As curious pre-pubescent children, then anxious menstruating teenagers and finally women adept at dealing with their uteruses, we have been directed to relentlessly guard the fact that women possess menstruating bodies.
Over the years, we invented sophisticated methods to make sure that the relationship between sanitary napkins with society at large, was a bit like that of Voldemort and his nose — there, but barely visible.
From reams of newspaper tightly wound around packets of napkins to deep pant pockets which double up as discreet transporters of pads, our weapons were myriad. Oh, let's not forget imagination, which allowed us to come up with a new ailment every time we need a day off thanks to menstrual cramps. Over the years, we have also invented menstruation concealing cheats — if you are carrying your bag to the washroom to change, you come back with a fresh coat of lip gloss. The speed at which you can swoop a pad out of your purse and into your pocket will put the most efficient wi-fi networks to shame.
Since you have spent at least one day in school staring into the eye of apocalypse as your friends frantically rubbed chalk, hand-wash, ink — everything considered more respectable than a dot of menstrual blood — on your skirt, your hand bag now doubles up a mobile wardrobe. As an adolescent you figured that the best time to survey the health of ceilings and the shape of your nails was when a sanitary napkin commercial came on TV while the family was watching a film together. Your uterus, for the crime of being just that — a uterus, was sentenced to deafening silence.
Now how long would it take for women to grow weary of treating a part of their body like it was Kim Jong-un waving a detonator at the face of humanity? Turns out, very, very long.
The cracks started showing over the years. However, the first recorded instances of menstrual activism surfaced in the 1970s. Writer Chris Bobel, marks 1972-1992 as the years that show the slow but steady emergence of this brand of activism. According to one chronicler, "Bobel notes milestones in the history of menstrual activism, including growing concerns about menstrual products and changing attitudes and growing discussion about menstruation in the 1970s, concerns about toxic shock syndrome and the FDA’s inaction in the 1980s, and growing concern about toxins and interest in alternative products in the early 1990s."
However, India didn't quite mirror the emergence of organised menstrual activism until very recently, specifically this very year. In March this year, Indian origin artist Rupi Kaur put up a series of Instagram posts on the reality of menstruating women. One of the most-shared and discussed image was that of the artist herself, lying curled on a bed, her back facing the camera and a daub of menstrual blood on her pyajamas staring back at you. The first wave of feeling that washed over you when the picture surfaced on social media, was a curious mix of shock and familiarity. You've been there and each of those times you have wanted to un-see, un-feel the moment. You have been taught, bullied and sermonised into being reviled by your own body and you have probably never taken a moment to ask, why? Kaur's picture fished out your deepest fears, the most shame and the greatest guilt — all at the same time. And at the end, it asked you to make peace with your body and its ways and not treat it with the trepidation of nursing a criminal secret.
The same month, messages against patriarchy surfaced on the walls on Delhi University and Jamia Millia campuses. And what were those messages scribbled on? Sanitary napkins. The campaign to put up sanitary napkins on walls of colleges was an important breach of patriarchy. It was a powerful challenge to the idea of a conventional public space, ironically, built with deep emphasis on the segregation of the genders.
Later in August this year, a 26-year-old Indian origin woman ran the London Marathon while menstruating, without wearing a tampon or a sanitary pad. Kiran Gandhi later wrote in a blog for HuffPost India: "As I ran, I thought to myself about how women and men have both been effectively socialized to pretend periods don’t exist. By establishing a norm of period-shaming, [male-preferring] societies effectively prevent the ability to bond over an experience that 50% of us in the human population share monthly."
Pictures of Gandhi's leggings soaked in blood were splashed all over the internet. They met with equal amounts of encouragement and revulsion from across the world. Questions were raised about the conflicting nature of Gandhi's activism. On the one hand, she wanted to draw attention to the limited access to menstrual products that developing nations have and on the other, she seemed to have had a fairly comfortable marathon experience without using the products like tampons, cups or pads. Her experience — as she documented here — didn't involve any unease from blood soaking into her clothes in fairly great amounts. Most women's own menstrual experiences indicate that there is quite a bit of physical discomfort involved in 'bleeding freely' as Gandhi puts it. She wrote, 'I could definitely choose to participate in this norm at the expense of my own comfort and just deal with it quietly', indicating that running a marathon while wearing a menstrual product would be uncomfortable for her. The question that arose from her statement is — how does her stance help in addressing absence of menstrual products in poor countries, when she seems fairly comfortable without one?
However, what Gandhi managed to do spectacularly was make menstruation a legitimate topic for public conversation. From arguments on Twitter to articles on Facebook, from people gawking at her pictures in newspapers to them consequently discussing her feat — periods were starting to become less unmentionable.
Then in November this year, the head priest at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala said that women can only be allowed into the temple when someone invents a machine to scan if they are on their period or not. That's when the 'Happy To Bleed' campaign was kicked off. It was a response to a blatant effort to censor our bodies — one which was far less surreptitious than the one we willingly put ourselves through everyday. Women started to put up pictures of them holding placards declaring they are 'happy to bleed' and that they were not ashamed of their bodies and their processes. It was a symbolic gesture but at least it amounted to women shaking off their unwillingness to talk about periods in public — social media qualifies as a public space as well, given we have everyone from relatives to colleagues on our friend lists.
However, one of the many narratives in favour of the robust campaign against menstrual taboos hinted that we should be grateful that women bleed because that is how she nurtures life in her womb. While it is a fact that a healthy, menstruating womb is necessary to bear a child, it is also true that motherhood should be a choice for women, not a norm. Demanding menstruation be treated with respect because it is associated with motherhood risks courting the same patriarchal trap that the movement aims to fight. Like menstruation, motherhood is an equally difficult experience in India. For hundreds of women and young girls, motherhood is not even a conscious choice they make. And inability to physically bear a child is as big a taboo as periods even in the most educated cliques of India. So, glorifying the procreational functions of the womb to demand its moment under the sun is both problematic and unfair. We should be careful to not endorse one stereotype to bust another.
That said, the uterus has had a better year than usual in India. Hope 2016 betters it.
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