Fiza Banu, Saira Sheikh and Misbah Khannum have something in common with Akshay Kumar’s character in the recent Bollywood hit, Pad-Man. They have all faced societal displeasure for speaking up against the taboo of menstruation. The film’s biggest success lies in generating a public discourse on menstrual hygiene and making it ‘cool’ to talk openly about a woman’s periods. The three young girls from Bengaluru have achieved something similar, albeit on a smaller scale.
The trio, who are Class 9 students from Citizen’s English School, met with a lot of subtle opposition when they decided to conduct a survey to gauge awareness about menstrual issues in their locality – Richards Town in North Bengaluru. IGYS (International Geography Youth Summit) was nearing and the children had not yet chosen their topic for presentation at the prestigious conference. Fiza, Saira and Misbah, who were disturbed by the prohibitions that surrounded menstruation among their families and friends in the neighbourhood, decided to take on the topic. For these girls, who hailed from conservative families and stayed in a traditional locality, choosing a topic like menstruation was nothing short of revolutionary.
They drew up a questionnaire of 20 questions. The questions ranged from the specific e.g., “Where are you not allowed to enter?” to the more open-ended e.g., “What do you feel when you have periods?”
The answers revealed much about the prevalent archaic mindsets in the locality, as did the process of choosing the respondents. Subtle disapprobation of the topic from people made the trio cautious about approaching random strangers for their survey. Respondents would have to be people they knew – either family or from their school. Even then, at least five of them were hesitant to talk to them- that’s a quarter of the respondents.
The survey brought to the fore a long list of restrictions still being enforced on menstruating women. Following the survey, the girls boldly took up an awareness campaign to educate the women in their neighbourhood. They went door-to-door to convince them that there was no impurity associated with menstruation. The women of the neighbourhood gradually came around. They agreed that the practice of not touching pickles, plants, food etc., when they were menstruating, for reasons of purity, didn’t make any sense and they would stop it henceforth. However, the women refused to stop avoiding religious places/prayers during their periods. The girls had managed to get the women in their neighbourhood to question the validity of several practices around menstruation and this, in itself, was unprecedented. This was progress in no small measure. In the process, the girls were also imbibing valuable life lessons – they were learning the importance of patience in changing long-held religious views.
This whole experience became the subject matter of their presentation at IGYS 2017 and was titled ‘The Taboo Geographies of Menstruation’. Their presentation produced one of the liveliest discussions, becoming a highlight of the conference. The girls deftly countered the inherent discomfort around menstruation that came out during the discussion. To a question from a young girl in the audience who wanted to know why they had chosen to talk about an uncomfortable topic so openly, Saira’s poised response was that there were many girls who had no mothers and the taboo needed to be broken so that the girls could comfortably discuss these issues with their father or brothers.
Post the conference, the trio valiantly fought their own discomfort in discussing such matters with their fathers and broke their silence. IGYS 2017 had concluded, but for Fiza, Saira and Misbah. the battle to make women’s lives better had only just begun. They continue to talk to women and girls about the superstitions surrounding menstruation and are working hard to counter them.
And this is how, three young girls from a low-fee school boldly exposed the stigma that is still attached to menstruation and challenged baseless age-old beliefs. They managed to drag the issue into the limelight and kick-start serious discussions around it in their small world, foreshadowing the larger nation-wide revolution sparked by Pad-Man. While women across the country had to wait for Akshay Kumar’s unlikely superhero to de-stigmatise menstrual hygiene, a small pocket in North Bengaluru had already found its own superheroes, its valiant Pad-Women.
By Rifath Fathima & Revathi P, School Transformation Leads at Mantra4Change