My grandmother is the matriarch of the family, and the best storyteller I have ever listened to. I have always said that her voice, hands and eyes were made for storytelling. Thus it came at no surprise that the story of her first menstruation didn’t disappoint.
“Your mother shared the good news”, she whispered as she planted a million kisses all over my face, the day after I became a woman. “Did I ever tell you about the day I realized that I was no longer a little girl? Did I ever tell you about the weeklong celebrations that were held for us girls back then?” Before I could answer, my grandmother let out a big sight and declared “Oh what a treat that was. They don’t value women the way they used to, you know baby… It’s a real shame but they just don’t value us women the way they used to.”
I remember thinking, now… that doesn’t make any sense. Of course “they” value us women more now. Haven’t we gotten the right to vote? Aren’t more women entering the workforce and filling more leadership positions? After all isn’t aunt Aby (her daughter) a doctor? Surely that meant that women were valued now more than ever. Didn’t it?
And then my grandmother described how while growing up, girls’ first menstruation were celebrated.
Girls were treated like royalty, received gifts, special outfits were made, friends, family and the whole neighborhood was invited to join in the celebration. Parents were proud that their daughters were coming of age, thus, unlike Iris Marion Young’s description of the urge to conceal girls’ menstrual process, for my grandparents’ generation, this event was an honorable time in their lives. Janet Lee (1994) also revisits this notion of secrecy when she asserts that “To talk of menstruation in contemporary Western culture is to articulate its secretive, emotionally laden, and shame-filled aspects” (Thorne 1993). But the way my grandmother described it, in Senegal, girls’ first menstruation was a coming of age party I only wish my daughter and I could have been able to experience.
Because there was such excitement and hype around this important milestone, girls from my grandmother’s generation could not wait for the big day. Thus, again, unlike Iris Marion Young and Janet Lee’s accounts, girls were taught to love their bodies. The big day, my grandmother explained, meant that your hair would be braided into 2 intricate braids that joined themselves at the center of your head. After tattooing their hands and feet with henna, girls would wear the most delicate white linen dress, usually embroidered from top to bottom and adorned with white glass beads (a sign of purity). This beautification process took place as the ritual mother (usually a favored aunt) sang and danced around the young girl. “There would be so much joy, laughter and music,” reminisced my grandmother, “you would have loved it”. The celebration would go on for days as friends and family came to pay their respect, bring food and gifts, and partake in the dancing and the singing.
The next few days according to my granddaughter were set to prepare her for her future role as a wife and perhaps one day a mother. She would learn basic skills about cooking and how to maintain a home (skills she’s been polishing next to her own mother since she was born) accompanied by more music, more dance and beautification, and more gifts. Thus, it was in this way that my grandmother was encouraged to leave behind her bubbly, carefree childhood ways and embrace instead the stature of a woman full of dignity and grace.
Not surprisingly, this coming of age ceremony was something a young girl eagerly looked forward to, prepared for, and honorably took part in. In essence, the ceremony is the ultimate expression of her flowering womanhood. What girl does not want to be honored for days? I wonder if this is the reason why women had a more positive body image than they do now. It seems that they claimed and enjoyed the power of their sexualized bodies more then. Whereas Iris Marion Young, through the shared stories of women, speaks of boys teasing and making crude comments, my grandmother told a story of boys being kind and having a newfound respect for this “woman”. Blood was a beautiful thing then, not smelly, not tainted, not poisonous, but magical, important and most of all rewarding.
My Senegalese culture no longer celebrates menstruation as the coming of age for young women and as the beginning of womanhood. Not having these celebration makes it even harder for young women to realize what an exceptionally beautiful and powerful thing it is to become a woman. And so I mourn the coming of age celebration I never got to experience. I mourn, not only for myself, but also for my daughter, and my granddaughters, and my great-granddaughters … for they will be missing out on a wonderful initiation rite, along with hearing stories from my grandmother, the best storyteller that ever lived.