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

 

Why your back pocket isn’t as secure as you think: choosing creativity over compliance

hairdressing talk

So I was sitting in the hairdressers recently – the greys in my roots meant I’d started taking on a zebra-esque appearance which required swift attention – and the hairdresser serving the client next to me enquired about her daughter. I observed the following conversation (C is client; H is hairdresser):

C: “She’s doing so well with her acting; in fact, today she has another audition to be in a film and there’s only a couple of others in the running. She’s been acting and dancing… she just loves it and she’s really doing well”.

H: “Ah how lovely- you must be so proud! It sounds like she’s going to be a star. Does she want a career in acting?”

C: “Oh yes, she talks about it all the time. And I don’t mind her trying it out but I’ve told her she needs to stop for the next 3 years and complete an academic degree in something so she has something in her back pocket in case it doesn’t work out”

say what now?

When I heard that last sentence it took all of my energy not to turn around and say “what are you doing?!”. Here’s a girl who’s clearly talented and you’re telling her to cut her creativity and success mid-flow and park her ambitions to complete a degree in anything academic just so she has something to “fall back” on? Where would that leave her acting career in three years time and how is she supposed to switch her attention to something “academic” if she’s not persuaded that it’s going to serve her future ambitions?

And even if she does complete a degree and then pursues acting, the fact that she hasn’t utilised her degree or gained any practical experience might make her qualifications effectively redundant if there’s no connection between her qualified subject and her acting. I’ve experienced enough rejection from recruiters to know they can smell commitment from beyond your LinkedIn profile – try explaining that you’ve completed an International Relations degree and then trained as an actor for a few years but really all your heart ever wanted was a job at the UN or Foreign Office.

let’s talk (on my terms though)

I wondered whether the mum had entertained thoughts of a year out, a part time degree or a vocational qualification perhaps for her daughter? Or better still, allowing her the freedom to express her creativity and then revisiting a return to academia at some point in the future. I pondered if it had been a mutually agreed two way conversation or whether the mum thought she was actually being very generous, accommodating and even forward thinking, by letting her daughter have the option of going back to acting after her academic degree had been completed.

Because I (a) wasn’t supposed to be listening and (b) thought if I said something and it wasn’t received well the next two hours would be rather painful and awkward, I kept silent. Maybe I oughtn’t have. I’m something of a reflector so making spontaneous decisions like whether to intervene or not, doesn’t come naturally to me and I replay scenarios over and over in my mind before I often actually decide anything.

what’s actually going on here?

But I did reflect on it and the possible motivations and mindset of this lady.

It was abundantly clear that she loved her daughter and wanted her to be successful – in whatever made her happy. But to me it seemed that there was a fear which perhaps unwittingly was driving her decision making.

In the Asian community we place great pride in academics. Perhaps it’s because as the children of migrant families we’ve been able to establish ourselves, access education and create opportunities which otherwise may not have been available. And as beneficiaries of this we consider academic achievements as the hallmark of success.

I’ve seen the hardships of my own parents in establishing themselves in this country and the tenacity and resilience they’ve shown, to be able to provide opportunities for me and my siblings, is both laudable and inspiring.

But the landscape of success for our children doesn’t have to be confined to academic prowess.

looking within

What if we asked our children to look inwards, identify the skills which come naturally to them and encourage them to pursue what they’re passionate about? From hairdressing to fashion design to engineering and computer programming – if we look closely at the people whose names are synonymous with success we’ll see a combination of talent, persistence and truck loads of passion. These people don’t work to live; it’s not even considered work for them – they are living their passion everyday which is what gives them the edge over everyone else in their field.

Steven Pressfield talks about each of us being born with the most unique identity and nothing – however powerful – can change it. In his book The War of Art, he postulates upon our existence:

“We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it.

Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.

If we were born to paint, it’s our job to become a painter. If we were born to raise and nurture children, it’s our job to become a mother. If we were born to overthrow the order of ignorance and injustice of the world, it’s our job to realise it and get down to business”.

