I’m not particularly fond of my periods – they’re painful, full of cramps. But they are a part of who I am, and I’m not going to apologize for them. We women, especially those of us belonging to the sub-continent, have been shamed or embarrassed into silence, while being reminded that motherhood is the most exalted position a woman could ever hope for. I mean, isn’t that paradoxical – if it weren’t for the bloody nemesis (pardon the pun), we would never get to experience motherhood.
I grew up in a Western environment (in southern Africa) where “period” wasn’t necessarily synonymous with repulsion. But when I moved to India, the land of my birth, soon after my “life-altering” experience, things began to look different. I came to realize that I ought not to be like the neighbour girl who was so besharam, or shameless, that she insisted on announcing her monthly ignominy to the world by refusing to conceal the fact that she had indeed been at the pharmacist’s to buy sanitary pads. Why, the pack of pads, sealed in newspaper and carried in a little black plastic bag was right there for the entire world to see on her ten minute walk back home! I gradually came to understand that “those four days” were taboo – do not speak of “it,” do not make it obvious even if you are writhing in unbearable pain, do not contaminate sacred space with your womanly profanity.
Now, I am not advocating that you remain crouched back, hidden in the dark, ensuring that everyone is spared the stricken wrath of your monthly affliction. Quite the opposite – be yourself, don’t be afraid, and definitely don’t hide behind a period. But alas, not all of us can turn into David against mighty, age-old cultural Goliaths that adjust themselves to fit into tiny conditioned recesses of the human brain. I simply tell of how I merrily took advantage of the same culture that shamed me…
I absolutely hated cooking, and all the things that were supposed to go with it – a desire to finely dice onions, the ooh-and-aah-ing over the perfect tadka (seasoning), the “just right” result on the squishometer upon pressing freshly cooked rice between your thumb and index finger…But I did love the annual Lord Ganesh festivals. Well, to be precise, I loved the family gatherings. I loved hanging out with my cousins, trying out different decibels to sing devotional songs in; I loved the idea that there would be amazing food. God is benevolent, he won’t eat an ounce of the tons of food your mum and five aunts lovingly made for him – over two days, mind you – but he will let you and your thirty relatives devour it within no time.
I was a culturally displaced teenager who so longed to fit in. Although I would much rather have hung out with my male cousins who were watching cricket, who played word games and who idly chatted away on the balcony, I felt I had to be in the kitchen, along with the girls, helping with the cooking, the serving, the dishes. Most importantly, I couldn’t forget that occasions like these were also secret hunting grounds for potential brides, however distant the wedding. I hated every minute of it, but felt compelled to participate in the theatre of it all.
Then one time, the unthinkable happened. My fickle cycle conspired with the lunar calendar to keep me from polluting the kitchen, the food, the people, the very space that hosted Ganesh. Alas, there was nothing to do but coop myself up in some corner of the house lest I permit my insignificant shadow into condemning the world to sin. It turned out to be the most enlightening period of my life. Literally. I suddenly had all this time to myself – I could read, I could daydream, I could chat with the neighbours, I could hang out with friends.
Never before had I experienced such freedom. And I got to eat all that food. Away from the crowd, of course. But it tasted so much better this way – I didn’t have to worry about making a fuss there wouldn’t be enough, I didn’t have to make a show of grabbing dishes away from the aunt at the sink, who was busy replenishing dirty ones, I didn’t have to worry about the unladylike amount of food on display in my plate. It was all so sweet. But best of all, I could couch this “unwomanly” behaviour behind socially sanctioned conduct. Not only did I get to be myself in every sense of the word, I didn’t have to apologize for it. Indeed, I was ordered out of sight. I wish it didn’t have to be this way. I wish I could have simply stood my ground without fear of being reprimanded or being made to feel something was wrong with me because I loathed chores assigned for women. I wish I didn’t have to prove that I loved being a woman despite hating my gender roles. I wish I didn’t have to hide the fact that I was grateful for my period, not because it provided irrefutable proof that I was a potential child-bearing member of society, but precisely because it helped me shirk away from my “naturally” assigned duties.
Over the years, I have learned to stand my ground, to realize that I needn’t succumb to tasks specifically designed to keep women in chains. I do, however, often remember those days when I felt bad for “cheating.” But I still can’t get myself to apologize. Not for my periods. Neither for taking advantage of the situation to fight the very system that punished me simply because I was a woman.
Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. She has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. Vibha moved to Albuquerque in 2014 from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.