Why I felt it was important to break the silence


April 13th, 2018

This year on the International Women’s Day, I felt like sharing my personal story relating to “Menstruation”. Yes, we bleed! It is not comfortable!

Perhaps the most discomforting part is the practice of tiptoeing around it. Periods are the “one issue” we have been going to an extreme length to hide about ourselves. Everyone knows we are getting them, but we cannot talk about it!

What we do during period?

Women in Bangladesh, generally, do not talk about periods to men. Not even with their fathers or brothers. Women often feel too shy to go to a pharmacy and buy sanitary napkins in front of men. I have personally witnessed my friend refraining from buying them even at the situation of dire need, just because a man from her neighbourhood was in the pharmacy. My friend hesitated, and then decided to buy some cold medicine, which she did not even need, to justify her presence in the pharmacy to him. A couple of years back I would have done the same thing if I was in that situation. That is what how we were brought up – we grew up believing, “no one must know I get periods”.

Growing up in a Muslim family, surrounded by Muslim neighbours and classmates, I have also practised and witnessed the strategy our mothers took to ‘hide’ periods from the male members’ of the family. Muslim women are excused from their Islamic duties of saying their prayers for five times a day, or fasting during the month of Ramadan on the days they have their period. Since ‘not praying’ or ‘not fasting’ would be a dead giveaway – all these women would “pretend” to pray, and wake up in the middle of the night[1] to pretend they will be fasting the next day.

That was as far as the struggle of ‘hiding period’ from others goes. Now let me talk about the actual experience itself. It is important to understand that each woman experiences period differently. The struggle starts at an early age, from school days. According to the UN, only 1 in 3 girls in South Asia are unaware about menstruation prior to starting. It causes significant embarrassment and trauma. Those with irregular cycles might experience sudden bleeding, anytime, anywhere. Managing it, when it starts, is a whole other issue. According to the Bangladesh National Hygiene Baseline Survey in 2014, 82% of girls think that school facilities are inadequate for managing menstruation.

Some women, including myself, experience extreme abdominal pain, on top of the obvious discomfort. The pain disrupts our daily lives – personally, socially, professionally we can no longer function the way we normally do. The Bangladesh National Hygiene Baseline Survey in 2014 showed that about 40% of girls miss school for an average of 3 days/month due to period related discomfort.

I have been suffering from extreme abdominal pain during menstruation since 2015. Being a working woman since 2011, I have tried working through the pain since the beginning. My female colleagues from my previous workplace, though they sympathised, were strict on their position of keeping it hidden whenever a man walked by. My proposal for keeping sanitary napkin in the office, be it in the first aid box, or managed by our female admin official to deliver upon request, was met with serious laughter. To these women, a woman who did not take appropriate measure to face her period any day, any time, were committing a serious crime. In their eyes, a woman should be taking care of this issue by herself, the office should not be responsible for catering to her need relating to this.

It is not surprising that the majority of professionals, even women, think this way. I have worked through pain, tried neutralising the pain with high powered painkillers for years. Four months after joining Practical Action, I finally gathered up all my guts to walk up to my manager, and tell him about my suffering. I honestly do not know that made me gather that courage. Perhaps the inclusive attitude from everyone at the office made me feel safe. My manager not only sympathised, but also asked me to write an application to “work from home” during those days. When I responded by saying that I did not wish to take any additional benefits only because I was a woman, he assured me that taking ‘work from home’ was not that at all. Rather, it was essential to take care of oneself to perform the best for the betterment of the organisation.

I was soon shifted under another manager, due to a change in organisational structure. Luckily, my new manager, was equally supportive in this matter. Whether I wanted to work from home, or start for work a bit later than the usual time, he was totally fine with it.

Gradually, some sense started to come to me. It soon hit me that I was discussing my issue with my managers who were men. I excluded the men who matter to me the most – my father and my elder brother. It took me 18 years to finally pick up the phone and call my father to ask him to buy me some sanitary napkin. Sure, he was not comfortable, nor was I. However, it was a call that was 18 years too late. It was a late realisation that there was no need to hide this. He witnesses my suffering on a regular basis. If anything, me opening up to him helped him understand my suffering even more.

Why did I feel it was important to break the silence?

I am sure, a lot of people are already labelling me as ‘shameless’ – speaking of womanly matters in public. Honestly, I do not care! It is a regular part of my life, a regular part of any woman’s life. It is important to discuss it in the open because periods can cause significant discomfort and trauma and no woman should have to face it alone. No woman should feel ashamed of such a regular natural phenomenon. No woman should feel the need to wake up in the dead of the night, “pretending” to fast in front of her male family members to successfully hide that she is on her period. No woman should feel uncomfortable about buying sanitary napkins just because a neighbourhood “chacha” is in the same pharmacy. To sum it up – no need to hide something that makes us who we are – women!

When we celebrate women’s day each March 8, our focus should not be wearing purple, or holding a banner. All men and women should work on ensuring a friendly environment for both the sexes about raising the issues we face on a regular basis to those who do not face it, but are in a position to create an enabling environment for minimising it.

[1] In order to fast during the month of Ramadan, one requires having food before sunrise, which is called Sahri

One response to “Why I felt it was important to break the silence”

  1. Samah Omer Says:

    “No need to hide something that makes us who we are – women”
    Thanks Iffat for breaking the silence around such sensitive issue… I really appreciate you braveness!
    For me, coming from similar conservative Muslim society, I can easily understand all these social complications around periods while I believe others will be shocked for reading about such realities.
    I do agree that we need to pay more efforts in supporting girls and women either in our work place or/and at community level. We could work through our WASH interventions and personal hygiene awareness in particular to include clear messages for not dealing with the periods as disadvantage/problem/disability that hindered women. We need to teach young girls how to accept themselves the way “they are”, and to consider these natural differences in a positive way.
    Thanks again!

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