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“A Stick-Figure With A Feminist Agenda”: A Fun Chat With The Maker Of Sanitary Panels

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By Shambhavi Saxena for Cake:

There are two kinds of art, we’re told. The kind that hangs behind glass cases in museums to drop French words like ‘l’art pour l’art!’ in front of. And the kind that wastes no time conveying its message. Today, even high-speed internet connections and instant messaging are constantly being revamped to capitalise on the flow of information, and it’s important for an art form to be both simple and striking. So it’s easy to see why a series of stick-figure comics by ‘Sanitary Panels’ has nearly 15,000 followers on Facebook. To figure out what makes Sanitary Panels tick, we caught up with Rachita Taneja, the artist behind the immensely successful comics and Facebook page.

A digital organiser who’s worked on environment and human rights, and net-neutrality in India, Taneja started the page in 2014. It was in response to the arrest of students who had criticised India’s newly-elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. “They were using Section 66A to arrest these students,” says Taneja, referring to a time when the very tech-savvy Modi was monitoring ‘threats’ to his public image. “I got angry and made my first comic about anyone who speaks against Modi being jailed.”

Image Courtesy: Sanitary Panels
Image Courtesy: Sanitary Panels

Since 2012, Section 66A of the Information Technology Act has been invoked to make multiple unconstitutional arrests, especially over statements made online, and it became the very first issue that Sanitary Panels took up. The Supreme Court of India decided to scrap this draconian law last year, but given that arrests were being doled out like free cars at an Oprah Winfrey show till then, wasn’t Taneja running a risk? “I’m super privileged, so the chances of someone targeting me for that comic would be very low.” And it was important for her to use her privilege to call out the bullshit.

Two years and 150 comic strips later, the stick figures and sanitary napkin logo have become fairly recognisable symbols. “I wanted it to be confrontational,” she explains. “Even with the logo, the name. Menstruation is a taboo in India. Women are punished when they are menstruating, and there’re so many superstitions around it, so I wanted it to be confronting and descriptive of the kind of comics I would make, or the kind of issues I would deal with.”

Feminism, LGBTQ rights, censorship, communal violence and more find their way into this no-fuss format. But these issues aren’t really everyone’s cup of tea, especially in a space dominated by panda videos, and memes (often the storehouse of sexist tropes). That’s where Taneja’s background in digital organising and mobilising comes handy.

“One way to push out your message is riding a social media viral wave,” she says. “If there is a Salman Khan ‘rape comment’ type of moment happening right now, and you talk about feminism, people will try to understand it a bit more because there’s already a conversation around it. Another tactic is talking being controversial about something.” Taneja did this around the time of the JNU protests earlier this year when the debate on anti-nationalism had reached fever pitch.

Sanitary Panel on dissent
Image Courtesy: Sanitary Panels

“One of the reasons my JNU comic went really big was because people were arguing in my comments section. Some were sharing it and saying ‘I don’t agree with this,’ and others were sharing it and saying ‘I completely agree with this.’ And then the third way is to be super-relatable,” she says. “You bring in people with a populist issue – a comic about puppies or game of thrones. And once you have that audience, who has liked your page or engaged with your content, you then very subtly start pushing out feminist and political commentary.”

A stick-figure with a feminist agenda. Who’d’ve thunk it? Maybe its’ the artistic choice – that home-grown, rough-notebook feel – that makes it so popular. “It wasn’t a choice, I just can’t draw that well,” laughs Taneja. “It definitely started off as something I did on the back of my notebooks, something I could communicate easily and quickly. I didn’t even expect it to get that big. I wanted to share my comics with my family and friends.”

But oh did it go big. Now, the series has acquired a style and aesthetic of its own, and is not likely to change. “I’ve tried digital drawing and it just didn’t feel as natural,” says Taneja, but she also shared with us a few challenges that Sanitary Panels faces. While the stick-figure isn’t gendered, per se, Taneja finds it hard to represent the gender spectrum: “If I want to draw a guy, I’ll draw no hair or short hair; If I want to draw a woman, I’ll draw long hair or a ponytail or whatever. But if I draw a stick figure who doesn’t identify with any gender, people will not immediately see it, unless I specify it.”

But that hasn’t stopped Taneja from trying to build conversations around gender and sexuality in her comics. And it’s working. “People have told me they find my comics informative and funny, which is what I’m going for. I’ve gotten comments from people saying they really like how I simplify issues for them, or point out the ironies of Indian politics or patriarchy in a very simple and easy to digest fashion.”

But anything that garners those who wanted to learn about feminism or equal rights also garners a rabid troll audience. “When ScoopWhoop did a listicle with some of my comics, there were a lot of really horrible things said about me. Like ‘call Rachita, let’s fight her,’ or ‘let’s rape her,’ things like that.” She remembers that the ScoopWhoop community itself had to intervene, but things aren’t all gloom and doom. “On my own page the community has actually been quite civil. There’s this amazing mechanism – whenever a troll questions feminism or is a right wing advocate, other people who like my page will come and comment, and defend my work, or my stance, because they believe it too, so that’s amazing to see.”

When we think about political humour, the associated names are usually Euro- or West-centric – you’ve got your Jon Stewarts or your John Olivers. Even South Africa’s Trevor Noah works primarily out of the West. But that doesn’t mean that India hasn’t had a rich tradition of its own. As far back as the post-Independence period, cartoonist R K Laxman began making his now-immortal ‘Common Man’ comic strips. Today, the very irreverent ‘So Sorry’ animated videos run on a national news channel. Even though the free-speech debate comes up every now and then – and has taken on new dimensions because of internet use – the space for political comment still exists, and Taneja is making use of it. So before we went our separate ways, we thought we’d get Sanitary Panels’ unique take on the following situations, and she most sportingly obliged:

When It’s 2016, But Someone Uses ‘Pretty Good … For A Girl’ As A Compliment:

Image Courtesy: Sanitary Panels
Image Courtesy: Sanitary Panels

When A Dude Comes To Mansplain Your Experience To You:

Image Courtesy: Sanitary Panels
Image Courtesy: Sanitary Panels

When Indian Politicians Say Marital Rape Is Our Culture, Not A Crime:

Sanitary panel woman safety
Image Courtesy: Sanitary Panels
The article was originally published here on CakeFeatured image shared on Facebook by Rachita Taneja
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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