Sangeetha was one of the early customers at the Westside store next to her house. She was sharp on dot at 11:00 am but the store was still shut. She complained to the security guard outside the store about their lack of punctuality and respect for their customer´s time but to no avail. Finally, she sat on one of the benches in front of the store.
There were two customers who were early arrivals at the store just like her. She couldn´t figure out the exact relation between the two women. They could be mother and daughter, aunt and niece or simply an older and younger friend. Even though they say next to her and were chatting loud and non-stop, Sangeetha didn´t bother to listen to them. She was getting impatient about the late opening of the store until her fellow early bird customers uttered something completely out of line. They were referring to a third person in their conversation.
“ She´s drawing a salary of Rs.45,000 per month. Why does she need to work? Especially now that she has a baby at home to look after? Poor little baby! ”
It was only then that Sangeetha paid close attention to the two women. They dressed modern, wore diamond jewellery and carried designer hand-bags. It was startling to hear such acerbic remarks from them. Before her mood could dampen any further, the shutters of the store finally opened after what seemed like a wait in eternity. Sangeetha went in and out of the store in a jiffy, picking exactly what she needed from there. A cool breezy white cotton salwar-kurta with a matching dupatta!
It had been a week in Chennai and tomorrow was going to be the start of a brand new chapter in her life. Sangeetha joined her first job as a middle school teacher at St.John´s High School in Chennai with mixed emotions of joy and trepidation. Her dreams were finally turning into reality and here she was feeling more nervous than the students. As she recollected her excitement on the first day of school as a student, she knew how she needed to present herself and make an impression. She did a quick touch-up on her face and hair, straightened the pleats of her saree and sported the brightest smile on her face.
Sangeetha walked into VII E as the class teacher and noticed how spacious the room was. She thought how fortunate these children were to be studying in such elite schools. She introduced herself to the class and conducted an ice-breaking session for the rest of the students. Her first day as a teacher went better than her expectations.
The first few years Sangeetha was like a sponge absorbing everything around her in the new environment. Much of it came as revelations to her. Like the conversation with her colleague Varuni, the other day. Varuni had requested the HOD for sick leave owing to stomach pain. This was a frequent pattern every month around the same time. Sangeetha was intrigued and couldn´t help asking Varuni about her health.
“ Sangeetha, you know how it is during that time of the month. It is tough to come to work and teach all day long. ”
“ Oh you mean menstruation? ”
“ Sshhh, Sangeetha! You don´t say the word loud, do you? Didn´t you learn anything from your parents when young? ”
And, how could she forget the PE master, Ranjit´s bragging over lunch.
“ Not only do I have to attend to the important administrative affairs of the school apart from the regular coaching, I have to cook at home as well. ”
“ But, I thought your wife was a home-maker, Ranjit? ”, Sangeetha asked.
“ Of course she is! But you know too well about how you, women get all dirty once a month? ”
“ No, I don´t! I didn´t know we get dirty. ”
“ I´m talking about Men.. ”
“ Oh you mean ´Menstruation´? ”
“ Yes! thought you would understand at the start without having to spell it out for you. ”
“ But, what has that to do with being dirty? ”
“ Of course, it does! Women are unclean during that time of the month. My wife cannot cook during those days. So, I have to take up the thankless job of taking charge of the kitchen. We, men have always been supportive of our women from the start. ”
“ Despite being dirty during that time of the month. ”
“ Right! ”
Sangeetha had more learnings in store for her. There was Jayanthi, the science teacher who would come to school with dark circles under her eye-bags and body aches every month during her menstruation. When Sangeetha enquired the reason, she was appalled to learn that Jayanthi slept on the floor in her living room as she was considered unclean to sleep on the same bed with her husband. Another female colleague who didn´t just feel miserable but also looked so was Sunanda. That woman looked sick because she wouldn´t take a head bath until the fourth day of her menses.
Sangeetha was baffled to find urban educated teachers who still followed such absurd practises in their homes. How does one except teachers who still hold antiquated belief systems to bring a change in the society through their students?
On the other hand, Sangeetha walked into temples during her menses without a care and urged her female companions to do the same. But, the stigma was deeply ingrained in their minds by their very own – mother, grandmother, great grandmother, tracing to the whole lineage tree right to the start. It was like a never ending vicious cycle of superstitions hopelessly passed down through generations.
