08/04/2015 8:09 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Can We Use Sanitary Pads As Tools Of Empowerment In India?


Within a fortnight of International Women's day, a women-centric campaign, a photograph and an advert have gone viral over the net. The #padsagainstsexism campaign started by Elone Kastratia, Rupi Kaur's Instagram photograph of a woman with a menstrual blood stain and the My Choice video by Vogue India featuring Deepika Padukone have all caused plenty of heated debate.

All of the above, in their own way, claim to empower women. While Kastratia's campaign used messages written on sanitary pads to draw attention to sexism and crimes against women, Kaur sought to challenge the shame and stigma surrounding menstruation with her photograph. The Vogue ad, on the other hand, focused on sexual and other lifestyle choices.

But none, according to me, augers well for the empowerment issue in any way. Not in our country at any rate. Kastratia's sanitary pad campaign has some symbolic power, like the bra burning of the 60s in Western society, but in India this kind of feminism does not have much of a footprint.

Menstruation is still treated as a taboo not only in India but in several other societies across the globe. Many women have little or no access to information regarding how their reproductive system works. They are not made to understand their own bodies. Many of them still use unhygienic material like cloth, straw even leaves during their periods and lack basic sanitation facilities in their homes. How could these women relate to sanitary pads and messages written on them?

"[W]omen's empowerment is one thing and 'dirtying' the campus with objects that 'capture' menstrual blood another, right?"

Some students of Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University took up the campaign with gusto and replicated it across the campus in an attempt to promote a safe environment for women. The sanitary pads were hurriedly pulled down by the authorities. The Indian sensibility is not yet sensitised for such campaigns, you see.

Jadavpur University in Kolkata jumped to Jamia's rescue and followed up the campaign in their campus. But their sanitary pads were hurriedly pulled down too and a probe panel set up to investigate those who were behind this campaign and take necessary steps against them. After all, women's empowerment is one thing and 'dirtying' the campus with objects that "capture" menstrual blood another, right?

rupi kaur

It makes one wonder how the university authorities would react to the Instagram photograph. Was Instagram right in pulling down the photograph of the woman sleeping, her menstrual blood staining her clothes and sheets? It's difficult to decide.

Women all over the world -- and not only in conservative societies like ours - still treat menstruation as a private matter, to be discussed only in hushed tones. You don't talk about this bodily process loudly on the phone in public. You are hesitant to tell even your close friends that you'll skip the evening party because of menstrual cramps. Forget posting photographs of stains and sticking sanitary pads on trees.

Even as the #padsagainstsexism campaign made one look inward, the internet was suddenly riveted by the Vogue video where Ms Padukone drones about My Choice.

The video is all about choices women could make about their looks, size, marriage, sex, children et al. Ah, well, is that the choice of the entire Indian female populace or a handful of the elite? What about education, financial independence, sanitation, domestic violence and shame? Are they not one's choice too? If one has the power to choose one's partner, have sex outside and before marriage, does that really empower the women of a developing country?

deepika padukone

Does Vogue realise that the majority of the women in our country have not seen the video? Not because they did not want to but because they cannot? They simply do not have access to the net. Sex outside marriage might be Vogue's choice but health and education are the choices that women most need to be empowered in this country.

And how many of us have fully understood the message behind the campaign started by Kastratia? Even educated people like the Vice-chancellor of Jadavpur University have termed it "socially unacceptable".

We are a long way from understanding these kinds of campaigns. They are an alien concept to our men, who are yet to open their minds to a feminism that moves beyond the rhetoric of 'protection' for women. Our women too have to still come out of the cocoon where they have a protected understanding of their bodies and their sexual agency. It might take another generation before campaigns such as these are deemed "socially acceptable" and thus effective.

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