Indian #Padman & attitudes towards menstruation in the times of #metoo

#Padmanchallenge is roaring among the Bollywood, sports and other celebrities in India. If you haven’t heard, a Bollywood movie #Padman about to be released in India today, is inspired by a heterosexual man from rural Tamil Nadu — Arunachalam Muruganantham. He is a high school-dropout but has a distinction of being included in Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2014. Why? He is the inventor of a menstrual pad-making machine that is 500 times cheaper than commercial options. He also creatively created grassroots mechanisms to spread awareness about traditional unhygienic practices around menstruation in rural India even when family and friends initially shunned him.


“Menstrual period in political history” by Danny C Sillada

A few years ago, I had read a series of articles about humiliation faced by homeless women when they have their menstrual periods. That was very heartbreaking at the time but I didn’t take my research beyond homelessness and didn’t take any action around that heartbreak. However, this upcoming movie and the ongoing #metoo campaign has made me dig in a bit more.

The scale of menstrual hygiene related problems faced by women around the world has caught me by surprise. Just for India, about 350 million adult Indian women will not use or do not have access to menstrual hygiene products like pads or tampons. In addition, misconceptions around menstruation are mind-boggling. In an insightful article, Divya Rajagopal from Economic Times writes “[Girls] said they would get pregnant if a man saw their disposed-of pads, others thought it was too “dirty”, and those who wanted to use them were deprived because they were unaffordable and, worse, inaccessible. In the face of these barriers, many women ended up stuffing their undergarments with sand, leaves, [sawdust], [husk] or ashes during their monthly periods.” It is remarkable that the Indian government still does not consider sanitary napkins/pads to be a health or medical need.

Upon consideration, this should not be surprising. Looking back at my own teenage years and time in college, it was not just sex or sexuality that were taboo subjects but also any mention of an aspect of human biology that could be related to sexuality was suppressed. My husband and I often recall how any reading material on male or female reproductive system were silently crossed out of our high school biology textbooks by our teachers even in metropolitan cities like Delhi.

An eye-opening article captures the attitudes towards menstruation of people from 28 nations and suggests that even outside India this situation is not any better. School girls in Bolivia often carry around used menstrual pads in their backpacks all day because menstrual blood is “dangerous and can cause cancer if it’s mixed in with other trash”. In Nepal, women were reportedly kept in cow-sheds during menstruation until the practice was made illegal in 2005. These attitudes perpetuates gender inequality with respect to education, jobs and health, causes infertility and prevalence of serious diseases like cervical cancer. Many teenage girls drop out of schools all over the world because of social stigma and/or absence of reliable ways to engage in menstrual care! I have not studied the evidence but there are several potential connections between poor menstruation hygiene and ovarian/cervical cancers (see here and here). We simply don’t have access to basic hygiene in many many many parts of the world that our precious and sacred female bodies require!

Even when many upper middle class women in developed world do have a much better access to commercial menstrual care products, I am not sure we have reached a sacred balance necessary to honor our female bodies or feminine minds.

On an average, a menstruating female body sheds half the weight of their uterus every month. Yes, almost a half of an organ is built and shed in a month. So I feel dismayed when women suppress these natural menstrual cycles to participate in sports, dance or other professional events. We might have access to menstrual hygiene products in educated and/or middle class circles but our collective mentality is still one of suppressing or neglecting our natural and sacred needs and functions. No, I don’t wish to discuss my basic body cycles with my colleagues. And yes, missing career-advancing opportunities because of our cycles doesn’t feel right. I don’t have a “solution” to offer but taking hormones to delay the onset of menstrual periods or overdosing on pain medication so that we can keep participating in sports events, dance marathons or even do meditation retreats does not sound like a good way to honor our sacred and precious human bodies.

Is it a surprise that this neglect of our basic needs systematically leads our society (including doctors, partners and/or family and our own selves) into neglecting female pain/discomfort?
Do we allow our bodies the rest and care they need to fulfill their natural and sacred functions regardless of our genders?
Do we bring loving attention to our precious body’s rhythms in general or are we too busy in heady pursuit of money, power and prestige?

Regardless, I hope that conversations about environmental impact of menstrual hygiene products would become common in India soon enough. For now, I wish #Padman team including Akshay Kumar the very best as they un-taboo-list the conversations around our sacred body functions among Indians — 70% of who still live in villages, 30% do not have access to electricity and 80% do not have clean cooking stoves.

More power to Bollywood producers, dancers and artists who are willing to take on socio-economic and ecological challenges of our times!