Akshay Kumar can make a Bollywood movie about sanitary napkins called Pad Man, and can appear in a public service ad to talk about the topic. But that doesn’t mean Indian society has got the memo on menstruation. This became abundantly clear when 68 young women from a college in Bhuj in Gujarat were ‘paraded’ from their class to the washrooms, so that teachers could check if they were bleeding from their vagina, something which all women till a certain age do.
This was because the warden of their hostel complained that the female students had entered the kitchen and ventured near the temple while they were menstruating. The college is run by the followers of Swaminarayan Temple.
In 2020, there are still spaces that Indian women cannot enter. Sabarimala temple controversy proves that. Many cannot enter the kitchen or attend religious festivities in their homes.
Break the status quo
The idea that women bleed once a month is something that makes everyone, especially men, so uncomfortable that this basic bodily function is masked by furtive whispers and is packaged very carefully within layers of newspaper and black polybags. Women are deified as mothers in Indian culture, but the idea of a menstruating woman upsets people. The argument here is simple — we will worship you as goddess, within a limit and as long as you are not ‘stained’. It is dirty, jarring and just too real.
This is why talking about it more and more is key. Stand-up comedian Aditi Mittal has a whole set on how spooked men get when a woman talks about her periods or goes to buy sanitary pads at the neighborhood store. In 2017, women ran without their pads and posted pictures of their stained clothes on Instagram. It made many – men and women – uncomfortable. But that is how regressive status quo is broken – by making people uncomfortable. Otherwise, young women students will continue to be shamed the way they were in the Gujarat college.
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Religion is the foremost bastion of ‘purity’
Women’s bodies continue to be the sites on which the notions of purity and pollution are enacted. And religion and culture fuel these notions.
Menstruating women will be reduced to PMS (premenstrual syndrome) jokes, sympathetic looks and the ‘sorry it’s not a good enough reason to take leave’ comment. Or in this case, in Bhuj, paraded through the college for seeking food while menstruating, even though studies have proven that women are especially weak during their periods. All uniquely female biological experiences are painful, including labour and menstruation, but nobody really wants to acknowledge this pain because it is in service of the larger and most important patriarchal function — procreation.
Is it any wonder that one of the largest selling brands of sanitary napkins is called ‘Whisper’? That’s the silence and taboo that surrounds the topic. The idea of menstruating or staining your pants has become such a terror that those atrocious sanitary napkin ads have started pegging no-stain days as perhaps the biggest achievement of the day. These discount the fact that this shame is so pervasive that in 2017, a 12-year-old girl committed suicide in Tamil Nadu after her teacher shamed her for a stain.
‘If Men Could Menstruate’
To put this in perspective, US feminist scholar Gloria Steinem wrote a brilliant, sardonic essay titled ‘If Men Could Menstruate’. According to her, if men began magically menstruating, it won’t be cloaked anymore. It will become a thing to be celebrated, they would start comparing lengths of their cycle and take pride in whoever has the heavier flow. It will become a cause of celebration marked by a ritual of manhood and stag parties.
Steinem added that even the government would have declared a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea to help stamp out monthly discomforts with, perhaps, funds equal to those given to researchers who study cardiac diseases. Steinem even declared that menstruation could also have been the premise for men to join the army. In light of recent views on how women are just not prepared for combat because they are biologically inferior, this argument hits quite close to home.
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