It’s an unusually cold winter morning. A group of students wait for their turn to march in the Republic Day parade practice. A girl and a boy sit apart from the group talking and laughing to each other.
Boy: You’re not your usual chirpy self today?
Girl (looks pensive): Ah well. It’s quite cold today, isn’t it? Apart from that, I have a problem that you don’t.
Boy (looks taken aback): What does that mean?
Girl (looks irritated): None of your business.
The bell goes, signalling recess in school. As the kids rush out of class, two girls, in their pristine white uniform, stay back. One of them has tear tracks down her cheeks. The other one tries her best to console her.
Girl 1 (sobbing): All the boys were making fun of me. It was so humiliating. When I got back and checked my bag, my sanitary napkins were missing. Someone thought it would be funny.
Girl 2: Listen, don’t care about what they say. And we’ll find out who took your napkins. Meanwhile, we’ll go and borrow some from the nurse.
Girl 1 (sobbing harder): But now my uniform is ruined. My mother is going to throw a fit.
These, and many other scenes. Similar, hush-hush, kept under wraps. What are we talking about? We are obviously talking about that five-day ordeal numerous women across the world have to face on a monthly basis. The period, of course.
But, there’s some hope for us it seems. There’s been a quiet revolution of sorts brewing on the internet. Not only that, many incidents that broke the internet in the last one year were all about the menstrual cycle and the female body. Remember #periodsarenotaninsult, when women trolled US presidential candidate Donald Trump for speaking out of line about periods?
Body shaming, period shaming, pregnancy, pre-natal and post-natal bodies, all of it is out there. And women are talking about it openly. But is it enough?
We at Hindustan Times take a look at two women, one American and one Indian, who have changed the conversation around menstruation in their own way.
Bloody hell, she’s running on her period!
Kiran Gandhi is not your regular marathoner. She’s not even an athlete. The 26-year-old is actually a drummer in an American band, born and brought up in Boston, Masachusetts. An American woman of Indian origin, she grabbed eyeballs for her free-flowing run at the London marathon last year.
Kiran spoke to us over email. “Well, I was on my period. And that too the first day. It’s highly uncomfortable and I feel sick most days. But for me it was a difficult challenge to fulfil, knowing that friends and family were in the audience.”
She did draw a lot of flak for it. “Well, there were two schools of thought regarding my run. One that went, ‘Eww! Gross!’ and the other one, ‘Eww! That’s unhygienic!’. People reacted exactly as I expected them to. It wouldn’t have been the same had I been running with a nosebleed. Blood is blood. This shows there’s a deep-seated discomfort with women’s bodies. And there’s a need to talk outside of that.”
Gandhi says she was only advocating the need for women to make a decision for what’s best for their body. How did her family react to this? Kiran says, “I grew up in a very liberated family with a mother who never made things taboo for us. I know that’s not the case for most girls in India and other countries too. Both my parents are Indian. My father hugged me and called me a champion. It’s their upbringing that makes me fearless and empowered to do what I want to.”
Most girls in India, urban and semi-urban areas both, face numerous menstrual difficulties because of the stigma attached to menstruation. What does she have to say to them?
“I can only say that say the word out loud. Create your own narrative around your body and understand why you feel ashamed to talk about these things. Then, question them.”
An Indian comic on menstruation? Waah ji!
Aditi Gupta is your simple girl from a small town called Garhwa in Jharkhand. But what she has done for menstruation in India has shattered many a myth and brought women out into the open to talk about their period. She and her partner Tuhin Paul started the project during their years in the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and created the first comic guide on menstruation in India, called Menstrupedia.
Ask her about the comic and her motivation behind it, she simply says her own experiences prompted her to take action. “I was told to hide my ‘secret’ from everyone in the family. I was subject to all kinds of menstrual superstitions and for a long time I thought it was a highly shameful act for a woman to be menstruating. I wasn’t allowed to touch or eat pickle. Not allowed to sit on sofas or other family members’ beds. Was forced to wash my bedclothes after every period and was sometimes not even allowed to mix around socially and celebrate festivals.”
Girls generally start their period at the age of 10 or 11. So the stigma attached to menstruation can harm self-esteem and confidence apart from their health. So when we ask her if people would take a comic guide seriously enough, she replies, “Of course they would. We have created relatable characters who not only talk about the onset of menstruation but how to deal with it during menstruation. The stigma attached to periods makes a lot of girls vulnerable to unhygienic menstrual practices. So this guide covers evrything from emotional to physical needs during a woman’s period,” adding, “It helps breaking the silence. Stories have the power to change lives. Knowing the story helps in dealing with the stigma. It starts a conversation, otherwise women suffer in silence.”
So does she see a change through her initiative? “We have a community of 250 writers writing for our Menstrupedia blog. This has created an online movement and has had a ripple effect. We empower young girls through our book and material. I am amazed to see how people have come up with their own ways to take this menstrual awareness drive in their own communities. It’s a very encouraging sign.”