[Before you browse to some other page due to the heading, please know that point of this entire post is not to advocate making menstruation a drawing room conversation topic but to highlight how men and women the world over are working to stop how it is used to discriminate against and mistreat women.]
On International Women’s Day, March 8th, a German teenager used sanitary pads with quotes to start her movement against sexism. This has made its way across countries and, like an unwelcome hurricane, arrived in India. Last night, noted journalist, Barkha Dutt, made it a prime time topic, hosting a panel comprising of a University Vice-Chancellor and two protesting students to discuss why Indian society still sees menstruation as a taboo topic. Sadly, most Indian homes will, likely, have clicked to another channel as soon as she announced the subject matter.
[NOTE: The #PadsAgainstSexism campaign is larger in scope than just this issue, of course. Read the statement of the two men and two women, pictured above, who picked up the mantle at Delhi’s Jamia Millia University.]
I know many Indian women who will not even mention the word in front of their husbands, brothers or fathers. And, of course, most Indian men will react with a disgusted look if they come across any reference, oblique or otherwise, related to this very necessary and vital fact of life (without which the human race could not continue to propagate, mind you). I’ve had a male member of my own family walk away with a dismissive comment to not “mention such things” to him when I was simply trying to explain why I might have been emotionally more sensitive than usual during a particular interaction earlier that day.
This is not just a problem in Indian society. Gloria Steinem wrote about the misogynistic attitudes against menstruation in 1978 in her extremely funny essay, “If Men Could Menstruate“:
So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?
Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event:
Men would brag about how long and how much.
Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.
Recently, Jessica Valenti addressed this and more in her Guardian column to point out how social media has made things worse.
There’s a predictable social media formula for what women’s pictures online should look like. Breasts in barely-there bikinis are good (thumbs-up emoji, even), but breasts with babies attached them are questionable. Women wearing next to nothing is commonplace, but if you’re over a size 10 your account may be banned. Close-up shots of women’s asses and hardly-covered vaginas are fine, so long as said body parts are hairless.
The broader message to women couldn’t be clearer: SeXXXy images are appropriate, but images of women’s bodies doing normal women body things are not. Or, to put a more crass point on it: Only pictures of women who men want to fuck, please.
Rupi Kaur, the artist that Valenti mentions, has taken the movement way further with her photograph series which might even make some women turn away. I don’t think her series is particularly artistic but she is making a specific statement, which I fully support and echo:
i bleed each month to help make humankind a possibility. my womb is home to the divine. a source of life for our species. whether i choose to create or not. but very few times it is seen that way. in older civilizations this blood was considered holy. in some it still is. but a majority of people. societies. and communities shun this natural process. some are more comfortable with the pornification of women. the sexualization of women. the violence and degradation of women than this. they cannot be bothered to express their disgust about all that. but will be angered and bothered by this. we menstruate and they see it as dirty. attention seeking. sick. a burden. as if this process is less natural than breathing. as if it is not a bridge between this universe and the last. as if this process is not love. labour. life. selfless and strikingly beautiful.
Of course, the reason that this campaign is so controversial and in-your-face is to try to shake the patriarchy awake by making them extremely uncomfortable indeed. In the end, what the campaigners want — what we all want — is not to have to go about waving bloodied sanitary napkins around, for goodness’ sake. But that women the world over are treated as normal human beings and not a sub-species to be shunned, put down or violated because we go through “that time of the month” or are subject to “PMS”. Yes, sadly, all this still goes on in 2015…. from the high-powered corridors of Corporate America to the rural backwaters of remote Indian villages, and many other places in between.
And, to those who say that we don’t need to discuss menstruation in mixed company just as we don’t discuss other bodily waste processes or, say, masturbation, let me just say this: you are totally missing the plot. And, please allow me to repeat: the point of this entire post is not to advocate making menstruation a drawing room conversation topic but to highlight how men and women the world over are working to stop how it is used to discriminate against and mistreat women.
Let me end on a relatively lighter note. Here’s Bollywood actress, Parineeti Chopra, telling off a 24-year-old male reporter for referring to periods as “a problem”. Though we will never know whether this question was a “plant” (happens in many Bollywood press interviews), it hits the mark rather well. Apologies to non-Hindi speakers (I’ll try to add an English translation later).
UPDATE June 17, 2015: Rene Sharanya Sharma, feminist rapper, says it all. Watch below.