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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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