By Amrita Saikia
Physical transition in young girls is not a comfortable process. Especially for a girl in India, apart from the psychological trauma of seeing her body undergo numerous changes, there is the additional trauma from the many societal taboos and restrictions that are imposed on her. In this piece, I share my personal experience and views in this regard. I particularly emphasise on a phase in my childhood in which certain practices and taboos left me traumatized, lowered my self-esteem and forced me to live wishing I were born a boy for many years. Later, when I left home to pursue my higher studies, I was able to shed my apprehensions and inhibitions to a large extent.
An anecdote from my childhood goes like this …
As a little girl, I enjoyed the freedom of playing in mixed groups (consisting of boys and girls) in my neighborhood. From gully cricket to carrom to hide and seek, there was no game in which I did not take part. My mother, who was a working woman, would not worry about my safety because my grandmother would always keep a close watch on my whereabouts. Moreover, I received extra attention from the kids because my grandmother was the headmistress of the school in which most of them studied. I took advantage of this and behaved like a self-proclaimed leader of the group. Even in school, I was always ahead of my classmates in participating in various sports.
Childhood was fun until one fine day when I noticed a blood stain on my underwear and returned home from school shell-shocked. Unlike the other days, I did not take part in the game of Antakshari (1) with my friends. Instead, I occupied a window seat and remained silent all the while. As an eleven-year-old, the only thought that crossed my mind was that I was going to die for I could equate blood only with death. I wish the adult women in the family had prepared me for that challenging phase of my life. Alas! They did not. On the contrary, they added to my woes in various ways, as I narrate below. The only educator that I had was my cousin who was of my age and was too confused and embarrassed herself to share anything substantial.
As soon as I reached home, I divulged about my impending death with moist eyes; however, my mother and grandmother’s reactions dazed me more. Instead of being worried about me, they burst out laughing and instructed me to stand still. My grandmother sprinkled water in every corner of the house and barred me from touching anything. My mother scurried around the house and moved the furniture. In no time, an old mattress was laid in one corner of the bedroom, an old sheet was spread on it and I was asked to occupy the makeshift bed. All the activities of the two women puzzled me and I started howling. It was then that my elder sister, who was watching everything helplessly, rushed to my rescue. She tried to intervene but could not compete with the adrenaline rush that my mother and grandmother experienced with the mere news of me bleeding from my vagina. I was neither allowed to touch food nor water until sunset despite my pleas. However, my sister sneaked in a few biscuits and a glass of water and stood to guard me until I finished. My mother then asked me to change into a new pair of cotton mekhela chador (2) and imparted the first lesson on how to use a sanitary napkin.
The next seven days that followed were petrifying and traumatic and all the activities that revolved around me seemed downright illogical. I was furious as I was barred from attending school, which for me meant missing out on the lessons and the weekly assessment test, which would affect my yearly grades. But for the women in the family, traditions were more important than the lessons in school. It was as if my entire future was dependent on those precious seven days.
By the evening of that day, the entire neighbourhood was enlightened with the news of the school headmistress’ granddaughter reaching puberty. My little cousin brother danced with joy and even announced that I was getting married because he heard everyone utter the term ‘second-marriage,’ a synonym for young girls attaining puberty.
Women of all ages poured in till the seventh day and each one of them had a precious piece of advice to share with me. Although I don’t remember all of it, a few golden words still ring in my ears. For instance, one said, “You are a woman now. Stop playing with boys from now on.” Another one said, “Your behaviour now will determine the kind of marriage you will have in the future.” Yet another said, “You should not take part in sports from now on because it will affect your monthly cycle and there will be complications during childbirth.” For all those women in the neighbourhood, I was suddenly not the girl who played with their sons and daughters but an adult all set to bear children. Boys were barred from seeing me and even if they wished they did not dare to because the women warned them that they would not grow moustaches if they walked into my room. But curiosity couldn’t keep my little cousin brothers at bay and they tiptoed into the room once in a while and teased me by unwrapping chocolates and ice creams in front of me and devouring them in slow motion taking advantage of my helplessness. Other than that, those seven days were a women-only affair.
While a distant aunt objected to the fact that I worked on my lessons daily, which would anger the goddess of knowledge because I touched books while I was impure, thankfully my sister backed me up and helped me keep up with the classes that I lost for a week. She even called up my friends daily to keep track of the homework and made sure that I completed it. Whenever I lost my cool owing to the number of rules and regulations that I had to follow, she calmed me down by sharing a funny story or reading a book to me.
There were one or the other ritual every day till the seventh day. I had to change into a new pair of new mekhela chador every day, wearing which was uncomfortable and unmanageable. For the first three days, I was allowed to eat only fruits accompanied by a glass of milk. Salt was prohibited. My mother, however, had no inkling that my sister kept feeding me from her plate every time she got the chance. I vaguely remember that on the fourth day, I was bathed in the backyard by a group of women with a paste of turmeric and lentils under a tomb made by tying four small banana stems.
Meanwhile, preparations were on for the seventh day, the so-called ‘second marriage.’ My mother was on her toes. Caterers were hired, a pandal (3) was set up, and everyone was busy doing some odd job or the other. On the seventh day, the morning started with women bathing me again with a paste of turmeric and lentils, which they said would keep illnesses away. The most interesting event was marrying me to a banana plant and a random woman in the group predicting that my future husband would hail from the north or perhaps south of Assam. More rituals followed by an evening of celebration. I was decked up as a mini bride. I remember my mother losing her temper when I refused to wear a gorgeous mekhela chador and don the jewelry that adorned my neck with rashes. From my misconduct, a woman from the neighbourhood even predicted that I would have a troubled marriage with my future husband.
