Red Light or Green Light?

After a shout to three, we all opened our presents at the same time. Most of us were so thrilled that we couldn’t hide faces of hysteria with a tinge of impatience just as little kittens when unravelling wool balls or puppies when ditching around for the buried carob; some tried to keep a straight face behind which I know for sure lay a burning desire to tear the bows and wraps down. The little boxes were gradually uncovered behind the colorful wraps. Few seconds of dead tension and heavy breathing hovers still before an airful of shrieks, whoops, clamor, and expressions of awe exploded and pattered like shower.

Sanitary pads, winged.

A lot of girls quickly released their former joy for a new coating of dissatisfaction and irritation. Some walked straight through the door and threw the newly opened presents in the trash; some couldn’t stop laughing; some smirked as if they already knew this chaos of reaction would happen. I, over the moon. It was Women’s Day.

According to the tradition, in most schools, the boys will hold a celebration and prepare presents for the girls and their female teachers. Normally girls have high expectation on that day because they know it is their day and they will be celebrated just by being themselves. It was Women’s Day of my senior year of high school—my last celebration for being a young female I spent in my country, and likely the most memorable one. The box of sanitary pad my male classmates gave me has been the favorite present I have ever received so far. I liked it from many aspects: it surprised me, intrigued me, and then touched my heart.

I could say my classmates were not very lucky because they couldn’t foresee that their creative gift idea could be turned into a public outcry. They wanted to surprise the girls, but didn’t remember that girls’ thoughts work differently from one another’s, and that we were born and raised in a patriarchal culture where women used to be (or still are) considered morally, intellectually, and physically inferior to men. Many girls in my class are sensitive and self-aware; they considered the boys’ act of giving them sanitary pad imbecile and imprudent because the boys could never understand how menstruation is for the girls. Some girls were offended because they thought the boys wanted to make fun of them, which happened in the past and even in daily life. None of the girls like the menstrual cycle they have to deal with every month, and the boys’ gift obviously serves as a denunciation that they are girls and they menstruate. The female identity is defined by a product, which is normally wrapped in a non-transparent, dark black bag whenever they go shopping so that no one could see but probably all know. I understand the girls’ reaction in this situation, but I myself perceive and react from a different standpoint.

I think the present is very lovely and special. It expresses the innocent and sincere care from the boys to the girls. A history of feudalism deeply entrenched by patriarchy and Eastern culture has hindered Vietnamese women from sharing their private deeds and needs with other people especially with men. In informal Vietnamese conversation, when a woman has her period, she calls it “to-be” (bị) or “red light” (đèn đỏ). Nowadays, many women still keep the idea of hiding their “red light” and even feel strongly insecure because women “to-be” and men don’t. In some parts of South Asia, women are isolated during menstruation. In Nepal, women had been kept in cow-sheds during the menstruation until the custom was abolished officially in 2005 by the Supreme Court. The idea that menstruation is impure and dangerous needs to be abandoned as the world evolves into a new era of modern values and equal human rights, as well as without conservative notions and misleading knowledge. Menstruation is a natural cycle that omnipotently represents the power of gender identity. Along with the physical, emotional, and psychological changes happening during a cycle, it prepares women for pregnancy, childbirth, and further than that. Having to deal with menstruation every month teaches women a lot about attitude in life—how to feel confident; how to avoid grumpiness and be positive despite the annoying cramps; how to be active in extracurricular activities despite physical challenges; how to accept menstruation as a normal concept and regard it as a feminine pride; how to be resilient to pain; etc. I appreciate the practicality of the box of sanitary pad. It reminds me of being a woman with maturity, good attitude, and power. It reminds me of taking care of myself and being willing to share about menstruation, about myself as a female to the world around. I prefer it much to teddy bear or flowers—things I can’t utilize. I appreciate that by giving us this present, all the boys wanted to convey was a joyful cheer: “Yay! We’re girls! We menstruate! And our boys know that, respect that, and care for us!” It is indeed a celebration that is dedicated to the female—the resilient and the ones to whom mankind owns its birth, its origin.

On a further and more important note, menstruation is a very meaningful and sacred concept. My father told me a story about his friend, who was a very generous and kindhearted person, but had a daughter who suffered from depression at a very young age. After many years of treatment, she was getting much better. However, in one of his visits, the friend told my father with much sadness in his voice: “Friend, I don’t think my daughter could ever be able to get married and build a family for herself.” “Why not? Please don’t say that my friend. It’s her future, and you need to support and believe in her.”—my father uttered. “No, friend…My daughter…She doesn’t have a cycle. She doesn’t menstruate.” Regular menstruation is a woman’s happiness. It is a sign of maturity, good health, and ability to be a mother. Not every woman has an ordinary menstrual cycle, and has to use a lot of medication for treatment. Could we ever understand their weariness, and even their pain? I used to use medicine before to readjust my cycle and I know many of my friends who also do; thus, I understand how relieved and secured it is to have a regular cycle. Women learn to keep track of their cycles and take care of themselves during menstruation, so they have the ability to take care of others as they grow up. They become more aware of health and gender issues. Menstruation deserves to be respected and cherished, just as the women themselves and their feminity do.

I remember after the gift-giving scene, to support the guys, some girls in my class wrote their wishes onto some pads and tied them to the balloons and let them flow up in the air. When our teachers saw that, most of them were bent out of shape. One of them insisted on those girls being suspended because it was a huge shame for women and for our education. She said that it was an impudent and uneducated act. One of the girls, later on, told us that the teacher was just furious because she was in her menopause; were she not, she would have been more “chill.” That might be true, or maybe she was just born into a “women-shielding” culture, where people choose not to mention women’s issues in public. However, the time has changed—the culture should adapt accordingly.

The first time I had my period, I was so thrilled and nervous that I told all of my family members and even called my friends to inform them of this news. For me, that moment was very special, because I knew that I was able to take care of myself, and grow up mentally and physically. I remember when my third sister was born, my father whispered to all four of us—daughters and mother—“I will work as hard as a buffalo on the field to buy Sofinas (an old Vietnamese sanitary pad brand) for all of my ladies, yes?”

I have sincerely hoped ever since, that from the winged sanitary pad incident, my classmates would understand more about themselves and the culture they are living in. They would no longer feel embarrassed about menstruation or private gender issues anymore, since the act of the boys giving the girls a lovely present overcame the mindset barrier and proved that our community is an open forum in which people respect as well as cherish each other and everything that comes with them. As I shared with my class after that, I believed as a new generation of knowledge, conscience, and power, we would be courageous and willing to transform “red light” into “green light”—menstrual taboo, stereotypes, and negativity into thoughtful acknowledgement, positivity, and support.

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