By Priyamvada Singh
“Low,” “Chums,” “Monthly Visitor,” “Aunt Flo”.
I’ve always known that the pseudonyms we give our periods are a bit weird. Like they’re glamorous celebrities checking into some small-town hotel for a retreat or something - everyone knows who’s in town, but we’re all going to play along with this weird name game for some reason. Because naturally, we don’t want the paparazzi to catch on about our cycles, right?... *facepalm*
Prima facie, the idea of using synonyms while talking about menstruation seemed pretty innocuous. But by using alternate names, I didn’t realize that was unconsciously endorsing the idea that menstruation is connected to shame, something I needed to be embarrassed or ashamed of and hide from those around me - especially boys or men. Now, I simply refer to my period as a period but I must admit that it has been quite a journey to get here.
For most of my life, purchasing a sanitary pad meant waiting quietly at the shop until most of the crowd disappeared from the counter, and hurriedly whispering the forbidden words to the shopkeeper. He on his end would give that peculiar ‘look’, indicating that this purchase was our dirty little secret. Hiding the product inside a brown bag or an old newspaper, he would slip it into my hands slyly before another customer walked in. Buying a sanitary pad almost felt like indulging in shady illegal activity. It’s hard to believe the amount of secrecy sanitary products have to hide behind. And don’t even get me started on those weird blue-liquid commercials.
If nearly half the global population are women. And half of those are within the ages of 12-65. And there continue to be four weeks in a month. Then we can readily assume that on any given day, about 7% of the world’s population is menstruating (That’s something like the entire population of the US, doubled) And none of it is blue. How are they all keeping it a secret? And WHY?
From discreetly hiding a pad and rushing into the washroom without grabbing anyone’s attention, to sitting through family functions and office meetings pretending to be normal while struggling with severe cramps. Having treated my period as a source of shame for almost two decades, I was filled with pride to discover a local festival in Odisha called ‘Raja Parba’ that breaks social taboos around menstruation. It also made me realize how much of our conditioning has nothing to do with ancient traditions and rituals but our current society.
What is 'Raja Praba'?
As a Rajasthani woman recently married to an Odia man, one of the first things I learned about the socio-cultural fabric of Odisha was that the state loves its celebrations. “We observe thirteen festivals in twelve months” boasts my husband each time he meets a new member from my side of the family. What he is trying to imply is that Odisha celebrates endless festivals throughout the year. While each of these festivals brings with it a vibrant spectrum of traditions and fascinating cultural practices, 'Raja Parba' or Raja Festival is the one that truly has my heart.
Pronounced as 'raw-jaw' in the local dialect, this three-day festival falls in mid-June each year and gets celebrated with incredible gusto and gaiety across the state. The people of Odisha believe that Mother Earth menstruates during this period, and prepares herself for future agricultural activities with the arrival of the monsoon. With this belief, all farming activities like tilling, ploughing, and sowing are suspended during this time to avoid any discomfort to Mother Earth. After going through her menstrual cycle for three days, Mother Earth is given a ceremonial bath on the fourth day where stones are bathed in symbolic form.
Since this festival derives its name from the Odia word 'rajas' meaning menstruation, the ‘rajaswalas’ or menstruating women are the focal points of the festivities. Taking a break from their daily chores like cooking, cleaning, or working in the fields, women use this time to relax and rejuvenate themselves just like Mother Earth. Girls across diverse age groups also participate in the ceremonies with equal fervour.
Women rise before dawn on the first day, beautify themselves with turmeric paste, and indulge in extravagant beauty baths. They adorn new clothes, apply alta (red dye) on their feet, and saunter around town catching up with friends and attending local fairs. Indoor and outdoor games are also a popular pursuit during ‘Raja Parba’.
