I was still a child when the weight of silence was lifted off our collective shoulders and menstruation was finally brought into the public arena. It was not spoken of directly in most households, schools, campuses. It was still absent from public health or education campaigns. But suddenly, there it was in the form of a television commercial.
I still remember the advertisement: a younger Renuka Shahane told us, initially with some hesitation, that she has discovered a great new napkin. She did not say "sanitary" napkin but those who needed to buy the product understood. Those too young to understand, younger male cousins for instance, would wonder aloud what exactly this product was – an ink blotter? Many children were scolded for asking stupid questions, or asked to shut up.
Years passed. We were a newer, bolder generation of Indian. Brands advertised aggressively and television screens now have girls in white pants doing things that represent freedom – climbing walls, playing badminton, doing bharatnatyam, riding atop a bus and taking photographs etc. Words like "fear", "freedom", "confusion" and "security" are used. Indeed, a good napkin is suppose to do this – deliver young women from fear and shame. As long as she can get away with keeping her bleeding body a secret from other people – men in particular – she can do the things boys do – run, play, drive, travel, go to school.
What the advertisements are telling us is that a girl has the ability to run, pass math exams, dance and attend meetings even while she is menstruating. The only thing stopping her is shame, the fear that she may be exposed as a bleeding girl. What the advertisements fail to tell us is that there is no basis for shame. So what if you stain your clothes? They're your clothes and you may want to preserve them for aesthetic reasons, but a stained skirt is no more shameful than a shirtfront with a curry stain. Or at least, it ought not be.
Despite advertising hinged on "change" and girls growing wings, I still see women – some of them educated women in metros – who are embarrassed about taking a used (wrapped up) sanitary napkin to the dustbin. I've seen women concealing it in the folds of their dupatta or sari pallu. I've talked to women in small towns who don't throw sanitary napkins in their dustbin at home; they walk instead to the end of the lane, and drop them off on a huge anonymous garbage dump – preferably very early in the morning so nobody sees them. We still do not have a sensible disposal system.
Even the advertisements continue to give out the message that this conversation is only between women – girls talk to each other, mothers talk to daughters. Fathers, husbands and the general male junta need not know. Therefore the emphasis on "thin" pads, and the use of blue ink rather than red. And therefore, we are sold feminine "hygiene" products that are actually damaging to health.
As far as comfort and health is concerned, any clean cotton cloth or (organic) cotton wool is better for us. And sunshine is a great disinfectant. But that is not what is sold or promoted. What is sold is laced with artificial colours and odours, and chemicals that might be linked to hormone disruption.
According to this article, chlorine bleach releases toxin dioxin, which could have serious health consequences. Studies show that chemical toxins associated with sanitary pads could be carcinogenic.
There are further concerns around disposal. The "good" napkin sold commercially is mostly plastic, and therefore non-biodegradable. Incineration of menstrual waste could lead to toxic emissions, which would hurt everyone – men, women, children, animals.
If all Indian women actually did have access to sanitary pads and tampons, how much menstrual waste are we talking about? There are campaigns like "End the Red Stain" which aim to make low-cost sanitary napkins for rural women but they do not say what kind of napkin – made of what? How will it be disposed of? In the long run, will it be the most cost-effective solution? Is it true that cloth needs to be "sterilised"? Is washed-and-reused cloth a medical problem or only a shame-related problem? What about chemical pesticides and genetically modified cotton crops?
Most manufacturers refuse to engage with these questions. They – and, sadly, most women – allow shame to masquerade as "hygiene".
This is partly why I'm so pleased to hear that a few students at Jamia Millia Islamia University have taken inspiration from Elona Kastratia, a German woman who has been writing feminist messages on sanitary pads and leaving them stuck in public spaces. Last heard, Jamia university officials were removing the pads but students at other Delhi campuses were following suit.
I'm hoping the campaign spreads further because it not only takes the sting out of menstruation-related shame, it is also a way of reclaiming space. A sanitary napkin put out in public with the express purpose of letting men look at it, asking them to think about it, rejects the idea of secrecy.
It is an assertion of women's desire to be visible, to be heard. It's a way of saying "I will not whisper; I'm going to shout".
The old superstitions and segregation of menstruating women are fading away. Women are getting out and about, bleeding or not. But if there are cheaper, healthier, more ecologically sound alternatives to commercial sanitary napkins and tampons, it is time we started having that conversation as well. It needs to be a loud conversation so men can lend their skills and support wherever possible. After all, the damage to women's bodies and to the environment is of greater consequence than red stains on white pants.