Hyderabad : For Syeda Masuma Fatima, 18, red is a color of shame. As a teenage resident of Old City, her exposure to the color first happened between her thighs. “I was 11 when I matured for the first time,” she says, battering around the term ‘period.’ Her life in the varicolored lanes of Dabeerpura has been a game of hide-and-seek since then.
For many girls like Fatima, the onset of periods brings along a new set of rules to live by. “It was the month of Ramzaan, and I was strictly told not to fast or offer prayers,” she says. Traditional and religious taboos continue to guide the lives of several women residing in the area. From menarche to menopause, women live life under extreme surveillance, and not just by big brother. An entire society takes steps to achieve the ultimate goal of marriage.
“On the 11th day of my first period, we had a ceremony of godh bharai where I was made to wear a saree, while everyone celebrated,” says S. Vaishnavi, a 12-year-old Yakutpura resident.
The Ritu Kala Samskara is a common ceremony among conformist Telugu Hindu communities, where a girl who’s achieved menarche bonds with (and is bound by) a saree to depict her entry into womanhood and her child-bearing ability.
Bad blood & Anathema
“The common taboo between both Muslim and Telugu Hindu communities residing in Old City is that during the monthly menstrual cycle, a girl is impure,” says Jameela Nishat, founder of Shaheen, a women welfare organization that operates in the area.
Nishat, along with several women volunteers works to detach the process of menstruation with traditional taboos. “Young girls are wrongly told not to take a bath during their periods, as water may enter their vagina and hinder them from ever producing a child,” says Zehra Begum, a volunteer at Shaheen.
As period blood has a stigma attached to it, it is assumed that the longer a menstruating girl stays at her parents’ home, the bigger is the gunah (sin).
“A girl is forced to live in complete isolation and for the first 40 days after menarche she cannot step out of her home,” says Taslima Sultan.
Also a young volunteer at the NGO, Sultan gloomily adds that she wasn’t allowed to wear new clothes or go out on Eid upon the descent of her first period. Common taboos that pan nationally like not touching religious books, or not eating a few foods (including the infamous bonda).
Upon entering the realm of fertility, women are instructed to walk with their heads down, their chest in, and their individuality zero. “We’re still stuck in an older time period, and these restrictions won’t go away so soon,” says Convenor of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s (AIMIM) Women’s Wing, Ayesha Rubina.
For many in the area, any menstrual cycle comes with a side of disgust. For the women going through these menstrual cycles, however, the main dish is sharm (shame).
Say the word ‘menstruation’ out loud in Old City, and nobody would turn an eye. Perhaps, because for them, menstruation doesn’t exist. All that exists is ‘becoming matured’, ‘periods’, and ‘mahawari,’ the latter being strangely similar to the Hindi word for plague (mahamari).
A medical student at the Government Nizami College, Charminar, Ayesha Kalim, thinks that for women to know about menstruation, the first, need to understand the language of their bodies.
Several attempts are being made to explain women the language of their bodies. Kamal Nayak, the founder of a non-profit organisation, Good Universe, conducts awareness workshops in government schools in the area to talk to young girls about menstruation.
“We do an exercise called body-mapping, where we draw out female bodies and ask them to label the parts,” says Kamal.
The girls usually leave out their reproductive organs, which gives the NGO the chance to offer a biological explanation of those organs. The women at Shaheen also conduct a similar exercise to inform young girls about the scientific aspect of menstruation.
“If we don’t explain the science behind it, the girls will never be able to disconnect it from their traditional understanding,” says Aparna Ghosh Adhikari, Senior Manager with Healing Fields Foundation.
Adhikari and her colleagues have been working in the Old City for the last 20 years to create awareness about menstrual and sexual health in school girls. The organization conducts several awareness programs in 45 government schools to wean off the girls from the orthodox vision of menstruation.
Due to taboos, school teachers often skip the chapters that talk about sexual and menstrual health. Menstruation, much like the streets, finds no mention in school curriculums.
“Menstruation should be included in the school curriculum. Since not talking about it freely has made many girls drop out of school,” adds Padhmavati Pamarthy, the convener of Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust.
According to a study conducted by KGNMT itself, the rate of girls dropping out of schools is alarmingly high. The report prepared by Dasra and Kiawah Trust in 2015, puts the national average at 23 percent. Poor sanitation in the school’s washrooms and the unavailability of water and dustbins adds to the problem. “The issue can only be resolved once we start talking about menstruation openly,” Adhikari says.
The Medical Side
According to gynecologists and medical health experts, poor menstrual health management in the area has resulted in a high number of diseases among women. Many women in the area still use cloth because of “traditional conditioning.”
Dr. Rekha Gupta of Gupta Hospitals says: “The use of cloth leads to a number of infections especially if it isn’t been washed and dried properly.”Due to the stigma, women tend to wash the cloth poorly and dry it in closed spaces which influence the growth of bacteria. This leads to several diseases such as vaginitis, urinary and reproductive tract infections, and even prolonged rashes.
Dr. Qudsiya Begum, head Gynecologist at Government Nizami Hospital says a large number of women have been suffering from anemia due to heavy blood loss during their periods. Both hospitals see many married patients coming in with a request to remove their uterus since the heavy blood loss comes with large amounts of pain.
Dr. Begum examines approximately 50 patients a day, half of who suffer from menstrual issues. According to her, the diseases are caused due to hormone imbalances and poor menstrual management. “Women tend to look at delayed periods as a sign of something being wrong with them, rather than just normal hormonal imbalance,” she adds.
Adhikari, who works with HFF on Girl Health Education Programs in the area’s government schools, says that it is poor nutrition that leads to the deficiency of iron and vitamin C. “Because of financial conditions, people here have no concept of eating breakfast which leads to incomplete nutrition, poor menstrual health, and anemia,” she adds.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
“We have made continuous attempts to improve menstrual hygiene,” adds Dr. Jyoti Rana, who in her term as the District Collector of Hyderabad, distributed sanitary pads and organizing workshops in the state schools. However, neither the local state government nor MIM has worked specifically to improve the understanding around menstruation.
It is only through the efforts of non-profit organizations and several individuals that the area is witnessing some change, “The younger women have more awareness than their mothers, and they are turning things around,” adds Ayesha Rubina.
Masuma Fatima and other young girls have now started realizing that menstruation is a scientific process. The shade of red is getting darker, closer to the red of retaliation, and it is these girls churning the tide.