Hence, my grandmother and many other women joined the bandwagon to discipline me. After hours of wrestling, I finally conceded. Guests (only women and small children) poured in with gifts. A big red bindi adorned my forehead and women took turns to pour oil on my hair. Then three wailing babies were placed on my lap and I was asked to feed them bananas. The babies depicted the future children that I would supposedly bear. This followed by a game in which women smeared rice flour on each other’s faces. After hours of laughter, dancing and singing by the women folk, my second marriage ended and it was time for everyone to leave. My mother, sister, older cousins, aunts and uncles stayed up late to clear the mess. As for me, I threw away the mekhela chador and the jewelry and was relieved to slip into my pajamas after a week. I climbed into my bed and concocted a story to relay to my girlfriends the next day at school.
In a week’s time, everything changed. I was no longer a part of the games with the boys in the neighbourhood. I was suddenly welcomed by the group of big girls I always wanted to be friends with. I took time in picking up their conversations though. The remarks from the women around made me conscious of my body and the way I looked. I preferred to stay indoors because the bumps on my chest made me uncomfortable. I was told to sit like a lady and wear decent clothes in front of my male cousins and uncles.
In the months that followed, the days of periods were a journey to hell and back, not because I bled and was still not used to sanitary napkins but because of the mindless restrictions that were imposed on me. Although I could disobey my mother and play the rebel card, I couldn’t do the same with my grandmother because I did not want to disrespect her. Her dos and don’ts irritated me, although I kept quiet. She did not allow women in their period to enter the kitchen or touch anything. My aunts stayed in their rooms and would not emerge for four days. Food was served in the room. Anybody who touched a woman in her periods had to bathe before entering the kitchen. On the seventh day, mattresses were taken out and sprinkled with water. Curtains, mosquito nets, tablecloths, sofa covers, bed sheets, etc., anything and everything that the women in periods touched, were washed. Apparently, it was a purification process, the logic behind which I failed to understand. These events only made me bitter and I loathed myself for being a girl. I envied my male cousins who faced no restrictions at all.
School was not a very happy place either. The fear of getting a stain on the skirt always existed. And the best way to hide a stain in case one would get it was to spill ink on it so that we could escape the smirk of the boys. At least I was privileged enough to be able to use a sanitary napkin. Some girls used cloth because their parents could not afford sanitary napkins. But I don’t remember anybody openly discuss anything. Period was a hush-hush affair and it was associated with shame and fear.
It was only after I left home to another city for my higher studies that I felt liberated from the shackles of period restrictions. I graduated from an all-women’s convent college in South India, where male faculty members were almost non-existent. However, stories weren’t different even there. Although I graduated in Life Sciences, I do not have any memories of the teachers in my department discuss periods or anything related to women’s hygiene. I learned from my South Indian friends that even their families had strict rules for girls and women in periods.
Years later, while working on a project in TISS, I visited certain parts of Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra and what I encountered left me dumbfounded. I learned that girls and women in these parts have to live in small dark huts without doors called gaonkar during their periods. These huts are constructed a little away from the main house. The family members of the girls and women do not look at the women during the period days. Food is placed on a plate kept outside the hut. The girls and women in periods only come out to relieve themselves before sunrise or after sunset when everybody else is asleep. There have been incidents of girls and women being attacked by wild animals and drunk men. There have also been deaths due to snake bites and poisonous insects. And most of these girls and women use cloths during periods, which increase chances of infection. However, the initiative of a local NGO called Sparsh has been successful in creating awareness among the villagers and the tradition of gaonkar is slowly abolished. The NGO also produces sanitary napkins and distributes them free of cost among the girls and women in these areas and imparts lessons on women’s health and hygiene.
What I have written above is not something that has not been debated or discussed. Efforts have been made in India to discard the perception that periods is an unnatural thing and that women in periods are impure. Many activists and NGOs have been successful to a great extent in imparting awareness about periods and women’s health. However, the process of change is gradual and might still need many more years.
What makes me happy is the increase in awareness among educated women regarding this transformation in the female body. At least the women around me don’t hesitate and discuss periods openly or anything related to their reproductive parts. They have shed the age-old traditions that some of them inherited from their grandmothers and do not limit themselves from going anywhere or touching anything during periods. They are teaching their young daughters to embrace the transition in their lives. I am sure that schools too are working towards imparting education on this front. Teaching young girls about periods and the changes that their body would encounter as they grow up is very important. Otherwise, it would leave indelible psychological scars that would haunt them for a very long time. More than a physical transformation, it is a psychological transformation that young girls have to go through. Hence, utmost care should be taken by parents, by teachers and by the society to make this transition as comfortable as possible.
A lot can be written on this issue and a lot has been written in the recent times. I have just shared a tradition that I experienced and which still baffles me. None of the adult women in my family had answers to my questions regarding the taboos or the rituals. It was something that had been practiced for generations. And as far as my grandmother is concerned, she staunchly supported the tradition most of her life. My mother is however afraid of imposing restrictions on me while I visit home and my aunts decided not to torture their daughters with the futile embarrassing tradition called second-marriage. Although the tradition is disappearing in the towns, it is still celebrated with pomp even today in many rural parts of Assam.
(1) Antakshari: A game in which one participant sings a verse from a Bollywood movie and the next participant begins with the letter or the word with which that verse ends. The chain continues with the other participants.
(2) Mekhela chador: A traditional dress worn by the women in Assam.
(3) Pandal: A marquee.
Illustrations by Amrita Saikia.
Cover photography by Katii Bishop, from Pexels.
About the Author:
Amrita Saikia is currently a PhD research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is associated with Critical Edges as an active writer and editor.