September 07, 2007

Under Wraps: Drawing the Curtains on Female Sexuality

THESE QUESTIONS go out to the ladies who have lived any part of their lives in India: Ever been sanitary napkin/ tampon shopping? Ever had your purchases wrapped up in a newspaper/ bag, “safe” from the eyes of the world? Now here’s my gnawing question: Why?

Menstruation is a topic that is very rarely talked about in any public space. Although experienced by a little less than half a billion people in India, any conversation or debate about the same is conducted within the confines of one’s home, more specifically, the bathroom, and only between members of the gender experiencing it. Mothers and daughters. Sisters-in-law. Aunts and nieces. Grandmothers remembering how it was in their day. Most Indian cultures have initiation rituals connected to menarche, with the girl being made aware that her body has changed and there’s no going back. It is considered a matter of joy, this newfound maturity, her entry into the baby-making force of the world. Some girls have older female members of the family explain what their bodies are going through. Others are left to discover it for themselves when they wake up one fine day to find parts of themselves bleeding. But with each individual experience of menarche, a girl knows that something has changed. Irretrievably so. And no matter which way she views herself, the world will look at her differently from now on.

Once the wheel is set in motion, however, very little mind space is accorded to this 28-day occurrence in a woman’s life. Which is fine by most people. I’ll take that any day over snide remarks about PMS and “that time of the month” every time someone wants to blame their stupidity on my hormones. But what I cannot comprehend is the public shame factor attached to a natural bodily process. The embarrassed, subdued tones in which one is expected to ask the shopkeeper for one’s needs. (Thank the Lord for supermarkets now!) And the supposedly respectful way they wrap your fluid-absorption device of choice in a newspaper, assuming you wouldn’t want the world to know you’re a normally functioning woman. With that logic, if I am pregnant, am I to hide the bump so people don’t realize I was sexually active? Is my body going through the natural cycles to cause shame to society? I know people from my mother’s generation who won’t even go up to a chemist and ask for napkins directly. They’ll send household help to do “the deed”. Er…why exactly? Are we too la-di-da to have a normally functioning reproductive system?

Of course, I own up to days when I curse the whole darn mess. And grumble about having to go through the inconvenience of it all. But at the end of the day, it is part of my body. And I refused to be ashamed of the way nature made me. Especially when I have been endowed with the ability to procreate because of it. Whether I choose to have babies in the future is an entirely separate issue. But for now, I will not have my sexuality cloistered under newspaper wrappers because it may offend the world that I am a reproductively healthy woman. So I walk into the corner store, head held high, ask for my usual brand firmly and unhesitatingly say “no, thank you” to the surprised assistant who is all set to secret away my stash. That the product itself is called ‘Whisper’ should tell you something about society’s attitude toward one of the most important human bodily functions we have.

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24 comments to Under Wraps: Drawing the Curtains on Female Sexuality

  • […] Ultra Violet on the wraps on women’s sexuality in India. Like sanitary napkins bundled in newspaper packages. Share This […]

  • GG

    Hear hear! And yes, thank goodness for the proliferation of supermarkets.

  • i am not sure what you are trying to say. as a woman, i certainly dont want to advertise to the whole world when i need sanitary towels or tampons. it has nothing to do with shame. it is a privacy issue.

  • hecate

    Catsjellicle, please think about the following questions and answer them honestly.

    Why do you call buying a box of tampons a ‘privacy issue’?

    Why do you think that buying a box of tampons or buying a packet of sanitary napkins for a NORMAL bodily function (like eating or even sleeping, and please don’t say the comparison doesn’t work, it SO does because having your period is not a biological anomaly) will somehow be construed as ‘advertising to the whole world’?

  • cowsdung

    Are you being naive? There’s a long cultural history of ‘impurity’ attached to the whole thing; and buying “Whisper”with a loud, joyful noise isn’t exactly the answer – it’ll only send P&G laughing all the way to the bank

  • Indhu

    Yes it is a tad complicated, there seems to be a thin line between silence due to shame and silence for want of privacy. it is both a public and private issue and definitely something women had to feel inferior about. on one hand impurity/purity protocols would be strictly enforced and everyone definitely knew about it in the household. despite the public knowledge in the house that a woman was having periods, she was supposed to secretly wash and dry the cloth that was used. it is a very long process of unlearning- and not very easy-to be able to resist, feel differently and start behaving in ways that are not associated with shame and impurity. privacy is inadequate to understand this.

  • usha

    Women are taught to experience and look at thier bodies in a particular way. Often dominating values of the society circumscribe women’s bodies. Thus girls form a very small age asked taught how to sit, what to wear, what to talk and not to talk……periods and related stuff are also part of this list of dos and don’ts for girls. To really disenagege from what is taught and to really figure out about ones own body in a society like ours for a woman is long long journey.