One of the most distinguishing features of the festival is the ‘Raja Dolis’ or the rope swings which are hung on trees at various locations and ornately decorated with fresh flowers and mango leaves to reflect the celebratory spirit of the occasion. As the girls await their turn on the swings, they break into melodious folk songs to express their joy of being born as women and relish delicious pancakes called poda-pithas. Delicacies like mutton curry and ‘Raja Pana’ are regarded as other integral elements of the ‘Raja Parba’ feast.
In a country where menstruation is still being shunned by a large part of the population, the people of Odisha are celebrating this aspect of womanhood as a community festival, endorsing the fact that there is no stigma attached to it.
India's uncomfortable relationship with periods:
It is ironic that while ancient festivals like ‘Raja Parba’ retain such a revolutionary dimension, modern India still harbours a strained relationship with periods.
According to a study by a philanthropic foundation Dasra in 2014, nearly 23 million girls drop out of school annually after they start their periods due to a lack of proper menstrual hygiene management facilities. The truth is that menstruation is as much about dignity, privacy, and comfort as it is about hygiene. Lack of basic infrastructure, overcrowded washrooms, and doorknob malfunctions, etc. invoke a sense of insecurity among the girls, leading them to feel safer staying home.
Societal stigma spreads beyond the confines of academic institutions to several homes. According to an analysis conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in 2016, only one in eight out of the participating girls had no restrictions during their periods, proving that menstrual stigma is prevalent in society even today. From being confined to a single room, to not being allowed in the kitchen, many women are compelled to dispose of pads outside their homes in the middle of the night increasing their vulnerability to violence and crime.
To top it all, the lack of awareness about periods among teenage girls is a major concern. According to a study, 71% of adolescent girls in India are unaware of menstruation until they get it themselves. Imagine going through an unfamiliar biological transformation and simultaneously battling social stigma - it can be rather detrimental for an impressionable young mind.
What if 'raja Parba' widens its outreach?
While a multitude of government and private organizations, along with filmmakers, writers, and social media influencers are trying their best to normalize the period talk and make a significant difference in how India approaches menstrual health, we are still lagging behind both in terms of shedding the stigma as well as in creating awareness.
The Government of India’s National Menstrual Hygiene Scheme is addressing period poverty by facilitating the supply of subsidized sanitary napkins to target communities and training self-help groups to make economically viable sanitary napkins. The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s #YesIBleed campaign has proved to be an effective tool towards eliminating the myths related to menstruation. Besides initiating favourable schemes and campaigns, the Government has even scrapped the 12% tax on all sanitary products to make them more accessible.
Several non-profit organizations and reputed brands are also crusading for menstrual correspondence through awareness campaigns and free distribution of sanitary products. A women-led organization Eco Femme is selling cloth pads, carrying out educational sessions about menstrual health, and offering free cloth pad kits to adolescent girls from low-income backgrounds. Earlier this year, The Body Shop India created period awareness by encouraging their customers to donate sealed period products at their stores and later distributed them to local communities with the help of the NGO - CRY.
If we look at popular culture in recent times, Akshay Kumar has brilliantly projected the struggles of ‘Padman’ Arunachalam Muruganantham on the big screen; the short film ‘Period…End of Sentence’ has powerfully depicted the period stigma by following a group of women leading a quiet feminist revolution, and stand-up comic Aditi Mittal has done the unthinkable by hilariously tearing apart period taboos in a country where menstruation is rarely discussed in the public sphere. Each of these efforts is a milestone in itself but its outreach remains confined to the urban and semi-urban landscape.
Since period stigma affects a large ratio of the rural population, an awareness strategy that can penetrate through rural psychology is the need of the hour…and what better than a festival to reach out to the heartlands! Ours is a country that loves its festivals, and ‘Raja Parba’ is one of those rare festivals that vivaciously celebrate the menstrual cycle of Mother Earth and unapologetically endorses it as a symbol of fertility. What if 'Raja Parba' widens its outreach to become a national celebration? Could it possibly work as an effective awareness campaign to normalize learning the idea of periods?