By Abhishek Jha:
Instagram taking down Rupi Kaur’s photograph of a menstruating woman shows one thing clearly. It means that we, as a society, find a discussion on menstruation in the public domain uncomfortable. And therefore, Instagram was not correct in removing the photograph.
Menstruation has been viewed as polluting and impure for centuries now. Women are stopped from entering places of religious worship during periods and at times prevented from even worshipping in their own homes. No matter how much my sister and I try to convince my mother that she should not be dictated by these patriarchal norms, she does not relent. Rupi’s photograph, by bringing this uncomfortable conversation to the fore, challenges these norms and is to be commended for that.
Kuntala Lahiri Dutt, an academic from Australian National University, says that “by framing menstruation as an ailment of the body in need of ‘sanitising’ and remedying, those who do not use the mainstream hygiene practices are seen as deficient and lacking. I argue that the MHM initiatives serve two economic functions: they facilitate the access by multinational corporations to a new and emerging market and present the relentless work by the female body as the norm.” This explains that there can be larger implications of keeping menstruation a taboo. A whole profiteering business itself can be run by exploiting this situation.
However, it was the response to Rupi’s photograph that interested me more. The #PadsAgainstSexism campaign that was started in some Indian campuses following a similar one abroad, was completely in line with feminist ideas. Sanitary pads were put up on campus premises with messages against sexism, thus not only fighting rape or eve-teasing but also the taboo surrounding sanitary pads and menstruation. So I felt perplexed when a defence was mounted for Rupi Kaur’s project by portraying the womb as “divine” and by citing that menstrual blood was considered “holy” by older civilisations.
I find this defence problematic because it might undo the work that the photograph alone does. Menstrual blood and menstrual cycle are still celebrated and worshipped in the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati and it has done nothing to improve the situation of women there. The valorisation, as a friend put it when I discussed this with him, of the menstrual cycle is just as much harmful as the taboo. I think that this valorisation tries to hijack how a woman must portray her menstruation to reinforce patriarchal norms. We need to, before we accept this divine worship of the womb, ask whether this will free women of their oppression. Does it mean, for instance, that owing to their divinity women must bear this experience cheerfully and without complaint and go on working? That would perpetuate the very practices which one is trying to stop when one is trying to talk about it as just another biological process.
Also, do you remember that in the movie Gangs of Wasseypur, Durga has a problem with being made into a “child-bearing machine” by her husband? The husband, Sardar Khan, tries to placate his wife by trying to convince her that the child in her womb is love itself. This is even more interesting if you remember that earlier Durga does not have a problem with having an affair with Sardar, who is a married man. By giving pregnancy another sort of divine status- by making it a part of love- Sardar expects her wife to not mind being a “child-bearing machine”.
It is important that we be cautious when biological differences are highlighted. It is by laying stress on these differences and naming them that a lot of oppression thrives. Therefore, it is necessary that we think more when we are trying to fight sexism and patriarchy, so we don’t fall prey to its own traps.