But the one incident that really shook Sangeetha was the one involving Palak, her student. It was a regular classroom discourse when Sangeetha began her classroom lecture followed by the ´question and answer´ session. When the question was posed to Palak, Sangeetha found her behaviour odd. Palak looked disturbed and refused to stand up, let alone answer the question. When Sangeetha questioned what her problem was, Palak broke down in front of the whole class. Sangeetha went closer and Palak spoke in hushed whispers in her ears. The poor girl was embarrassed to get up from her seat as she was leaking blood since morning. She had no clue what was happening to her. Sangeetha immediately took her to the washroom and handed her a menstrual pad and called for one of the helpers to get a spare uniform as a change over. She informed the Principal as well as her parents to take Palak home.
That night, Sangeetha couldn´t catch a wink of sleep. She had never imagined in her wildest dreams that Chennai would be a mirror reflection of her village in Siruvalur, Tamil Nadu. Right from the incident at Westside when she heard judgemental remarks about a mother´s decision to work to the various prejudices against women in the city, Sangeetha felt let down by the overall lack of ignorance and empathy in educated people. She had to fight so hard with her parents who were labourers by profession to attend school. They had a public ceremony where her parents invited the whole town to celebrate the oncoming of her menstruation. But what she found hard to digest was their unfair decision to discontinue her studies immediately after she started menstruating. This rule did not apply to her brother once he attained puberty. While her parents celebrated on one hand, it felt like a curse to Sangeetha who was dreaming of studying further and becoming a school teacher. It was Mr. Iyengar who dropped by their chawl one day to convince her parents to allow Sangeetha to study at least up till her Xth standard. He told them that Sangeetha was an eager learner and a gifted child and their decision to discontinue her studies will prove to be a hindrance to her otherwise glorious future. Thanks to his persuasive ways, Sangeetha went back to school this time, only to continue her studies right up to the end. She went to college and graduated as the college topper bagging a gold medal and trophy for her achievement.
When she spoke to Palak the next day, she was disappointed that her parents didn´t choose to talk about the issue any further. However, the young girl was given the same list of ´dos and donts during menstruation´ which were passed down through generations. When she went back to her class, Palak had to face the same embarrassment and shame. Sangeetha knew the feeling all too well and decided to give the subject a break for one class. Instead, she spoke at length to the class with special attention given to Palak about menstruation. Sangeetha could see the girl´s apprehensions and inhibitions slowly disappear. She opened up about her rural background, her struggles to get a basic education and the menstrual taboos girls and women face back in her village. She also shared how disappointed it was to find the same taboos prevalent even in the cities.
“ Let me tell you that I fought really hard to stand in this spot in front of you. Coming to Chennai has dispelled many of my own belief systems. I´ve learnt that it is not the wealth or education that matters as much as the mindset to change for the better. I have been a victim of period poverty. Menstruation is one of the main reasons for school dropouts of the girl child in India because of the lack of access and affordability to menstrual pads and sanitary toilets in schools. Even in the UK, school girls miss up to a week each month because they cannot afford sanitary protection. Sanitary pads, as they are currently called, are a luxury item. ”
Sangeetha unwrapped a pad that she took out from her hand-bag.
“ Let´s all do ourselves a favour and stop call these sanitary pads or products once and for all. By calling them sanitary pads, our brains are immediately wired to associate menstruation to being unclean and dirty. We should be calling these pads straight up for what they are – menstrual pads/products and NOT sanitary pads.
In India, it’s amusing how menstruation is looked upon. It’s pretty much the way we treat our women. We either deify them as goddesses for upholding traditions, or brand them as sluts if they don’t fit within the norms. There is no middle path. Despite the public celebration and strong insistence of the divinity status of menstruation, there is a lot of shame attached to it. The ironic part is that women are so conditioned and trained from birth that they have become immune to bias and prejudice and fail to recognize the symptoms that come in the garb of tradition and culture.
Menstruation is an integral part of womanhood. The negative perceptions that surround menstruation stem from ignorance. This lack of understanding and sensitivity has a huge negative impact on the self-esteem of teenage girls. We rob our girls and women of their power and pride.
There is nothing dirty or unclean about menstruation. On the contrary, science proves otherwise. Menstrual blood is power-packed as it is the richest source of stem-cells on planet Earth. Girls, we do run the world. Be proud and hold your head high as you bleed power. You bleed life. You bleed love.
Menstruation should cease to be a hush word or a whisper any more. It ought to be a happy, positive and empowering experience for everyone. And we need both young men and women to bring change. ”
As she left the class room, Sangeetha was convinced that it was time to take action. She went into the Principal´s office to volunteer being the first ´Sexuality educator´ in the school.
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