The day I got my period, I knew that something significant had changed about my place in the world. I was walking home from the bus stop, when I felt the alien sensation of my stomach cramping. When I got home and told my mother, she was delighted.
‘You’re a woman now,’ she told me, before promptly sitting down with the telephone to let all of her friends know the news.
You’re a woman now. The words are probably familiar to many cis-gender women. Periods have long been seen as the physical sign of transition from girlhood to womanhood. Your body is able to reproduce, and therefore you have entered into adulthood, or so the logic goes.
But for me, at age 12, I did not feel like a woman – and the expectations of womanhood in the Indian Muslim culture I was raised in were very specific. Indian culture expects a level of modesty and subservience in women that I have never been able to adhere to. And in Islam, menstruation is a time considered ‘unclean’ by some, and women who are menstruating are not allowed to pray, fast, or touch the Quran.
Combined, the expectations of our culture and religion meant that my family did not speak about periods, but their advent signalled a transition from my position as a child, to my new role as a young woman, representing our good name.
I became acutely aware of my body during my periods. How was I walking? Was there blood on my skirt? Could people tell? Was I unclean, dirty, immodest?
The sight of blood trickling down my legs and swirling down the drain when I showered alarmed me. I didn’t know how much I was supposed to bleed, what was normal, and what could be cause for concern. Without information, everything felt abnormal, and I treated my periods with a combination of caution and fear.
As I grew up, and became exposed to feminist thinking, I started resenting the way my culture made me feel about my body. At first, I saw the negative connotations I had developed towards menstruation as wholly influenced by Islam and Indian culture.
But now, I can see that this was an unfair equation. Yes, the attitudes towards periods, which saw them considered ‘dirty’, and a taboo topic for discussion, were more obvious in Indian Muslim culture.
But they were reinforced by Australia attitudes at every turn. At school, girls lived in fear of their tampons or pads being stolen from their bags and thrown around the classroom by boys who would squeal and fling the items away as if they were touching something truly disgusting.
A boy on my bus was notorious for taking pads, smearing them with tomato sauce, and throwing them at people.
If you had the misfortune to have a leak from your sanitary item of choice onto your clothes, you would be labelled a social pariah.
And the girls who suffered truly awful period pain were dismissed and ignored when they sought support from their teachers, told that ‘PMS’ wasn’t a valid reason to ‘get out of class’.
At every turn, the notion that periods were a sordid aspect of female biology was reinforced. I became furtive whenever I was menstruating, hiding pads up the sleeve of my jumper when going to the bathroom, skulking my stained sheets into the washing machine if I leaked in the night.
It took years (and a significant amount of listening to Ani Di Franco) for my attitude to my own body to change. I realised, gradually and with a lot of self-interrogation, that my squeamishness about menstruation was a learned behaviour, compounded by the dual cultures I grew up in, and that it could have real, negative consequences for my health.
My unease with my own reproductive system meant that I feared getting pap smears, compromising my health. It took years for me to understand my cycle, and what it meant in terms of my physical and mental wellbeing. I failed to care for my body, because I was told that the natural experience of menstruation was somehow impolite.
Now, I see periods as a political act – whether you have them or not, either experience has a connotation when it comes to female identity.
The fact is, not all women have periods. And not all people who have periods are women. If you do have periods, you should never have to feel ashamed about that. And if you don’t, that doesn’t in any way lessen your female identity.
My acts of rebellion against the negative narrative around periods may be small – holding my pad openly in my hand when walking through the office, or stating that I have my period when asked why I look tired or worn out – but these are strides towards honouring experience that is just a function of my body.
At the Victorian Women’s Trust, we’re all about sharing real life experiences when it comes to menstruation and menopause. Our upcoming book, About Bloody Time: the Menstrual Revolution We Have to Have, is the currently the subject of a Pozible campaign to raise funds to print and distribute About Bloody Time widely.
Zoya Patel is a writer and editor based in Canberra.
She is the Founding Editor of independent feminist journal, Feminartsy, through which she publishes the work of writers from across Australia, hosts monthly feminist reading nights, and co-hosts the Read Like a Feminist bookclub.
Zoya writes fiction, non-fiction and memoir, and has had her work published in a range of publications including Junkee, Women’s Agenda, i-D.co, Right Now, The Canberra Times and more. Her memoir No Country Woman was published in August 2018.