Few years back, when I watched Qaushik Mukherjee’s documentary Love in India, I was thinking about the ways in which it re-interpreted a female bodily process - menstruation. As the camera shot temple goddesses alongside Rituparna Sen(Rii) clad in a red-border saree, the narrator spoke of a role reversal. In a poetic narration, he talks of the release of menstrual blood as a discharge of power - something creative. A woman is truly a “man” during that time of the month, he says. This would explain the mythical responses to menstruating women in the past where menstrual blood is understood as a threat. Even in our country’s tantric worship, the menstruating goddess has to be appeased with blood. Keep in mind that this “taming” of the menstruating goddess is different from some tribal day-to-day activities where this goddess is not glorified; she is one of the tribes-woman, at peace with her stained cloth.
Can a “stained” cloth be a creative tool, or rather, can one challenge these stains to overcome the order that blemished them? I remember the case of Arunachalam Muruganantham aka “the menstrual man” - his campaign was to help those women who had no access to sanitary pads. Some of his innovations like self-testing of a sanitary pad led to social ridicule, yet to me, it was an intervention, most necessary, in rural areas. He set an example of how even a poorer section of women can view sanitary pads as craft, and make them on their own. Another good news is the number of villages and NGOs where even men are taking up such projects to understand menstruation.
From time to time, menstrual blood has provoked a sort of anger towards the taboos around it. Last week, the capital city saw a unique student protest: #SanitaryPadsAgainstSexism. Napkins were used to circulate feminist messages in Hindi and English post the events of the Nirbhaya documentary ban. Some of them read, “Red here is just paint, but rape draws real blood” and “Imagine if men were as disgusted by rape as they are by periods”.
Myths and activism form one side of the coin in this debate. The other aspect, which is an artistic one, is also committed to the same cause as the Jamia campaign: They want to create a combined force of men and women to defeat the socially-entrenched taboos around a woman’s body. These sentiments are expressed by artists like Vanessa Tiegs, Judy Chicago, Zanele Muholi, Carina Ubeda (who use menstrual blood as paint) have, in the recent past, produced some powerful drawings. They wished to “mix art with the personal” and despite the gallery visitors who try to “sniff” out of disgust, their efforts have been very compelling. It is precisely this “sniffing” on the part of the society that #PadsAgainstSexism sought to defy.
While male blood is symbolic of a “patriotic and nationalistic” appeal, menstrual blood is symbolised as “impure” - a biological waste. Though non-violent in nature, it has been attached to all kinds of violence. We ought to remember that in this patriotic land itself, a menstruating Draupadi was disrobed as a pawn in the hands of power. This was a violation of her private space and a classic tale of honour associated with women’s bodies: of their blood. From the days of Mahabharata to the gang rapes in the capital, campaigns like #padsagainstsexism assume a new dimension. They remind Delhi once again of the feeble personal/private dichotomy surrounding women. In fact, Mukesh Singh’s attitude from the documentary India’s Daughter was in sync with newspaper editorials from December 2012, which made a very interesting point: That male chauvinist anger was meant to attack women claiming public spaces for economic purposes.
These alternate narratives need to be brought to the forefront of our society says Mejazul Haque, a student activist from Jamia. He spoke about the social, progressive nature of the campaign, which wasn’t confined to Twitter activism. “It is true that the authorities had taken down the pads, and we know this because we chose to keep checking on the pads to see how people reacted as we sort of treated this as a social experiment as well as a method of awareness.” One is indebted to Haque’s team for spreading awareness and choosing to fight sexism by fuelling the imagination of students, artists and activists.
But the battle is far from being over. Some daily events trigger unnoticeable thoughts about how the public views menstrual blood. The pharmacy stores consciously cover sanitary pads with a black polythene bag, the Whisper and Stayfree ads show menstrual blood as being blue and green, my garbage man requests me to caution him lest there be “time-of-the-month” material in the bin.
Do we want a society where there will be more and more blood drawn by inflicting honour on the bodies of women or do we want to view menstrual taboos as a naturally occurring rhythm in a female body? That period blood is indeed not a stain, but a colour, just as any colour with the potency of being art and of leading towards change.
The choice is ours.