it invited bad luck
  • Eating a tablespoon of natural yoghurt before an exam for optimum performance

And hundreds more practices like this. To this day, I’ve never found a universally accepted reason for the ones I was taught – or even a rational reason at that.

do as you’re told

I was also taught obedience and that parents are the personification of God so you do as you’re told and don’t challenge – which limited the possibility of conversation around why. Add to that the difficulty of reverence to parents who sometimes behaved in ways that were morally questionable and you get a flavour of the emotionally conflicting and stifling aspect of my childhood which was probably an unwitting resemblance of their own.

I’m forever grateful to my parents for the material sacrifices that they made. Like many parents of their generation, they slogged night and day to create a life for their children which would be far enhanced materially and educationally than their own. This was the dream; this is what they lived for. But, being a parent is about so much more than this too.

parenting through fear vs. love

I don’t believe that being a parent in itself qualifies you for reverence and even if you do achieve this from your children, if it’s motivated by fear then the depth of loving feeling won’t necessarily accompany it.

Respect and admiration from your children is earned; it’s not owed.

For me being a parent is an opportunity to demonstrate those qualities which you value and want to see in your own children – truth in speech and action, acceptance, compassion towards others, manners, promotion of self-worth, tolerance – and so much more.

why?

I’ve come to realise that relatability is everything. Unlike my younger self, I encourage my children to enquire and be inquisitive whether it’s about our culture, the world and everything in between.

I want to leave my children the legacy of my culture in such a way that they treasure it and pass it on for generations to come. But I know the way I was taught to follow things won’t fly with them.

Immersive appreciation – not blind obedience – is the only way forward.

For example, I observe the Sheetala Satam ritual. On this day, we don’t use the cooker (so usually eat cold food) and light a diya (sacred lamp) offering prayers to Goddess Sheetala. There are many stories about why this day is observed; some say it’s about protecting children from chickenpox, others say it’s because back in the day, people only had a basic earthen stove and it was an opportunity to thank God for the resources He’d provided for us to survive. I’m not sure which version is correct but the reason I observe it – and tell my children about it – is because it teaches me humility. In not using the cooker all day I’m reminded how fortunate we are to have the food and resources we do and to be thankful for them.

For me, this is the take home message; it’s relatable and whatever the future brings when I’m no longer around, the message of gratitude and humility is everlasting.

my banned womb

I’m also happy to observe this custom because I’m not harming anyone by practising it.

By comparison, I was recently told that I wasn’t allowed to participate in a traditional  Shrimanth ceremony* (baby shower) because seven years ago I’d suffered a miscarriage (more in my blog Don’t say the ‘M’ word). I couldn’t believe that the same people who comforted me with assurances that my unborn child was actually a gift from God fulfilling their last karma** were now using my miscarriage as a reason to exclude me from being present and joining my family on such a happy occasion – and citing our culture as the reason for this. Apparently, even though I’d successfully delivered two healthy children my earlier miscarriage meant I wasn’t considered whole.

This experience made me question what messages and legacies we want to define our culture for generations to come.

To take someone’s past unfortunate experiences and use them against them isn’t just a sure fire way for future generations to reject our culture, it’s an affront to humanity at its core.

I’m not prepared to subscribe to any aspect of my culture which alienates or denigrates people. To me culture means inclusivity, celebration of heritage and strengthening bonds based on the foundations of mutal love, promotion and pride.

I don’t want to shed my culture, I want to celebrate it but I want to define my culture positively and set practices and beliefs which enhance and promote people and their wellbeing – not use it as a tool to divide.

To me, culture is captured by togetherness and servitude. It’s sharing meals and resources, celebrating each other’s successes, offering a hand when life gets tough and observing customs which tighten this thread of humanity between us.

looking ahead

Future generations won’t accept legendary tales or customs which shun members of the community. We live in an age where children want answers backed up by reasoning or the satisfaction of their innate sense of justice fulfilled. My humble advice? Be prepared to be asked questions and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know but you’ll find out. And when you do get an answer to your question about why you do certain things, pause and ask yourself if you agree with the message you’re conveying to your children.

We are the beholders of how we define our culture to our children – we’re not slaves to following things we don’t want to or don’t agree with just because that’s the way it’s always been done.

When we’re at the crossroads we can choose the ignorant path of fear or the illuminated path of education and enquiry.

In Sanskrit the teacher is known as Guru which translates as the remover of darkness/ignorance – we are the primary teachers of our children so let’s use this empowerment to shed practices which harm others and redefine our culture so that it’s exclusively rich in love, acceptance and service to all.

some explanations:

*also popularly known as Godh bharai/Khodo Bharavo which essentially translates as “filling the lap” of the mother-to-be with abundant good wishes for a safe and healthy delivery.

**In Hinduism it’s believed that the cycle of birth and death continues until all past misdeeds have been compensated for through good action thereby enabling a person to merge with God and be truly free of this world.

Photo from post.jagran.com – image shows seven chillies and a lemon often placed outside homes and businesses and believed to ward off evil