Collective speculations of menstrual health management with rural youth at Hunarghar, Rajasthan

Thomson Muriyadan
Apr 30 · 11 min read

The Future of Interaction Design was a two week workshop held in and around Udaipur to explore collective imaginations of menstrual health management in rural Rajasthan using participatory approaches. It was an interesting space to explore how creativity is negotiated in a shared space of formally trained designers and participants who came from the context with lived experiences around the subject.

Coming to terms with the “Why”

The reading at the beginning of the workshop, Appadurai’s The Capacity to Aspire, set the tone for me in terms of what could be the nature of our engagement with the incoming participants. We interacted with young women between the ages of 19 to 22 from villages around 60 km from Udaipur who, as we were made to understand, were considerably restricted in terms of their mobility and agency in matters related to their health and hygiene, especially during menstruation (the focus of our workshop). One of the ways in which we could begin the process of challenging these restrictions, in order to evoke change, was to strengthen their capability to have and cultivate “voice”, a concept Arjun Appadurai borrows from Albert Hirschman (Hirschman 1970).

This was a particularly important goal for us given that most of the women we came across had little or no ability to articulate what they felt while going through the different levels of discrimination they faced for something that was no fault of their own (menstruation). Furthermore, following Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach towards social welfare, Appadurai suggested that bringing aspiration in as a strong feature of cultural capacity would create a more robust dialogue between “capacity” and “capability”, the latter in Sen’s terms. (Appadurai, A., 2004, ‘The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition’).

Laxmiji demonstrates some of the innovate learning tools she made for rural youth

With this clear approach in mind I could see how, along with the facilitation provided by our mentors, Dr. Naveen Bagalkot and Lakshmi Murthy, we worked towards developing these capabilities in the participants and in the process, tried to improve their capacity to articulate and aspire. This was done while learning intensely from their approach to these activities and their creative process which opened up possibilities and insights for us as designers.

Navigating the facilitator’s journey

In Lucy Suchman’s Located Accountabilities in Technology Production (2002) she talks about a key problem in professional design practice being “the division of professional labor and the assumptions about knowledge production that lay behind it”. While this holds true for large organizations where clearly defined roles and separations exist it can also be observed in a micro-setting like this workshop. When we first came to Hunarghar, I was expecting structured design games with a clear role for the designer to supervise the game and use the participants as means for extracting data and insights. As designers, we would simply analyze the inputs. And I was ashamed to admit that this is what I was familiar with after 5 years of professional practice — users are just there to test the adequacy of our designs and only inform it in small ways. Designers were trained to do everything else, right? It was interesting to see this contrast where as a designer I was finding it difficult to let go of the ownership of production whereas the Jatan participants were unwilling to acknowledge their contribution to it.

Sample drawings from our participants show how differently concepts like perspective (mostly mixed) and human anatomy are expressed

As the workshop progressed these tensions began to ease and I was able to negotiate the control by letting go of my expectations of what the outcome would be. With each activity me and my colleague from Srishti would just initiate the process by contributing some dummy ideas and then sit back and work with the participants, occasionally prompting, encouraging their ideas or offering suggestions. This method become particularly apparent during the 2 days of the hackathon. The brief that was set for the hackathon was to envision a system of menstrual management in a society where there was no shame associated with menstruation and the men would show their support and care explicitly. While it was easy for me and my colleague to come up with technocentric and modern solutions, after considerable amount of time spent in sketching, we realized that the group was not moving in that direction.

Presenting the group’s paper prototype ideas

This is where I realized what it meant when Appadurai said “the capacity to aspire was is navigational capacity” (Appadurai A., 2004). My ability to visit the future was aided by the maps of the norms of the privileged society that I come from. But as a group, the furthest we went, in terms of visibility and imagination, was a designer “belt” which was an extension of the special underwear to be worn during menstruation. This idea was contributed by the young man from the Jatan side as the two girls (besides me and my colleague) couldn’t even imagine beyond the present underwear design (with maybe a little decorative modification). We presented this along with a couple of other initial ideas to the other groups and even though my idea, which involved a menstrual cup and a sunflower motif with a chemical dye technology got more verbal approval, I still voted for the belt idea in the group voting and we decided to take it to the prototyping stage. It was at this point that I gave up my individual creative ownership and started moving towards becoming more contributive to the group think.

Exploring Notions of Jugaad and Designing through Making

Of late it would be seem that the magic of jugaad, India’s version of frugal innovation, seems to be fading away. In a recent article in the Mint, Manu Joseph heavily comes down on the romanticism of jugaad when he says, “The existence of ‘jugaad’ is evidence that the circumstances of a society are so bad that its smart people are doing what smart people in other civilizations do not have to do.” While on one hand one can equate it to frugal and innovative thinking, one must also acknowledge that jugaad is situated in a deprived and powerless community and that these innovators are not doing it to just enhance the conditions of their lives but rather meet the basic necessities for a liveable life. As one Jatan participant in the workshop mentioned jugaad is “vyavastha” which translated to English would roughly mean “arrangement”. This was a less glamorous but insightful way of describing the means to meet every day needs of people living in reduced circumstances. When you start looking at designing from this lens, concepts like originality, ingenuity and individual ownership, something “trained” designers and modern innovators value greatly, takes a backseat. Designing then becomes a community-driven response to bring together available resources and creating arrangements to counter unfavourable circumstances drawing from known and personally experienced sources of knowledge.

