Diary of a Feminist: The Stigma of Growing Up

As a woman you have to brave many a storm. And the list of minor emotional crises is long. But those keep fading from your mind as you grow stronger.

There is one thing can never forget. Your first menstruation. How can you? The shock, the horror, the trauma. The degree of intensity many differ for each of us. But intense it is – certainly!

Perhaps your mother didn’t tell you. Or did she? Perhaps you were the eldest daughter and your mother was a traditional woman, tightlipped about nature’s tricks.

You had an inkling of something mysterious as she carried on with life, with her month indispositions, her prayers that were halted and resumed and her pregnancies when she just kept on praying.

And when the girls older to you whispered, giggled, blushed and discussed some ‘business’ amongst themselves giving you funny looks and shoving you out as you tried to pry. You never did get hold of anything except red or blood.

But those were just words with an aura of mystery. When you first saw the blood, felt it thick and red, you were simply terrified. And ashamed.

Why shame? Perhaps it was something your mother transmitted when she told you in a low voice, in a lonely room, that “You’re grown up now. You are no more a child. Take care of yourself. And behave. Don’t cry. It happens to every girl.”

And the secrecy of it all. As if you have committed a sin by growing up, by bleeding.

Dr Helen Deutsche in her famous study The Psychology of Women notes that “…in many countries and cultures, both in modern and the ancient world, among the most primitive as well as the most civilized peoples, menstruation was and still is connected with ideas of horror, danger, shame and sin. Between the strict taboos of the primitives and the many prejudices and fears of the civilized people there is a bond of strong and deep-rooted identity. The superstitions of the semi-educated, the fears of immature, and the fantasies and dreams of most of us, all have a fatal similarity to the rules and prohibitions of primitives regarding menstruation.”

Dr Deutsche wrote this in 1944. That was forty years ago. The picture in the west has changed. Though not totally. Fears and prejudices are still there.

In our society, menstruation is treated as a taboo. Women keep on menstruating, of course. But they are not enlightened about it. Some mothers do tell. Not every mother does.

And neither the teachers. There is a subject called home economics taught to girls in class eight. And there is a chapter in the book on menstruation. The teachers avoid it. You ask any girl of class eight and she will tell you “the teacher told us to read it ourselves”.

Even if the teacher explains menstruation it won’t make much of a difference. Because about 90% of the girls in class eight are already menstruating as they are usually 13 to 15 years of age.

Shouldn’t it be taught to 10 year old girls in class six so that they can have two, three years of mental preparation? Why shouldn’t a girl be told about her own body, about her physiology and about the changed that take place at different stages of her life? Why the secrecy? Why the ignorance?

There is one thing which bothers me most. It is the concept of napaaki which goes with it. I don’t mind God telling me not to pray, not to tough the Quran when I am menstruating. It is forbidden. As simple as that. And if I have faith I wouldn’t question it.

But why say God has forbidden it because “you become dirty, napaak, impure, less than human”? Why exploit it to derogate women? Perhaps society doesn’t have the heart, the magnanimity to acknowledge women’s central role in the highest form of creativity – creation of human life. And it’s menstruation that makes it possible.

March, 1984

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