How often have you heard two girls whispering in hushed tones, "Can you check if there is a stain?" Perhaps, too often.
And if you are a girl, you know too well about your biggest worries in your teenage years. It wasn't your grades. Even at your most rebellious self, you were worried about that stain on your skirt.
For those five days a month, everything in your life became secondary - the gossips, or how cute your crush looked, or if an examination paper was leaked. They were replaced with a small voice at the back of your head saying, "Check if you stained."
What perhaps feels funny when you look back is that the ordeal in dealing with your uterus while it felt like its stabbing you was way less than the horror of the whole class knowing that you are on your period.
The truth of the matter is simple: The stain from the skirt will wash off. The stain of shame that accompanies the visible mark on your skirt will not.
In India, where even sanitary napkins brands are named 'Whisper' and 'Stayfree,' menstrual taboos are unspoken, yet omnipresent.
"Don't take a bath till your third day," "Don't enter a temple," "Don't enter the kitchen," "Don't touch pickles" - were the rules laid down. All these bizarre rules reinforce the same taboo - women are impure, dirty, flawed and somehow lesser of a human being on those five days. No surprises here, but many still follow those rules even in 2018.
For women in India, menstruation is much more than just biological - it is another way of perpetuating gender discrimination. Superstitions and cultural taboos associated with periods still persist at the cost of women’s health and safety, un-penalized by law, unlike in certain countries like Nepal that criminalize discriminatory practices related to menstruation.
It is these taboos in place that prevent women from talking up and addressing something that is a simple and ordinary biological process. These taboos, however, not only curb freedom, but also tell a much darker tale.
With taboos comes the lack of awareness - most women do not talk about menstrual health. Owing to the lack of awareness, women seek alternative methods to deal with their periods - which are more harmful than the social stigma that comes with menstruation.
"I wish somebody had told me at 15 that this wasn't the end of the world," says Manjit, the CEO of Binti, which seeks "to ensure that every girl has menstrual dignity." Manjit says that the first time a girl gets her period, it shouldn't have to be a shameful event. "Menstruation shouldn't be a shame," she adds.
If the education was about what periods were and not what women could, or could not do during the periods, the freedom to talk about menstruation would exist. But archaic taboos, most of which are rooted in superstition, like not being able to sleep on the bed, not being allowed to drink from the same water source - remind us of one point: Don't address it. Don't talk about it.
Binti, as an organization, tries to take the shame away by spreading awareness. "If there was education about what menstruation is - and that it isn't something to be disgusted at, then we would have a lot more freedom to address issues like menstrual health and sanitation," Manjit says.
But why is it that the conversation around menstruation just revolves around stained skirts?
Suhani Jalota, the founder of Myna Mahila Foundation, says that it's because women consider themselves 'weaker'. "The tradition of telling women about these taboos is so prevalent that it has become the norm," she says.
"If you treat a woman like filth, she starts feeling dirty herself. If she considers her periods to be taboo - she will never talk about it", Jalota points out.
This cycle of feeling 'dirty' further perpetuates the idea of freedom to address menstrual health. "When you find blood in your underwear and you tell your mother, instead of an explanation, you are told to discreetly use a pad.
You aren't explained what is happening and why it is happening," says Jalota.
"We don't even offer explanations in media - which is where most women learn about periods," she adds.
With most Indian schools not really teaching sex-education or even explaining what menstruation is, the children naturally believe in the taboos that they hear from their parents and grandparents. "If on TV, you use a blue liquid, blood becomes an untouchable taboo," says Jalota.
The founder of the organization that empowers women by encouraging discussions on menstruation says that all that advertisements do is to show you how to wear a pad. "They don't offer explanations or education," she says. The Myna Mahila Foundation has been setting up workshops to produce low-cost sanitary protection to enable girls to stay in school. One of their objectives is to educate the girls before they get their first period.
Awareness is primary. Talking up about menstruation is necessary. And the onus can't be just on the woman to reclaim her freedom.
Kavita Garla, one of the founder members of World of Women reminds that "there is no freedom if we educate a young girl and let it be. She is still part of the social structure where they will treat her with contempt." The only way to prevent this is to educate everyone - especially the men.
Men and older women hold these archaic principles in place and prevent the freedom to talk up about it. Garla states how they make sure they educate the men of the household because unless they open up the conversation, the younger girls will never really get to experience the freedom.
Jalota of the Myna Mahila Foundation remembers the 'mixed reactions' they received when they tried to open these conversations with men-- some were squeamish, some rare ones were supportive, while some straight away asked them to leave and "not pollute the mind" of their wife.
If things have to change, it has to change at the basic level. "You are a woman now" shouldn't be accompanied by handing over a pad and silence. Women deserve to know what happens to them, and why it happens - and then realize that the process isn't one of shame. They do not have to stay outside the house and use hay. They do not have to be afraid of staining their skirt, simply because it doesn't matter if the world knows that they are bleeding. They, in fact, should.
It's been 72 years since India has become independent. But these societal taboos on menstruation still hold women down. Women don't talk up - and they never discuss menstrual health. While data shows that the results of ignoring menstrual health are fatal - what is ignored by every sector is the freedom to talk up about it. It hardly matters when GST is levied off sanitary products but not accompanied by education.
The conversations just can not be limited to "Can you check if I've stained my skirt?"
It's time to reclaim that freedom. The freedom to freely chat about periods.