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Antidote: celebrating the first period can help end menstrual shame

Shriya Mohan | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

I, like most women, vividly remember my first period and the joy it brought to my mother's face. While nobody explained what it meant and why it had happened, my parents wasted no time in organising a get-together of family and friends. A guest list was drawn up, food was catered and people invited. "My daughter has become a big girl. Please come to bless her," I heard my parents saying delightedly into the telephone.

On the day, cash envelopes and wrapped gifts where shoved into my hands, sweets were fed to me and aunties and uncles offered blessings. My 12-year-old cheeks flushed as I stood awkwardly in the elaborate dress I had been made to wear and shuffled my feet about waiting for the embarrassment to finish.

It was only some years later that I understood why. Menstrual blood is nature stamping an OK on your womb. You will, henceforth, be able to create life.

The ancient people of South America believed all of mankind was created from "moon blood". The Mesopotamian mother goddess Ninhursag was said to make men out of loam and her "blood of life". She taught women to make loam dolls for use in a conception spell by painting them with their menstrual blood. In the Bible, the name Adam is derived from "adamah", which can be translated as "bloody loam". Menstrual blood was always considered to be life giving.

Celebrating the first period is a tradition in many parts of the world. America has Red Tent Parties

Assam's Devi Kamakhya is one of India's famous menstruating goddesses. Every June, the month she menstruates, women devotees throng to be blessed with fertility as they pray in the Brahmaputra river, which is believed to turn red from the blood of the goddess.

Celebrating the first period is a tradition that still exists in many parts of the world. From Red Tent Parties in America to parts of Africa which celebrate a girl's healing powers during her periods. In ancient Egypt, menstrual blood was believed to have magical healing properties and would be used to make medicines and ointments.

In our village in Tamil Nadu, a woman's first period is a grand affair. The richer families distribute invitation cards and put up public posters with the photograph of the rather over-dressed girl. She is usually seen to be wearing bright silk and plenty of gold. The entire village is invited for a meal and it's celebrated with great pride and pomp, not unlike a wedding.

Nutritious food, particularly a dish made of white lentils cooked in sesame oil, is fed to the girl to strengthen her pelvic bones. In poorer families, there are plenty of drums, dancing, sometimes alcohol and food for a small gathering. An elaborate warding off the evil eye celebration follows.

As families move to cities and embrace modernity, celebration is replaced with secrecy. Several family members and friends who had these functions have stopped doing it for their daughters. They laugh it off as "backwardness" when, in fact, it is the most progressive way we can approach the stigma associated with periods today.

Nothing like a brazen celebration to fix the shame, myths and taboos around menstruation. A big fertility bash for each of our women would help us recall our gratitude and respect for their divine ability to create life. It could well be the most powerful antidote to menstrual shame.

The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.

Edited by Mehraj D. Lone

First published: 28 May 2016, 12:03 IST
Shriya Mohan @ShriyaMohan

An editor and writer of development stories at Catch, Shriya has 8 years of experience as a development journalist, holds a Masters degree in Public Policy from the National University of Singapore and is a two-time winner of the National Foundation for India media fellowship award. When she isn't exploring the universe with her two-year-old daughter, she chronicles public anger and shelters relevant stories that don't hang sexily on news pegs.