Have you seen “Pad Man”? The Bollywood film starring Akshay Kumar follows the true story of south Indian Arunachalam Muruganantham who developed sanitary pads for his wife after realising she was using dirty rags every time she got her period. It’s not your usual song and dance masala film, but that doesn’t really matter when its goal is to spread awareness about the plight of millions of Indian women still suffering once a month when Mother Nature pays them a visit.
Despite Muruganantham’s good intentions, he was shunned by his community and his wife left him. The social activist went on to produce an award-winning machine that makes pads in rural areas, creating jobs for local women and restoring their dignity.
Menstruation is still a taboo topic for women across India where girls skip school during that time of the month and women improvise using old newspapers and rags, leaving them more prone to deadly infections.
According to Bharti Kannan, Founder of Boondh, an organization that educates women about their periods, 80 per cent of mothers still believe that menstruation is a disease. “Menstrual exclusion and stigma surrounding purity of a person while bleeding has plagued our country for many generations,” said Kannan. “Mothers tell their daughters not to touch the kitchen cupboards, bedding, clothing, instead of telling them what menstruation really means.”
We wanted to know what periods are like for South Asian women growing up in other countries. We spoke to two sisters, the Grewal twins, Sukhman and Hernoor to hear about their first period experiences.
However, my reaction was the complete opposite to my Mum! I was quite lucky in that I started my period at home, that too on a weekend. My mum and sisters were all home that day. Upon seeing the blood splayed in my underwear, I was mortified, but for a very different reason to the stories I know of some girls who have no clue about periods and unfortunately believe they are bleeding to death instead.
Periods for me signified that the adult phase of my life had officially begun. I was now a woman, anatomically ready to reproduce. I went to tell my Mum (in tears!) that there was blood ‘down there’, to which my Mum congratulated and hugged me. The best bit is that she was completely understanding of my concerns. After handing me a pad and a quick demo, she ushered me into the bathroom. There I sat, cursing the pad and the period. Once I got over the momentary melodrama, I sat in the bathroom, pad firmly in place and paused to reflect on what had just happened. I then thanked God for listening to my prayers all these years. I had actually prayed to God to delay my first period, so that I could enjoy life for as long as possible without having to be concerned once a month about PMS and period cramps.
When I went downstairs, my sisters all congratulated me (my Mum clearly couldn’t wait to share the good news) and were all happy for me. A hot water bottle was waiting for me and I was encouraged to lie down on the sofa and take it easy. Not one single thing was mentioned about not being allowed to pray, go to the Gurudwara or enter the kitchen whilst on my period.
I realise how fortunate I am with all the support and encouragement I received in the days after my first period and the day itself. But there are countless young girls all around the world who sadly have a very different story to tell.
I was 14 when I got my period and remember feeling left behind since most of my friends had started their periods before me. Now I look back and realise how silly it was for me to want to rush the process of becoming a woman. The day I got my period, I did feel a huge sense of relief that I had crossed a threshold-a rite of passage. I felt like a new person.
Ironically, being in a house of women with three older sisters, periods were never really discussed. I learned about it at school when I was 11-years-old in a health education class. My mum and sisters didn’t prepare me for getting my period at all, although they were a great help in providing comfort through hot water bottles and chocolate in the months once my period started. I remember the day vividly. My mum was cooking and I nervously went up to her and whispered (in a house of women) that I got my period. She took me upstairs and handed me a pad and told me what to do. That was it! Nothing more and nothing less. I opened the green wrapping slowly to treasure the moment and then carefully secured the wings of the pad on my knickers. Wearing it felt strange. I walked back into the living room where my sisters were, but didn’t tell them. I didn’t know how to. I think my mum told them a few days later. There was no feeling of shame from me, but rather one of pride. I felt as if nature had secretly ordained me into this club and that now, I was one of them. My life continued as normal with no abstention from entering the kitchen or praying and I am glad I was never raised to believe that a natural bodily function should change the way I live my life.