Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, never one to shy away from speaking her mind, posted an image onto Instagram overnight that has had some users recoiling, but which more worryingly was taken down in its first incarnation by the social media giant for going against community guidelines. Defiantly, she re-posted the image and has hopefully instigated a conversation in the Sikh and Punjabi community that won’t be limited to the comments sections of social media.
There are few everyday-happenings shunned more from discussion in society than menstrual cycles. It is shocking to think that every woman will spend a major part of her life affected by a monthly biological function that impacts her emotional, physical and mental state. And yet it’s rarely spoken about or seen in a public forum. Even reading this article now, I can sense countless men cringing and clicking away in disgust whilst many women will be looking at their screen cock-eyed asking who this writer thinks he is to talk about menstruation. We have been so brainwashed to think a certain way about what is all-too-often passed off as ‘women’s problems’ that it is difficult even for us to see the effect it has had on our worldly outlook. When seen in the wider context of how openly we accept internet pornography, the influence of mainstream fashion, and the prevailing glass ceiling for women in the workplace, this is a topic that should by now be as natural to engage with as breast-feeding or female body hair. Oh.
Whilst the photo that triggered this article might be the first of its kind many of our readers are seeing, instagram accounts such as Menstruation.Blood and the now defunct Menstruation Barbie have been desensitising periods for some time now. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but by sharing photographs that will be familiar to women and alien to most men, what these accounts have done is normalise menstruation and the associated articles around it. In their own way they are doing what the whoopie cushion and cartoon episodes have done for farting, another perfectly natural but just as socially uncouth bodily function. An awkward comparison perhaps, but not if we think in terms of how they are discussed publicly; everyday I am exposed to images and conversations on whatsapp solely about farting or defecation – a sign to some that I have weird friends, but in reality more of an indication how it is nothing to be embarrassed about. Contrast with the mere mention of a period which usually results in the total evacuation of any digital space.
Nowhere is this conversation more relevant than in the Sikh and Punjabi community – not because we are any worse offenders than elsewhere in South Asia, the West, or beyond – but because unlike most of those cultures ours is one that has never shied away from challenging the mysticism and misinformation associated with topics such as these, and replacing them with reason and knowledge. When countless women are objectified through imagery every single day, and far too many objectify themselves in the mistaken belief that it is how they should be, it is a Sikh’s duty to counter that narrative, to follow in the footsteps of the Guru and dispel ignorance about the world around us. This might not mean that you discuss menstruation around the dinner table this very evening, but it does mean that we need to move away from the Indic and Abrahamic influences that have made their way into our own Sikh practices over the last two centuries; influences that have steered the Sikh way of life from one of dialogue, contemplation and realisation, into yet another religion.
Take for example the role of women in the Gurdwara. Largely confined to the kitchen, often self-imposed, the attitude around women performing service alongside men is coloured by physiological issues like menstruation. A friend once tried to explain to me that women were prevented from doing kirtan seva at the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar because one couldn’t account for when they might be on their period. Leaving aside the obviously antiquated nature of such a suggestion, I was troubled that he so feared the accidental leakage of blood from a natural process, when every day the blood on the hands of corrupt politicians and SGPC members is caressed onto the floor in the Darbar Sahib as they matha-tek, going unnoticed (just yesterday the Prime Minister of India was bestowed a siropa inside the Darbar Sahib itself to almost no opposition worldwide).
This idea of impurity and uncleanliness that is attached to menstruation is but another poor excuse used to perpetuate a system that objectifies women and holds back society from progressing. It has no place in the Sikh psyche just as it has no place in a 21st Century World either. I am a son to my mother, a brother to my sister, a husband to my wife, and a father to my daughter; if they experience something every single month of which I have little knowledge, the very mention of which turns my face red, then I do a disservice to my role in our relationship. Like all things, social awkwardness with menstruation will only be resolved when we are able to understand it better and that begins with being able to look at a photograph without wincing or rejection.