If it’s sounding a bit deep, it’s because it probably is. I love the idea that each of us is so incredibly unique holding an abundance of talent which isn’t replicated in a single other body in this universe. And yet, culture and societal norms unwittingly lead us to shoehorn our children down a path which might not serve their true calling on this earth.

my journey

Taking my own example, I always loved to write. I recall writing an essay until 3am at the age of 12 because I simply couldn’t stop riding the buzz of words flowing from my brain to my finger tips. I created my school’s first ever year book at the age of 14. I took photos of every single girl in my year group (it was a girl’s school), interviewed teachers, procured quotes from pupils and raided the art submissions for the past year to create a collaged outer cover. I had no experience of putting a publication together – but I did it. There was a fire in my belly and it came so naturally to me.

And then I got good grades and was pondering what path to take. I wanted to become a journalist but I had no idea how to go about this and had unsuccessfully approached many newspapers for work experience only to be told ‘no’. My careers officer at college produced a compatibility report having asked me some basic questions about things I was doing well at. The report recommended a career in law amongst other humanities based jobs which I now can’t recall – but journalism wasn’t on there. Added to that, family and friends started to ask which illustrious profession I was going to pursue. It felt like such a burdensome question to answer – that once I’d declared my chosen path that was it; I’d be wedded to that career for life. There was lots of encouragement to be a lawyer and the seeming financial incentives – having come from a thrifty background – made it attractive.

So that’s the path I took.

to law or not to law

I won’t say I didn’t enjoy it, I did enjoy parts of it – I loved research, writing essays and I made some lifelong friends. But I didn’t ever feel complete or aligned from within. I never felt I was an excellent lawyer; I was a hard worker and certainly competent and thorough but I didn’t have the flair and exuberance as some of my colleagues who loved to debate points of law until the small hours, got excited about tax issues and were giddy with excitement when the Human Rights Act was about to become ratified into UK law.

I followed the path; I became a lawyer and I felt that now this was my career, any deviance from this into another career was a big no-no. I didn’t just tell myself this story; I contacted several organisations about policy or other public sector work and the feedback was always that my experience was only legal and this is what I was best suited to. Thankfully, the employment industry has since evolved to take better account of transferable skills.

square peg, round hole

But this feedback and feeling that I was destined for a life as a lawyer and nothing else, left me feeling inadequate and dented my self esteem because it seemed to me that I had to work so much harder than my peers to achieve the same results they did. It didn’t occur to me that perhaps I wasn’t in a job which I felt aligned to and through which I could achieve my life’s purpose.

Fast forward and I ended up working for a public sector organisation when the markets crashed and every property lawyer I knew was clinging on to their job. It was a refreshing change where I learnt more about myself; I loved to write, serve people through my work and feel like I was making a difference – lots of continuities from being a lawyer but I felt better about this job and could feel some inner alignment coming through – but not completely.

Finally, following my operation [see Accepting Life’s Lemons] I took up writing. Now I can see how everything I’ve ever enjoyed has led me to this moment; the first year book, the numerous articles for the college magazine, the dissertations and legal arguments – the thread which bound everything together was my love of words and writing. So here I am, I want to write and to serve through my writing – I’m doing it and it feels good. I’m feeling pretty aligned right now which is a feeling that’s quite incredible. Sometimes I don’t know what I’ll write about but I’ll sit down and it all flows out – it isn’t dragged out or jostled along – I feel like a mechanism from which my inner creativity pours.

setting up our children

Maybe on some level as Asian parents we think that if we’ve put our children through university then in the eyes of society, we’ve properly discharged our parental duties. Forcing our children to study an academic qualification just to satisfy a checklist which we’ve had no input into is both an insult to the creativity of our children and is potentially damaging for their long term outcomes, including their mental health and sense of fulfilment.

If we accept that we all have at least one gifted talent, then forcing our child to compete with others for whom the area is one of interest, passion and purpose is setting them up to fail – because they’ll never have the edge those children have; the edge that comes from working alongside and harnessing your innate talent – the edge that makes work hardly feel like work.

are you excited?

