Nothing was more terrifying as a child than getting my first period. No one had warned me about it, and so I had no idea what was happening and panicked instantly. I told my mum thinking I was seriously ill and she couldn’t have been more elated. She picked up the phone and started dialling everyone on her contact list to tell them her daughter had finally become a “big girl”. I still didn’t know what was going on, but I was okay with it because I didn’t have to go to school for a week. I did, however, have to eat and drink the weirdest concoctions that made me want to gag, until one day we had a pooja to celebrate the occasion. Throughout all of this, I still didn’t really understand what was going on. With my parents being traditional, they weren’t going to give me a “birds and bees talk”. But they were going to publicise to everyone they knew that I’d gotten my first period.
That was the one and only time I was able to openly speak out about it, after that it all became very hush-hush. I wasn’t allowed to mention to any of the males in my family that I was having my period. Instead, I had to tell them I didn’t feel well, or I was ill. I’d miss swimming once a month because I had a “headache” and the water would make it worse. I stuck to this throughout most of my teenage years, but at some point, I gave up. My brother had studied the menstrual cycle in GCSE Biology. I couldn’t avoid the topic for the rest of his life, so I started to mention it here and there but every time I did my mum told me off.
What I don’t understand is why, as Tamils we celebrate initially getting periods. Only, from then onwards, it suddenly becomes a topic that’s awkward and uncomfortable to discuss.
Not only that but where I say puberty is celebrated, it’s now become such a significant event that some are on par with wedding celebrations. I’ve heard of people being flown into the venue on helicopters or being carried in on carriages supported by the shoulders of male family members. Luckily, I escaped the whole debacle of the ceremony, and only had to do the religious pooja that comes beforehand, but nearly all my female Tamil friends had to put up with standing on a stage holding a bouquet of flowers for hours on end while uncles and aunts that they didn’t recognise came up to take photos with them. Even as a child, I remember being sick the day of my sister’s puberty ceremony, and I think that accurately sums up how I feel about all of this.
There’s a religious aspect to all of this, where after the first seven days a priest comes to perform a pooja and bless the girl to honour her ability to reproduce. After being subjected to all this, women are then given the privilege of being considered unclean every month, so much so that they aren’t allowed to go to temples whenever they get their periods.
Historically, puberty ceremonies kind of made sense - girls were married off at a young age, and so it became accepted to publicise that their daughter had reached a child-bearing age, that way bachelors and their families can approach the parents, asking for their daughter’s hand in marriage. However, nowadays the number of years between a woman’s first period and her marriage has increased and so this publicity is not necessary. Parents ought to discuss the cultural significance of the ceremony with their daughters and allow them to have a say in whether or not they want to go through with it because ultimately, it should be the woman's choice.