About a week ago, I had my period.
I knew it was coming soon, so a few days ago, I told my host mother, ate Diana, that I needed period things.
We happened to be out in the busy business district of Jaigaon, in one particular street with all kinds of shops and restaurants. We had just finished shoe shopping when I told her of my need, and so we set out looking for a pharmacy. Because, as I have come to learn, the only shops that carried period things were pharmacies. And also some big grocery stores or supermarkets.
Period Products from the local pharmacy
As I’ve said before, these South Asian countries are the strangest I’ve ever been in, so far. The food, the clothing, the language, the culture… I have never been exposed to such South Asianness before. But this lack of availability of feminine products was baffling.
In the Philippines, even the smallest sari-sari store would almost always have feminine products. Here, they do have sari-sari stores, but period products would only ever be found in pharmacies and supermarkets. In these West Bengal parts of India however, there are no supermarkets.
[UPDATE: I am told that this is not the case in other parts of India.]
I wonder why they didn’t make it more common for more stores to sell period products. Periods are already not fun. A woman on her period is already on tiger mode stress level – why stress the tiger out even more? (Or maybe I’m just talking about myself haha.)
On the other hand, now I always remember to buy painkillers whenever I buy period products… and medicine here is insanely, amazingly cheap! Win!
This very minor inconvenience , however, is only one of the things I had to adjust to. I already had an idea of the status of women in South Asia, but experiencing it first hand and hearing about it from actual Indians and Nepalis was an altogether interesting experience.
The caste system still has very deep roots in many communities, sometimes even in Christian communities. In India, pregnant women are forbidden from taking ultrasounds, in an effort to reduce abortions of baby girls. Girls are generally seen as burdens at best, while boys are a blessing. Parents who have girls are deemed unfortunate, because the dowry system requires parents to shell out huge amounts of money to ensure the girls’ marriages.
Girls are also less likely to be educated, because “they will get married anyway,” so investing in her education is seen as a waste. It is therefore not uncommon for women to be employed in low-paying manual labor jobs, while men take blue-collared jobs. One of the shocks I had was seeing women doing heavy manual labor (mixing cement and carrying gravel at construction sites, for example).
It’s easy for a 21st century, western-influenced, egalitarian-leaning young woman like me to think all this to be “oppressive” at worst, or “restrictive” at best, but if there is anything I’ve learned from studying cultures, it is that culture is not easily changed, especially in a place such as India, where certain societal systems are deeply entrenched in the culture, and there are certain people in power who are actively working to keep the status quo.
It is a complicated problem, one that needs to be addressed at the worldview level. And the fact that people do not find it to be a problem is, I think, an indication of how big the problem. It is especially a sad and sobering realization for me that even some Christians do not think it to be a problem.
It was especially interesting for me to discover how Christian women are in South Asia. But that’s another blog post for another day.