When I was in high school we took a class called ‘life issues’, which was essentially meant to be a sex-ed class coupled with self-esteem and health issues. Everyone joked about it and laughed off the content (what teenager isn’t uncomfortable in a glorified sexual health class?) but the school made it very clear that these were important issues that we needed to understand.
I mention this now because I was thinking about ‘life issues’ quite a lot as I sat in a small room with no windows in Dharavi, sweating through my long sleeved cotton kurta and long linen pants, watching a field worker explain sexual education and health to a group of Muslim teenagers – most of whom were married and many of whom already had children.
At this particular meeting (I’ve now been to so many I’m starting to get the hang of it), the field worker was fearless. Here was a Hindu woman in a sari trying to explain female anatomy to a group of women whose only visible anatomy was their face and hands. She had started on the topic of periods. Did anyone in the room want to open the discussion by relaying when they got their first period?
My translator piped up, telling her story to try and break the ice. It seemed to make the girls less uncomfortable as they laughed and giggled at her trials and tribulations. They started sharing more about themselves.
But then the conversation took a more somber tone: “How many of you feel that your periods make you dirty?” they were all asked. Everyone raised their hands. I was really surprised – how can you have given birth to a child and still feel ashamed about your body’s natural reproductive cycles?
But the field worker was not at all surprised by this response. She began a very stern tirade – she explained that this was a beautiful and natural part of our humanity. She was adamant that they not let their religious views lead to unsanitary practices.
Apparently, in their religion (or their practice of their religion within their particular culture), when a woman has her period she is considered unclean. Anything that she touches becomes impure and she cannot go near her mosque. I had seen similar signs relating to Hindu temples in Indonesia, instructing menstruating women to stay away, but it was amazing to me that this practice is so widespread across varying religions.
Most of these women could not afford sanitary pads (and tampons don’t even exist here for anyone) so they used rags. And when the rags were dirty they would often clean them and then hide them away for drying. This apparently can lead to infections when the rag is used the next time, because without sufficient space to dry, the wet rag can become a hotbed for bacteria.
I’m going to pause here for a moment to acknowledge that this is a very uncomfortable and graphic blog post. But it is astounding the things we take for granted – I rarely consider my period because the modern marvel of tampons makes it as insignificant as possible. These women are getting infections in large numbers because they do not have access to something as simple and cheap as sanitary pads, and their shame about having their period stops them from drying their rags in the sun or out above a flame or even on a drying rack. It’s just astounding to me the number of hardships these women face every day.
I watched as the field worker continued to encourage and explain sanitary habits. The women listened, uncomfortably but attentively. Some of the women began to open up and ask questions.
One woman, who is 15 and has been married for 6 months, had not yet gotten her period. She had not met her husband because apparently in her tradition you don’t meet for one full year. She was worried that if she didn’t get her period soon that she wouldn’t be able to continue being married.
The field worker kindly explained that if she never got her period it would not mean she couldn’t stay married, but it would unfortunately mean that she could not have children. The woman looked stricken – apparently she wasn’t confident that she could stay married without the ability to have children.
Again, as with most of the other meetings I have been to with this particular group, the discussion had nothing to do with it’s stated goal of reducing domestic violence – it was just another way to bring people into the organization. Little by little, person by person, they just try to help in the many many places where help is needed.
As the discussion came to a close and most of the women (girls? How do your characterize young teenagers with such adult responsibilities?) said goodbye, we were left with the girl who had hosted us in her home. She was 15 and her mother had ‘chaperoned’ the discussion.
She had stayed behind to ask the field worker about computer classes- she wanted learn but she only could read and write in Urdu, and all of the classes were in Hindi or English.
I asked why she had chosen to go to an Urdu-only school.
She laughed and started talking. My translator said she was explaining that it wasn’t a choice. The only school she could go to was a madrassa, and the only thing they learned was the Koran.
“You mean that’s what you learn most of the time?” I asked.
“No,” my translator translated. “It’s the only thing we ever study.”
“Can’t you go to another school?”
“There is no other school available. And the men in my family wouldn’t let me go to another school anyway.”
This is the point at which I started to get angry. She and her mother and I then began a thirty-minute discussion where I kept asking why and they kept laughing at me and answering that, “This is just the way it is.”
She couldn’t go to a different school because there wasn’t one that would take her.
She couldn’t take lessons in English because she wouldn’t have time for that and the men in the family wouldn’t allow it.
She couldn’t wait to get married because that would bring shame to her family.
Her school couldn’t teach anything other than Urdu because they could only spend time reading the Koran.
She couldn’t get a job because the men wouldn’t allow it.
I just kept sitting there stunned, trying to find some alternative. Could these women really just allow themselves to be subjugated in this way when they understood what was happening? I asked what kept them from just leaving.
“This is our home. This is our life. Would you want to start completely over and never be allowed to see your family or anyone in your community again?”
I answered that no, I would not want that. That seemed to settle it for them. I was starting to wonder if I had overstepped, so I apologized for asking so many questions. They, again, just laughed at me.
“It’s ok. We understand that you live your life differently.”
I nodded, thinking we were having a moment. But then the mother started saying something that my translator wasn’t translating. I asked her what they were saying.
“You don’t want me to tell you – now they’re asking if you can help them in any way. They want you to maybe help the men in their family find better jobs or for you to give them some money.”
I guess our moment was over. I tried to respond that I was going to be helping by making the film about the organization. They didn’t seem moved.
I walked out still feeling angry. It’s one thing to not understand that there was another world out there. It was another to know that other people are free and to just calculate that it’s not worth it for you.
The meeting and my conversation swam in my mind as I walked out. These women can’t even stand up for themselves by demanding that their rags dry out in the open, let alone demand for education or the ability to work. It was the first time I had left a meeting where I didn’t feel inspired or empowered. So now they knew about their reproductive systems and proper menstrual hygiene – so what? Would they even use the information they would be given? Or would they just continue to be under-educated child brides with no ability to break their own cycle?
I said this to the field worker. I asked her how she keeps going every single day when there are so many battles to fight and change comes in such small incremental steps?
“Because it needs to be done,” she replied. Yes it most certainly does.