The increasingly vocal demands of menstrual activists around the world may shock, disgust, and render queasy. But isn’t it time we stopped being coy?

I grew up thinking it was really nice of the man at the drugstore to neatly wrap my purchase up with a newspaper and put it in an opaque black carry bag before handing it over. Now I wouldn’t need to be discreet about carrying… you know… pads.

Menstrual taboos are something the majority of us have grown up with. It is one of those practices which are pretty unrelated to how wealthy you are, where you live, and whether your family is ‘broadminded’. Even if you come from a relatively well off urban setting, even if you have the liberty to return home at 2am a little drunk, even if you’re pro-gay rights and vociferous in your opposition of misogyny (at least on Facebook), you still have some way to go if seeing a girl/woman’s blood stained white pants makes you more uncomfortable than seeing a child's hurt knee. If anything, the former is less to be alarmed about.

Ahead of its time? Not really...

It’s difficult to break out of its shackles because most of our society is not yet convinced of the need to fight it. Perhaps they’re right… perhaps it is silly to talk of menstrual activism in a place like India, in times like these.

But is that not the easiest way out? Of course you need to pick your battles. While barging into a temple and announcing that you are menstruating may not be the brightest thing to, there are plenty of much less dramatic things that could wake our immediate surroundings up to the fact that we are women and women shed the inner lining of their uterus every few weeks, and that is kind of the main reason you were able to be conceived.

What would happen if the next time your period catches you unprepared, you ask your colleague out loud for a sanitary napkin instead of the meaningful looks? Maybe if more of us did that, prudish men in the surroundings would be shaken out of their fantasy world where women always wore dupattas, spoke softly, and did not pee, poop, fart or menstruate. Perhaps this newly awakened man would now be a little less wary of picking up a sanitary napkin packet for his daughter on the way back home.

This is nothing. Janet Allon quotes Germaine Greer in her article on menstrual taboos:

“If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood. If it makes you sick, you’ve got a long way to go.”

Baby steps

There have been some encouraging signs. One of the more recent ones is Menstrupedia, an attempt by a group of youngsters to reach out to impressionable adolescents and shatter some menstruation myths. They mainly do this via informative images that are refreshingly not coy at all. There are pictures that let the child know what to expect on days on heavy flow (with actual blood, not the strange blue liquid the women on TV menstruate), the importance of keeping the groin area clean and dry, and tackle concerns like bad odour and patiently dismiss common myths without any condescension and occasionally even a little humour (“Menstruation of a girl does not increase her risk of being attacked by a bear or a shark. In any case it is better to avoid them”).

It’s interesting to observe the multi-faceted attitudes to menstruation in our lives. On one hand we’re expected to give out no hints about what is happening inside of us to the people we interact with. On the other hand we are expected to feel empowered about using an advanced sanitary napkin whose large pores and sweet scent enable us to wear white jeans and ride scooters and horses with abandon. Meanwhile, some companies have begun offering us the opportunity to spend thousands to “bank” our menstrual blood so as to preserve the stem cells contained in them, in the hope that some day these stem cells can be used to cure us of diabetes. Never mind that at this point this technology has barely begun testing on humans and its studies on mice have met with limited success (a fact not willingly pointed out by said company). It’s very simple: “These amazing cells are found month on month, in your periods. So ‘those 4 days’ are actually more of a monthly miracle than a monthly curse.” So much science. It must be true.

Thanks to 'Is Nerd' for pointing me to the Janet Allon article.

(Nandita Jayaraj writes about her encounters with the strange and interesting. You can send her feedback at nandita.j@thehindu.co.in. You can also tweet her @nandita_j )