Back in school, which was at least 13 years back for me, the chapter called Reproductive System in my class 12th biology book got the least amount of screen time by the lady teacher and the most number of giggles by the students. Understandable, the giggles! At 16 back in the 1990s, anything bodily was a reason to blush, or duck beneath the desk or make a joke about when in same sex company. But why did my teacher have to rush through 20 pages of one of the most important aspects of the human body? I did not understand it then, and I do not understand it now. What I do understand is, that by skipping, struggling and skimming through that part of our education she made her class of boys and girls think it was something that needed to be dealt with in exactly that manner - hurriedly and insignificantly. And the judgemental silence I got on raising my hand and daring to ask a question about the difference between Cowper’s gland and Prostrate Gland is something that I remember to this day, even if the difference I do not. A few days later, some boys were mischievously passing a sanitary napkin from one desk to the other and snickering, while the girls did not know where to look. I was not surprised. Education had strangulated learning exactly at a time and age when it was most important to pass it on.
Today, I wonder if the lady teacher’s attitude towards the chapter is blameworthy. Imagine a girl born somewhere in the 50s, when no one used the word sex, no one explained what will ensue on the first night of the arranged marriage to a man you think a stranger and most did not even bother to know what goes on inside their bodies when a baby is taking shape there, even after having 3 of their own. She was probably born in times of cotton pads and secretly washing them, before the men of the house woke up. When abdominal cramps once every month were not to be spoken about but just borne in painful silence. When in certain homes, mothers did not enter kitchens to cook for about 5 days every month, because they were considered impure. And religious festivals and pujas saw menstruating women conspicuous by their absence. Worst of all, stories about girls being made to spend the days of periods in closed rooms, served food like prisoners and kept locked up till the bleeding stopped were not so uncommon in various parts of the country. And of course, all of the above-mentioned came with “logics” that hearsay and certain cultures try to build their castles on.
And how has it really changed?
Even today, in the name of religion, or family etiquettes, or for the simple garb of decency our chemists still feel compelled to wrap our packets of sanitary pads in opaque black polythene bags or newspapers, just like the fact of menstruation has always been passed down generations in layers upon layers of hush-hush invisibility. And I wonder what good we are doing to ourselves, or our children, by doing that. Pray, what is wrong with menstruating? It’s a biological phenomenon that is essential to procreate. You may want to attribute the birth of your son to God wholly, but the ovaries and the uterus have their part to play too. And talking about it will do less harm and more good – physically, mentally and emotionally to youngsters entering their teens.
Archaic ideas of periods in particular and sex and sexuality in general are perpetuating a tradition of all things clandestine by keeping the parents shy and in turn making the forbidden fruit very attractive. As mothers, often we first hide behind bees-n-birds, then hope for the school or the internet to take care of the rest. The result? Suffocating love meets desperation in parks and metro stations, transforming into porn. And the ‘tch tch’ that follows in decent drawing rooms of very decent people only mean they are missing the whole point that some things do begin at home. Every metallic spring that is repressed recoils, one fine day. And we are not even made of metal, but only plain human.
I have never sworn by the advertising industry. But I love the adverts various sanitary napkin companies are making. They show free women with freedom to do, wear, travel, sleep and jump as they please, not whispering ones sitting cross-legged in a corner as if their world has come to an end. Thankfully, these adverts have not been relegated to post-11 pm when all tender age eyes are closed to the reality, even though many a home spoke as one against the 'shameless openness' of advertising 'such things'. And then, so many schools have healthy sex education programs targeted at shedding the very tag of stigma that all things sexual/reproductive have come to acquire down the ages. Women can openly buy their Whisper Ultras in super markets and get them billed in full public view, giving the black polybags a pass. Things are changing on the outside and perhaps on the inside too.
Questioning tradition is not necessarily challenging it. It means a first step towards understanding it too. If the traditional or cultural idea attached to menstruation and sexuality is strong enough to withstand the test of time, what do protectors of all things traditionally sacred have to worry about? To think of it, even sanitary napkins now come with ‘wings’. Perhaps, they are quietly trying to tell us something?