Growing up, I have always believed that the menstrual cycle was a topic not to be discussed. A trigger for embarrassment and often clouding Ma and me in this unspoken cloud of shame. I was told by multiple family members that I should not speak of it openly, and I never questioned the predicament. Regardless, this made me seek out alternatives to answer all the “burning questions” I had about myself, and I would’ve done anything to know.
As time went on, I came to an understanding— I was their first child, and this was the first time that their worlds were colliding. My body changed, coming to America as an immigrant and raising a girl, and I had the instinct to follow what had been taught to them in Bangladesh. As a result, these conversations were never expanded upon and sometimes did not even occur unless out of necessity. I had to remember a couple of rules when I was younger: never talk about your period in public, and never talk about it with your Baba (বাবা: Bangla word for Dad).
A Rajshahi Realization
Last summer, my family was fortunate enough to visit Bangladesh again before my first year of college started.
During the duration of our trip, this was the first time my family remained separate for a week— Baba and I in Rajshahi, Ma, and my sister, Borno, in Gaibandha, across the country to visit family.
This initially started as a weeklong getaway for my mom and sister while Baba and I had pending matters to attend to in our hometown.
It was assumed that any stomach ailments or conditions would most likely not be of concern as we were reaching the end of our trip until my sister started experiencing various symptoms. Overcome with unexplainable nausea, severe cramps, and a headache, Ma assumed it could possibly be her period. It could’ve been anything at such a time; the food in Bangladesh was quite unpredictable sometimes. These symptoms persisted for days, and the uncertainty of not knowing resulted in a number of theories from concerned relatives.
In the midst of the week, it was a regular morning in Rajshahi, surrounded by cousins Fariba and Ayaat, my uncle, aunt, and Baba at breakfast. I always loved how we all made the effort to eat together every morning and started our day together.
“Borno got her period!”, Baba exclaimed.
It wasn’t surprising that Borno ended up getting her period— after all, I did receive mine around the same age as her. What was surprising was that my dad just announced this to the entire family over breakfast in Bangladesh. He was the very person I was told I could never speak to about my period, and yet he seemed so proud.
When she came back to Rajshahi later that day, I watched as my entire family, including all of my cousins, aunts, uncles, and dad, embraced her warmly with cheers, hugs, and high-fives. At such a moment, I actually didn’t even know what to say. I don’t think words could have ever been enough to describe what I felt.
It soon occurred to me that part of the reason for my utter silence was partly because I watched as years of stigma were undone in a single moment. Somewhere in between the time when I got my period and my sister receiving hers, shame turned into a celebration. Taboos turned into open acknowledgments. She was receiving the blessing that most of us have desperately wished for all of our lives— the ability to engage in free conversation about such topics. The idea of not having to care who was listening and who was not, but rather being embraced by triumphant smiles and rejoices of the family seemed as though it was such an abstract concept at the moment.
For so long, menstrual health was something that was never discussed, not only in my extended family but also in my own immediate family— and now to see it being so beautifully celebrated. Since the beginning of time, our menstrual cycles have played a vital role in our health. Its absence and its presence both have various, intricate interpretations, but often we find ourselves hiding behind its stigma for everyone to possibly understand all its complexities. And that’s the problem.
How do these conversations affect us?
It’s a cocktail of hormones that cause painful cramps, clots, mood swings, nausea, and decreased appetite, but it also serves as an indicator of reproductive health— why isn’t it talked about? It is not only one entity but rather all of the symptoms, side effects, and insight it gives us about our bodies.
When we understand the state of our health and help others understand the same, something shifts inside everyone. Something that originally stemmed from an individual journey becomes a unified one. With the proper amount of communication between one another, circumstances become more accommodating, and understanding comes from a place of compassion.
One Generation At a Time
That day, something changed in their eyes— and all of the barriers we believed existed between us ceased to exist. After years of trying to convince my parents of my academic interests and their significance and spreading the information I had, I could only hope for a moment when it would all return to me. The entirety of my family was now not only involved but also committed to giving her the attention and care she deserved at this time.
I guess it’s true what they say, it takes a village to raise a child, but here’s the thing— it only takes one person to change the generation of children to come. Periods had now become a beacon of empowerment, celebration, and a joyous occasion to celebrate our bodies. I always hoped things would change, and maybe I could be the one to change it, but what I didn’t realize was that I was standing right in the middle of it. The lives of the children in my family were about to change forever. As we prepare to pass the torch to our brothers, sisters, parents, and family, we become present in creating the next generation of some of the most powerful individuals in the world.
We were not in the same place we were before, everything was moving so fast, but most importantly, things would never be the same again.