    Many times we do not have a language to talk about our own bodies. I was trying to tranaslate some seuxlaity related article to kannada. When it came to sex, private parts , sexual acts etc i wanted words that were not too much of a slang (for it will sound vulagr and the seriouness of what we are talking is lost ) or too texual/ sanskritized lang (for any ordinary reader will any way undertsand it). There are very few words that i could get!! Language is a product of the society and has the problems that society too has.

    The only way out is to start talking what we feel uncomfortable about, what we feel good about our bodies… matter how difficult it is. May be we will by our convertsaitons find a lang thats our own…

  • Smita

    It’s a terrific post. Kudos!

  • women talk about female puberty among themselves- yes, so what is the constarining factor in that issue? men talk about male puberty among themselves! what is it that you find disagreeable about the conversations that women have among themselves about menstruation?!It is only rational that one would discuss it another woman, as the woman is definitely bound to have more knowledge about mentruation than random men unless all men happen to be physicians.

  • @GG: Thank you.

    @Catsjellice: I certainly respect a person’s right to their privacy. But also realize that the entire concept of what is private and not is societally imposed, so you’re responding to an extraneous factor as much as acting on your own free will.

    @Cowsdung: Merely asserting my right to my own sexuality without the oft-accompanied shame. If that is considered naive or unjaded, then so be it. 🙂

    @Indhu: That’s an interesting point you raised there about public/private protocols.

    @Usha: My turn to say hear hear! 🙂

    @Smita: Thank you.

    @Lavanya: At no point have I mentioned that female communication about puberty/menstruation is undesirable. Of course talking about this with members of one’s own gender helps, since they understand the situation. But the post clearly states that any conversation about menstruation–a biological body function experienced by half the world–is conducted within the CONFINES of the home and ONLY between members of the gender experiencing it. Making this an issue of shame or something to be hushed up and never spoken about with the other gender is, in my opinion, unnecessary and counterproductive (no pun intended 😉

  • @Hecate: You put my point across really well. 🙂

  • Allison

    great post : ) whenever i go to buy pads or tampons, people around me look at me weird, like it’s a bad thing to be on your period. i have learned to ignore them and to hold my head up high. Menstruation is totally natural and even though it is torture sometimes, i absolutely love it. it’s so rad to hear posts about how life is in India, America seems to be the same in some ways 😀

  • @Allison: Speaking from personal experience, yes, in some ways it is. And in others, so totally not. 🙂 Glad you could relate to the post.

  • i just came across your blog. great post. it’s the same case in Sri Lanka, which is where i’m from. they discreetly take it off the shelf and wrap it in newspaper before they give it. the irony is that now everyone knows what it is when they see a paper wrapped parcel. so much for hiding it. Even at the supermarkets you get funny looks from the sales assistants when you just buy a packet of sanitary napkins.

  • @Pissu: Yeah, like you’re a weirdo for being in regular biological shape, right? 😉 Thanks for stopping by.

  • Amrita

    OJ – (should I call you dilnavaz? I get stuck on people’s nicks but I am capable of making a change) as interesting as your post was, it was just interesting to see the reactions to it. 🙂 While I certainly don’t have a problem with other people feeling ashamed about their body (well, I do but I know it’s a lost cause) I do care when these same people try and involve me in their culture of shame. I don’t feel the least tentative about my period and I’m damned if I’ll let someone else MAKE me. Which is why it annoys the hell out of me when my friends use euphemisms – I’m a girl, I have periods, I don’t need you to make up silly names for it. The first time some girl asked me if I had my “chums” I was like – er…? Then I understood what she meant and ever since I’ve felt really violent when I hear that term. It pushes my button so bad! argh.

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    @Amrita: Yes, it is frustrating to see the self-shame women subject themselves to. It appears to come from an unquestioning place, in conjunction with deeply ingrained social beliefs. And the euphemisms too arise from the same culture of silence. Have you heard ‘Aunt Flo’ is in town’? 🙂 That one amuses me no end. And I kid you not, when I was in school, a girl actually said this to me: “The President is in the parliament.” Don’t kill yourself…. please!

  • Sorab Dalal

    I don’t understand all the fuss about a normal biological function. My mom used to send me out to buy tampons as a kid and I didn’t quite understand all the sniggers then. When I learnt a little more biology I thought it was even more absurd (the sniggering that is). Keep writing

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    @Sorab: Clearly, we’re the minority. But thank you. 🙂

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    @Sorab: Clearly, we’re the minority. But thank you. 🙂

  • Sorab Dalal

    @Dilnavaz You’re welcome and I wish that a little more science and a little less religon was taught in this country. Maybe understanding the biology will not make a difference to the sniggers but then again maybe it would. Understanding something is generally the first step to accepting and acknowledging it.

  • High Priestess

    I hear what you’re saying and I get your point, Dilnavaz, however, when I was living in an ashram in a small, orthodox Indian town, everyone treated me like a pariah if they came to know I was having my period. Therefore, I learned to conceal and lie about it so that I would be able to participate in normal, everyday temple functions and not have a bunch of regressive women and men on my case about this or that.

    In fact, while I was in India I learned to lie about alot of things just to keep the people of my back, for God’s sake!

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