I queued behind a woman who was buying sanitary napkins in a convenience store checkout once. She looked uncomfortable, like she was in a hurry. She must’ve had her period unexpectedly and that was why she bought the sanitary napkins, I noted to myself. The cashier helped her checked out and put the napkins inside not one, but two plastic bags. It seemed like a waste, especially because she was only buying one small box. But, the women didn’t say anything and left the store immediately.
On another day, one of my colleagues in my office had her period unexpectedly and she didn’t bring any napkins. She asked every woman in the office whispering, “Do you have a sanitary napkin?” I shook my head, but my other colleague had one. She took it out from her drawer and wrapped it in a piece of tissue before giving it away. The one having her period nodded before leaving the room.
If you’re an Indonesian woman, you must understand what I’m talking about. In Indonesia, menstruation is not something to talk about openly. It belongs to whispers and secret conversations between women. If a woman is having her period, she wouldn’t even say it frankly. She would use a metaphor like “lagi dapet” (literally just meant she’s having something). Or she would tell people she is currently not performing the salat, or the prayer, because Muslim women on her period are exempted from having to perform the daily prayers.
I don’t even remember how I learned it, but I just knew menstruation is shameful even when I was still an elementary school student. I had my first period when I was in my 5th year of elementary school, one of the first among my peers, though I was the youngest in my class. I didn’t dare to tell my friends because they said “girls who got their period earlier are naughty.” I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded like a bad thing, so I kept my mouth shut.
The funny thing was I had to perform prayers together and reading the Quran every day in the school’s mosque. So I still went to the mosque and fake-prayed during my period. I read the Quran with my friends after the prayers. I felt guilty because my teacher said girls who were having their period couldn’t enter the mosque and couldn’t touch the Quran, but my shame overpowered my guilt. I still lied to my friends for several months until I couldn’t take it anymore and came clean.
I never lied about my menstruation after that, but I still unconsciously cover it up from time to time, like most women in Indonesia. I used a metaphor when I talked about period. I quickly and discreetly shove sanitary napkins in my pocket where no one could see it when I had to carry them around. I pushed through stomach cramps and took painkillers so I could still go to work.
It felt more and more ridiculous to do that every month, however. Menstruation is a natural occurrence that every girl and woman goes through more than half of her life. It might be annoying or difficult, but it was never shameful. After all, the absence of menstruation could be a sign of a serious health issue.
That’s why over this past year, I have slowly stopped covering my menstruation. From doing small things like carrying my sanitary napkins openly to asking for a day off when I just couldn’t get off the bed because of my period cramp. And each time it feels like a small victory for myself. I think that’s enough for a start.
Lathifa Mansur is an architect and a feminist at heart. She likes to question random things and writes her thoughts about them.