The mumbling in the entire bus was the last thing Zarqa wanted to deal with. She was already tired, stressed, and experiencing pain in her body. Her only focus was getting a seat on an overly-crowded bus to relieve her pain and to find comfort from the gazing of men and women alike.
On the first day of her period, followed by a cumbersome day at college, Zarqa wanted to reach home and rest. But the situation in which she was in right now wasn’t something that was even close to what she had envisioned. After settling down on the bus, Zarqa heard something that grabbed her attention. The mumbling and whispers slowly started to make sense to her. Unaware of everything happening, she somehow gathered the courage and looked behind.
“It felt like all the eyes were staring at me,” recollected Zarqa who was yet to figure out what was really going on. She found a group of boys sitting behind her laughing at her and saying to her face that she might have been involved sexually with someone and “forgot to clean up the mess.”
“I was shaken to the core of my existence,” said Zarqa with fear in her tone mirroring the fear she felt at that moment. “I could see my world crumbling down. All helpless and embarrassed, I could only question why our society has such a mentality regarding menstruation. I could do nothing and no one offered to help. All I could think was why do we have a white-colored uniform?”
23 million girls drop out of school annually due to a lack of proper menstrual hygiene management facilities…
According to a study conducted by the UN’s child protection agency, UNICEF, 71% of adolescent girls in India remain unaware of menstruation until they get their first period. Many drop out of school, when they come to know about it. Another report by the NGO Dasra, published in 2019, states that 23 million girls drop out of school annually due to a lack of proper menstrual hygiene management facilities, including sanitary pads and information about menstruation.
Women in The Subcontinent Are Still Dropping Out of School Because of Their Period
Female education has always been in shambles in the subcontinent, with thousands of girls leaving their education halfway every day due to many reasons specific to menstruation and menstrual hygiene. Dr. Rabiya Bazaz, Assistant Professor for Women’s Studies at the University of Kashmir says, “To all causes due to which young girls have to leave their education, the color of the uniform also adds fear in the mind of girls. Students must have
the constant threat of red stains popping on their white-colored uniforms.”
She adds, “ There are two implications of this fear; inner and outer. The inner implication is that girls are taught that menstruation is impure and as a result she is impure. Therefore, girls tend to objectify themselves. The
outer implication is that young girls are discouraged from going to school leading to increased dropout rates and absenteeism.”
Many young girls share the opinion that girls and women should have a say in the color of the uniform they are prescribed to wear. “I have to wear the uniform, so my say should be a priority. A man lacks a female perspective. Therefore, a woman should be incorporated into public decision-making in
a real sense,” says Umza, a journalism student. “The issue of sanitary hygiene is prevalent in educational institutes and needs to be addressed but uniform goes beyond the realm of campus. We have to go home with a stain and gaze of everyone.”
Qurat-Ul-Ain, a postgraduate student sharing her experience in school when she wore a white uniform, said that whenever there was a stain on her shirt, she used to wash it. The cleaned area would become transparent and then it was a lot of a struggle altogether.
Women Are Calling For a Ban On White Uniforms
According to Dr. Rabiya, cultural aspects play a significant role in stigmatizing the experiences of girls and women. In a patriarchal set-up, everything is done at the convenience of a man who always keeps telling women what to do and how to do things. Society tells women that menstruation is
impure and that menstruation should be hidden. The culture of secrecy needs to be deconstructed and menstruation needs to be stigmatized. After all, it is a natural process.
Wimbledon modified the strict all-white uniform rule in order to allow women to wear darker-shaded shorts.
Last year Australian Football League (AFL) removed white shorts in order to address the issues faced by sportspeople during their menstruation and to reduce “athlete anxieties around wearing white shorts or pants during menstrual cycles.” In a statement, the AFL said all teams that included women and girls would now be exempt from wearing white
shorts as part of their uniform. A month before this, the organizers of Wimbledon modified the strict all-white uniform rule in order to allow women to wear darker-shaded shorts. The change in the color of uniforms on such platforms recognizes the issue and the need to address it on all platforms.
“The female teachers and women in positions of power don’t recognize it as the problem I feel. Once, my classmate had severe cramps and pain and she begged the teacher to let her out, but she seemed so unbothered and insensitive. Changing the color of the uniform, to me, seems impossible in such circumstances,” says Rifat, a recent college graduate.
The principal of a reputed girl’s higher secondary school said that she has never encountered or felt any issue with the color white during her tenure as the principal of different schools. However, the Head of the Women’s studies center at the University of Kashmir, Dr. Roshan Ara, is of the opinion that girls do not need to be stressed over a piece of cloth and its color. “It can easily be changed to a darker color, saving the girls the anxiety and inconvenience. We need to give young girls a voice inside and outside of their homes. We need to listen to them and encourage them to speak up about what concerns them. It is extremely important for the empowerment of women to be achieved in a true sense and stop the otherization of women.”
After the bus incident, a lifelong trauma was carved inside Zarqa. She would always skip college during her periods. However, the routine changed when she joined university, where the fear of a white uniform does not bind her. “I recently joined university and we don’t have uniforms. Because of that I gained the confidence to attend classes during my periods. It just feels so much better – although, I still feel those stares sometimes.”