Last week, Pahlaj Nihalani, chief of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) informed us that menstruation was an adult subject, and hence a film which talks about men’s ignorance of menstruation could not be seen by, say, adolescents (about half of whom, we can assume, menstruate).
Mr Nihalani has opened an important discussion, for his comment begs the question: what does it mean that someone is an adult?
One of the reasons menstruation is a taboo subject is that it is directly related to sexuality. It is a sign of puberty, yaniki reproductive ability, which means sex and sex organs which means silence. The silence around menstruation also reveals how women’s bodies are thought of primarily in sexual and reproductive terms - not biological or medical or professional terms. This is also the reason why women’s other needs - for instance their need for more toilets, or better nutrition, or, for that matter their sexual desire, remain relatively invisible and ignored.
The silence around menstruation has been broken only in two ways. One, through the market which has been advertising blue blood and leak proof pads for a couple of decades now, breaking the silence around menstruation on a daily basis in living rooms across the country.
The other has been through a host of recent social campaigns which wish to push back against the social taboos around menstruation - Happy to Bleed, the fight to enter some temples while menstruating and so on, which insist that people confront the simple fact that women bleed on a monthly basis.
These are important at the level of assertion no doubt, in the push to normalise the conversation around menstruation. However, one of the limiting aspects of both, the market language and the rah-rah language around menstruation, is that it becomes overwhelmingly about saying women can do anything during menstruation, while hiding it (look ma, white pants no stain) and hence, the days of a period are just the same as any other, and by extension women are no different than men, yaniki, menstrual but macho.
But, this is not true for all women. Many experience heavy bleeding, incapacitating pain and serious discomfort during their period, sometimes as a result of conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome or endometriosis. Acknowledging this part of the menstrual experience might make it possible to think of menstrual leave for working women whose discomfort is exhausting. Zambia, Japan, South Korea are among the countries that have menstrual leave. I certainly wish this had been a possibility instead of pretending I was tough enough to take one painkiller after another for years, when I’d rather have been in bed with a hot water bottle.
We need more space to talk about menstruation in its diversity and not as an exceptional experience to really talk about it, to find ways to accommodate it in the way work is organized around life.
So, Mr Nihalani is right when he says menstruation is an adult subject. To talk of something as an adult means to look the matter in the eye and accept difference as well. It is only little kids who say chhee and haw and yuck when talking about bodily functions. And, it is time that grown-ups stopped talking about menstruation as if they were squeamish (or defiant) kids.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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