Can we break this hush-hush atmosphere surrounding periods?
I was late in getting my first period compared to my friends. I had mine in class 6 when I was 14, compared to many of my peers who got theirs in class 5 at the age of 13. I particularly remember this one incident where a classmate was the first among the girls in our class to get her period and there was an air of mystery, intrigue, and pride surrounding her.
All the girls wanted to know how it felt, what it was like, if it hurt. She would whisper to them in groups of 2 or 3 at a time because you couldn’t talk too loudly -- what if one of the passing boys heard you? She felt pride because her mother had remarked she was now a full-fledged woman. The girls ooh-ed and aah-ed, their eyes big with wonder and I heard her say, a smug smile playing on her lips: “It’s because I dance and play sports! Amma said girls who are athletic get their periods earlier! Now I am more feminine.”
That day, pre-teen me went back home wondering if my period was late because I was mostly studious, hardly active, mostly sedimentary, reading books in my bed. I wondered if getting one’speriod really made one a “full-fledged woman.” Did I want to be one? I learnt about periods from friends first and then my mother. By the time I completed class 5, most of my friends had had their periods and my mother had sat down with me one random day and briefly explained menstruation to me.
It was nothing elaborate or fancy. Ma called me and told me that I was growing up, which meant I would get my period soon. She asked if I had heard about it before and I nodded. She replied: “Yes, good. So women get their periods from the time they turn 13, some girls can get it earlier while others later, and it happens every month for a few days until you turn 40 or older. Then it stops. You will bleed and you will have to use sanitary pads. Let me know when you get yours, I will show you how to use them.”
That was the abrupt end of my mom’s little speech. I asked, curious: “Why do women get periods, ma?”
“It’s just how it is. It is a blessing from Allah. It helps you have babies. It makes you a complete woman. Your body will change from now onward. There are women who do not get their periods and they suffer; they pray and hope they get theirs.”
I had so many questions left to ask but that was it. I wish my mother had taken the time to explain the biology behind it or how life changes and one adapts to the daily struggles. There were a few other instances when I had broached the subject to her.
“Sylvia said her periods hurt a lot. She didn’t come to school for three days. Why do we need them?”
“We just do. It is important. It hurts sometimes, you have to adjust.”
I got my first period on a Friday, at home, to not much fanfare. I felt something wet between my legs and I understood I had finally gotten my period, later than most of my friends, in the middle of class 6. I called ma to the room, and she brought out a belt-system sanitary napkin meant to be worn under petticoats and not with panties. I was very confused. I had heard of my friends wearing pads that would be placed on the crotch of the panty but ma told me to wear these without any!
When I informed her as such, she said those napkins were too expensive so I would have to make do with these. And then she left me to figure it all out after briefly demonstrating how to wear the belt-system sanitary napkin. There I sat, feeling quite underwhelmed and frankly, quite uncomfortable, wearing my new symbol of womanhood.
I had imagined my first period to lead to a transformation, a new me, but all I could register was how uncomfortable it felt and by the end of the day, the dread that I would have to deal with this thing in-between my legs for the next four to seven days and every coming month henceforth. How awful! I already hated it and it hadn’t even been a full day yet!
And then came the horror of period leaks and stains. Looking back, now I realize how terrible those belt-system sanitary napkins were, but back then, I thought this was how miserable life would be. I had constant anxiety that I had a leak, that the blood was staining my clothes and then the frustration when I found out it actually did and all the constant cleaning at random hours of the day, even at 3am, scrubbing hard to make sure the copper red was no longer visible.
No one explicitly told me that talking about periods was a taboo but I picked it up soon enough in the way it was discussed in hushed whispers and quiet voices, keeping a distance away from the men in the house and the boys at school. My mother, in not so many words, had told me in passing that I don’t need to go out of my way to mention it to my uncles and other male relatives, but I could talk about it to my father if I had any major issues or discomfort since he is a doctor.
Yet, a strange hesitancy had already settled within me by this point, imbued by my surroundings, I actively avoided having to mention anything associated with periods to him. This meant going to great lengths to dispose of my sanitary napkins late at night when he would be busy in his room watching TV, just so I didn’t have to cross paths with him during the day in case he asked me what I was up to.
When he would ask me why I wasn’t praying namaaz, because Muslim women are forbidden to pray when they are menstruating, I would look down at the floor, mumble a lame excuse about feeling sick or not feeling like it, shame engulfing me even before I had had a chance to decipher its roots, leading to him either scolding me for not feeling like praying or handing me medications because he assumed I had a cold or fever, which I had to gulp down in front of him.
The bigger problem started when I soon discovered I had irregular periods, Aunt Flo arriving at random days of the month with little consistency and not following the 28-day cycle. I would get my period for two days, followed by nothing for five days and once again heavy flow for a day and perhaps two weeks of no blood followed by a week of spotting.
Many a times, I had had awkward situations, close encounters at school, home, parties, and family gatherings where my period came out of nowhere, leaving me unprepared and embarrassed, partly due to the irregularity of my periods, partly due to the bad quality of the belt-system sanitary napkin that I used.
One such incident happened during my final exam at school in class 7. It was Bengali literature and the last period but there were still 30 minutes until the bell rang. I felt it while I was scribbling away at full-speed on my exam paper, sitting between my two best friends on the second bench.
I immediately froze thinking about my white salwar-kameez uniform and whispered the predicament to my friend sitting on my right. I was stuck in a dilemma -- I wanted to finish my paper, I knew all the answers. I wanted to get up and go to the bathroom but I did not know how bad the stain was at the back of my all-white pajama and there were three boys sitting behind me on the third bench.
I could not tell my teacher about it because what if they heard it? I would be ridiculed at school for the rest of the year!
My friends saved the day, one of them getting up to go tell the teacher, who told me to stay put, and once the bell rang indicating the end of school, she rushed all the boys out of the class saying she had work to do in class. Then she got my friends to walk me to the bathroom at the end of the long corridor, five of them trailing behind me like a human shield, assuring me I could finish the exam paper after I had sorted myself out of the mess.
Another teacher lent me her shawl to wrap around my waist because my pajamas were stained red and I had no spare. That day, I went back home shaking and crying. It just so happened that my dad had come to pick me up from school and he got worried seeing my face, so much so that I had to tell him what had gone wrong at school.
I wanted an end to it all and that was the first time I demanded he find a solution to fix my irregular period and that I wanted the better quality sanitary napkins. I had felt a little guilty asking for it, knowing how expensive they were, but I couldn’t see myself dealing with this anxiety and hassle anymore.
To this day, I carry an extra set of panties, clothes, and pads with me wherever I go, although my irregular periods were brought under control thanks to one year of consistent birth control pills.
That conversation, albeit forced out of circumstance, led me to have open discussions with both my parents and, later on, my sister along with my female peers and as a young adult, my male counterparts.
I come from an educated upper middle-class family, I grew up in the capital, Dhaka, I went to a private English medium school. No one ever explicitly forbade me to talk about periods or restrained my boundaries with superstitions or sexist stigma, yet reflecting upon it now, I realize how much the social cues of our culture speckled with patriarchal values, religious nuances, and a lack of proper understanding and knowledge created a hush-hush atmosphere surrounding periods and the uncomfortable, frazzled, and unsettling feeling it left on its women.
Faizah Aziz Aditya runs a blog called “The Humane Phenomena.”