Whereas sometimes jugaad responds to a community need, like mitti cool, a grassroots innovation which is a a natural refrigerator made entirely from clay to store vegetables, fruits and cooling water, at other times, it solves individual business interests, in the form of a hack, like a local brand that was using a complete copy of the Cadbury packaging (fonts, colors, graphics, et al.) to sell their chocolates! The young participants we met with hadn’t fully developed the western notion of intellectual property and ownership rights to objects with the exception being one participant I interacted with who had learned about copyright from his usage of the YouTube app (he also knew how to upload videos) and even so, used the term in a very loose sense without being able to define it in very concrete terms outside of the YouTube context. This also informs the way in which the jugaad is produced, sometimes borrowing directly from sources without any credit or fear of plagiarism.

Thinking through making using paper prototypes

Jugaad is also a very hand-on approach to designing. The knowledge and the fabrication process is generated in the production of the artefact. One of our participants (most other groups conveyed similar experiences) didn’t spend much time thinking about the hackathon brief but started cutting chart paper directly and tried playing with it (like a puzzle) to see ways in which it could fit and form a response to the brief. It was in one of those iterations, where he hadn’t cut off the excess elastic band of the underwear prototype, that actually led to the belt idea! Whereas me and my colleague were busy brainstorming and sketching, our Jatan participant was thinking through his hands. But this also means that most of articulation has to be done by an external observer as the creator is unable to translate knowledge created in this process into forms that help appreciate the work done and connections made. This is where, as traditionally trained designers, we were able to fill the gaps and keep things moving. Perhaps this defines the central politics of why jugaad is rarely acknowledged as a formal method versus being looked at as an exceptional or exclusivist way of designing and innovating.

Developing the Cultural Capacity to Aspire

Early on it started becoming apparent that the perspectives and imagination of these young women were operating within the boundaries of the patriarchal system. In the initial couple of days of interaction this manifested itself in many ways — not wanting to speak up, hesitation to contribute ideas, not taking ownership of their ideas and a complete dread of public speaking. Some of the girls came from extremely deprived circumstances where girls were never sent to school and made to work in farms and households as soon as they completed toddlerhood. They are told what to wear, what to do when and what to think. But here, we were not only asking them what they felt about the key issue at hand but also to think for themselves and to stand by their work — a considerable cultural shock. This is why the activities and the information sessions went hand in hand and we could see how this was slowly helping them cope with the increasing demands on their creative capacities.

Final prototype making in progress

Watching movies like Gender Bender, Safar, Bol and Hari Bhari together gently started introducing them to more alternative ways of thinking and voicing their concerns in the discussions that followed. With exercises like mapping the male and female anatomy and the roles of women in rural vs. urban settings followed by the myths and taboos related to menstruation in rural vs. urban, we slowly steered the conversation towards the theme of the workshop. In this way, by informing them through cultural artefacts such as movies and documentaries and engaging them through conversation in discussion and creation we tried to influence their cultural capacity to aspire for better and more equitable conditions for themselves.

One male participant surprised us with his cat-walking skills!

While for most participants it was an incremental step towards opening up, some participants really surprised us with their capacity to contribute and move the conversation substantially towards a positive space. Two examples that come to mind are one of the male participants who prepared for the fashion walk by watching YouTube videos a day prior to the show and another who did an amazing job acting in front of the camera for their group film presentation. This shows that coming from similar settings, everyone had moved different distances from the starting points of their understanding of the subject and some had even opened the space up for newer conversations, like what does the performance of that male participant say about creating safe spaces for young men to express themselves in ways that are not so masculine without being judged for it. How does that increase their capacity to empathise and care for women? How can it work towards breaking these tightly held notions of masculinity and redefine it to accommodate more concern for women?

Colonised design practice: Where do we stand?

The morning after the first day of the hackathon I was grappling with the ethical dilemma about the nature of our intervention at Hunarghar. In his controversial piece for Fast Company, Bruce Nussbaum poses a very important question in this regard — “Are designers the new anthropologists or missionaries, come to poke into village life, “understand” it and make it better–their “modern” way?” Although he meant it for Western Designers trying to solve issues in third world countries, what stops it from being applicable for a city-bred self-taught (mostly westernized fundamentals of design) designer like me? If one were to look at the activity of designing as a form of doing ethics, not with words but with things (Verbeek, Peter-Paul, 2011) then one can understand how what is being produced is not merely objects that exist in a vacuum but things that are changing socio-material relations and challenges cultural mores of the participating “other”. Does being from the same country give me a license to do this without fully informing the community about this implication? Can there be a good and desirable version of cultural imperialism that doesn’t require this line of questioning? I don’t know the answers yet but doing this workshop was a big step in beginning to explore these issues and put a lot of conversations on the table for me to unpack over the rest of my course.

Conclusion

The Future of Interaction Design workshop can be seen an intense group of activities that worked towards extending knowledge and capabilities on both ends — the participants, in taking the first step towards engaging with and articulating their knowledge in the specific subject area of menstrual health as well as developing some general creative capacities while for the design practitioners, moments of intense learning and re-wiring ideas of design practice and boundaries of the creative process. It gave the designers a peak into what an alternative design practice could look like and how it would navigate a wicked problem like menstrual health management. While the hackathon prompted fast design and frugal creation, when one looks at Lakshmiji’s body of work and her engagement, which has spanned over two decades, one also comes to terms with the slowness of the rate at which change takes place in such contexts and how the practice is an evolving, iterative and compassionate one.


Special thanks to Siva Sanjeet for the photos used in this post.

This workshop “Future of Interaction Design” facilitated by Dr. Naveen L Bagalkot and Laxmi Murthy was taken as part of my Masters coursework at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. Got comments and feedback? Feel free to leave your response within and below this medium post. Thank you for reading!

Thomson Muriyadan

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Design Researcher | Student of Technology and Change @SrishtiArtDes