Periods are considered unclean in my community. Now, I make a point to talk about them

This First Person column is written by Leisha Toory, who lives in Ottawa. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I was around 11 when my grandmother told me I couldn’t enter our family temple in Mauritius when girls were unclean. “Unclean” was her word for menstruating. I felt so ashamed as my cousins, siblings, parents and other relatives walked into the temple that day while I stayed outside and watched the ceremony from afar. 

This ostracization happened monthly to the other women on their periods in our community as well. There was no reason for me to not participate in the aarti (the prayers involving incense sticks before the images of gods) other than that I was on my period, so it felt like I was wearing a sign saying, “I’m bleeding from a vagina.” 

It was an awkward and embarrassing moment — made even more mortifying because ours was a community that didn’t talk about periods. I felt like I was broadcasting where I was on my menstrual cycle. 

Back then, I didn’t have the confidence to defy my relatives or the priests because everyone seemingly went with the flow. I didn’t see women speak up against it. 

Toory grew up in a Hindu community in Mauritius. (Submitted by Leisha Toory)

There was one time, however, when I was 14 that my dad surprised me. This was during the Navratri festival where we would host prayers for nine days to celebrate the nine forms of the goddess Durga, and he called out a priest for saying several times during the prayers that women are dirty because they menstruate. Perhaps the priest didn’t see the irony of celebrating a powerful goddess while in the same breath he called women unclean. My dad politely told him that his services as a priest for the festival were no longer required. He didn’t know I was on my period; he just had enough of this priest’s misogyny. As for me, it was the first time I felt that things could change if someone just spoke up.  

When I moved to St. John’s in 2020 to attend Memorial University in Newfoundland, I was surprised to see the free distribution of tampons, menstrual cups and pads on campus. In Mauritius, the cashier at the dispensary always handed me period products wrapped in brown paper bags so that no one could know what I had just bought. But in Canada, there didn’t seem to be any shame. 

In one of my earliest conversations with my housemates, we talked about how “period leaves,” like sick days need to be normalized for working women and students like us. The conversation then became a walk down memory lane of all the times we wanted to stay at home because of period pain. It didn’t feel weird talking about our periods openly. Instead, it felt liberating. 

Later, I came across multiple TikTok videos about periods — the pain, the stigma around it and stories of their first menstruation. I felt like I could relate to these women. Many of them were in North America, and while I realized there was more period positivity in Canada compared to back home, there was still so much misunderstanding about related health issues such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis, not to mention the financial impact of the “pink tax” driving up costs for products marketed toward women. 

WATCH | What is the pink tax?: 

Why the ‘pink tax’ is still alive and well in 2023

Marketplace was able to find multiple examples of the so-called ‘pink tax’ at popular retail stores that drive up costs for products marketed toward women, and even set up an experiment to see how consumers would react when the pink tax is front and centre.

These people speaking out online were just like me — they had faced period shaming and stigma about their bodies — and I wanted to be like them and talk out loud about periods on social media. They were the role models that my younger self needed. Since my first period, I was waiting for someone to defy those religious restrictions back home and it dawned on me that I needed to be that person. 

When I decided to launch a foundation to advance period equity and improve access to period products in Canada in 2022, I was excited to tell my mom about it on the phone. I didn’t know how she would react, but she immediately told me that she supported it and that I needed to grow the project to reach as many people as possible to change the world. At that moment, I felt like I understood my mom like never before. She, too, was once a little girl who internalized her period shame and she said she was waiting for someone to stand up for her. I just never realized it could be me. My dad, who is always so supportive of my dreams, is probably the first to read my period poverty articles and watch my TV interviews on period advocacy. 

Two smiling women pose for a selfie while holding up a plastic bag filled with menstruation products.
Toory holds the first donation of period products she put together in 2022 through her foundation for the St. John’s Status of Women Council (SJSOWC) alongside a volunteer for the group. The products were redistributed to women and homeless shelters. (Submitted by Leisha Toory)

I haven’t gone back home since I moved to Canada but I am hoping to in December 2024. Even though I’m comfortable with talking about periods in Canada, I still don’t feel ready to go to a temple in Mauritius while on my period and openly defy the priests. But what I do know is that we’ll at least have a conversation about it as a family. 

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