So I’d invite you to ask yourself and encourage your children to do the same; what makes you excited? What things do you do that come so naturally to you you don’t even have to think about it. Maybe you’ve always loved creating fusion food or drawing still life pictures; maybe you’re into animal welfare, writing poetry, applying make-up, creating handicrafts or creating a travel blog – whatever it is, it’s fine if it’s just a hobby and you’re happy with that.

But don’t rule out turning your hobby into something more just because you’re afraid it’s not the “done thing”. In the end, you are harnessing something within you which no-one else in the world can offer. Aren’t you even a little tempted to see the impact your talent could have on the world? Don’t wait for society to tell you to pursue your dreams; society praises results and likes predictability and conformity. If you ask others, they’ll ask why you want to upset the apple cart because presumably things are quite organised in your life (you have a regular income, a loving partner and maybe a kid or two – it’s all quite a pretty picture).

If I had any advice for my younger self it would be this: trust yourself and just try. It might work out, it might not – but you’ll always learn something about yourself from every experience and you can build on this.

“Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be; embrace who you are.”

Brenè Brown

now what?

So if you’re thinking, where do I start? My humble advice is:

  1. Question your purpose.
  2. Carve a way to experiment with what you love, i.e. if you want to write, start a blog. If you like to paint, buy some paint and set aside one hour to just see what happens.
  3. Follow your instincts – how did the activity make you feel? Enjoy it? Then do it again.

It’s said that no-one ever regretted the things in life that they did; only what they didn’t have the courage to try.

Be brave and try; if we come to the world with nothing and leave in equal measure then by definition, you’ve literally nothing to lose.

Photo by jarmoluk on canva.com

 

How I learnt to direct the movie of my life

This piece was written for an internal publication at work – it was published in May 2019.

kal-visuals-1104603-unsplash

I read an insightful article on LinkedIn about the importance of women having other strong women in their support network, to bounce ideas off, go to for advice and an honest opinion and pick you up when you’re down.

It got me thinking about my life, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women more generally and the backgrounds we’ve all come from. Of course we all have our own unique stories to tell, and I’d like to share my own experience with you.

sacrifices

I was the first child on both my mother’s and father’s side that attended an extremely prestigious university and became a lawyer. I was acutely aware of the cultural burden I was carrying on my shoulders to make something of myself and honour the sacrifices my parents had made to get me to this point and beyond; getting up at the crack of dawn to run a shop seven days a week so that we could all have an education without saddling ourselves with debt. My parents worked hard physically so that their children could have a future with more promise and opportunity. But it wasn’t all perfect.

As a BAME woman, there were lots of things I wasn’t taught and which didn’t come naturally. I didn’t know how to walk up to a senior partner and speak with confidence and aplomb about my achievements. I always batted away recognition with statements that underplayed my achievements. I didn’t know how to build a network, what was a network anyway? When you have these social do’s, what are you supposed to walk up to random people and say and why would they want to talk to me anyway? I kept my head down believing that hard work will pay its dividends later in life through promotions etc. I didn’t need to feign interest in what others did on a weekend or be a burden on anyone by asking too many questions.

waiting in the wings

Looking back, I now realise that the place this came from was a lack of acknowledgement of my own self-worth. I never allowed myself to enjoy the journey of learning or work; I was constantly trying to prove myself to my parents, my employers, everyone. I was always taught to strive – and I don’t disagree with ambition – but if you’re never taught to stop and take stock of everything you’ve achieved, your life will become a movie film directed by others; a film where you don’t have a voice.

As a BAME woman, I don’t think my traditional Gujarati culture and home life leant itself to promoting my inner greatness. It was all about academics and actual achievements; not about the nurturing of one’s inner self, promotion of contentedness and finding one’s purpose in life.

building networks

Like many BAME women, I had to balance caring responsibilities with my studies and other roles in the family and community. So what can we do to help each other? I’d say look around you. Are there skills you can see in others that you’d like to develop? Ask them for help; whether it’s mentoring you or a one off chat so you can start building a support system of empowered women around you.

The richness of their personal experiences and cultural heritage make BAME women such incredible and empathetic ambassadors and leaders. I’ve realised that I’m not defined by what I didn’t have growing up but by the paths I’ve chosen to take into the future.

I’m directing this movie. And it’s going to be amazing.

 

Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash