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Why is it the dirty word?

SOMA BASU
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DOCUMENTARY Madhavidai thoughtfully essays the uneasy attitudes toward menstruation that are still prevalent in our culture

Awoman bleeds every month, it’s her own blood. Let us understand a woman’s body. Let us understand the uterus — the organ which nurtures lives, creates a child from a single cell. How can it be defilement? “Celebrate menses like mother’s milk,” declares Geeta Ilangovan, the director of a 40-minute, self-explanatory documentary titled Madhavidai , or Menses . The message is simple and so is the story line. But filming it was a challenge.

Menses is a film by women for men that tries to dispel the myths and misconceptions, superstitions and stigma attached to menstruation. The crew travelled through villages across Tamil Nadu to film the various practices that women follow during their periods.

The all-woman crew shared their own experiences with young girls and new mothers, working women and physically challenged women in order to convince them how important it was to collectively educate both men and women about what is largely perceived as a “ladies’ matter”. The interviewees shed their inhibitions to talk on camera about the fundamental and biological experience that occurred in their lives and occurs in every woman’s life.

Some of them told their stories with candour and humour that has been poignantly captured — from the emotions of a 14-year-old student to the feelings of a 50-year-old lady about womanhood, the family dynamics and society’s complicated attitude toward menstruation.

Young school girls point out neither their mothers nor their teachers ever told them anything about puberty or what they were supposed to do. “We are only restricted from applying kumkum, offering puja, entering the kitchen,” says Banupriya.

“We are not allowed during festivals and don’t read the namaz,” says Anees Fatima. None of them looks at it as a happy experience. “There is always some uneasiness, irritation…some kind of guilt,” says another student of Chennai Corporation School.

“The guilt arises due to the misconception about genitals,” says Dr. Shantha Margaret from Dindigul. Laws don’t keep women from worshipping or attending social and religious gatherings, she points out. It is the people who perpetuate such beliefs. Geeta wonders why a packet of sanitary napkins is first wrapped in a newspaper and then handed over the counter in a black plastic cover. Such meaningless acts keep alive the myths about “the curse”.

Hazards

For the physically challenged, the hazards arise from inaccessible and unclean toilets. For a travelling woman or a professional visiting a public institution, water shortage and inadequate disposal facility are major setbacks. Doctors have frequently warned that poor hygiene can lead to pelvic and urinary tract infections.

Ritamma David, who runs a centre for autistic girls, takes the debate to another level. “Periods is a hard experience for intellectually challenged children,” she says. If the mother or any other person taking care of special individuals do not themselves understand the natural process their own bodies undergo, how will they help others? As a result, she says, many such women have their uterus removed.

The well-edited film shows the pain young girls experience trying to negotiate their bodies and their culture. Since the subject is not broached in homes, they learn to hide themselves during those days and remove the evidence. Interspersed are educational clippings about the female reproductive system.

Says Geeta, “Women watching this film will discover their connectedness to others. Mothers are provided with a choice they may not have realised they had about how to aid their daughters in this important and often neglected life transition.” By shying away from explaining a natural body process and refusing to shift from taboo to acceptance, they only continue to embarrass women and confuse men.

With gut-wrenching shots of unbelievably dirty toilets and uncleared piles of used sanitary napkins, the documentary urges the need to spread awareness. It calls for drastic change in policies on women’s health and for male decision makers to play a significant role in providing necessary infrastructure.

Though the film was researched over two years, it was shot in ten days last April. Many of the shots happened spontaneously.

When Geeta was travelling with her crew to a village called Koovalapuram near T. Kallupatti, they saw four young girls sitting by the roadside.

“We chatted them up and they told us about a “muttuveedu”, the hut where a woman is kept during those five days of the month. The state of the muttuveedu was appalling, with no light, water or toilet,” says Geeta.

There is a need to ignite a debate on this subject. Women do not purposefully pollute the environment. They need to lead a healthy life and their basic needs have to be understood and taken care of. The film succeeds.

SOMA BASU

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