Menstruation, especially in the last few years, has become a popular topic, a favourite among feminists and health activists alike. Growing up in an all-girls school, menstruation was something everyone looked forward to but feared at the same time. Girls would proudly announce when they ‘got it’and make others anxious that they would be confined to girlhood for all eternity.
While many of us view it as a curse, it is undeniable that women and periods have a bittersweet relationship – we despair when we get it but are under pressure when we don’t. In school, menstruation was a topic which was hastily covered in class 7, when nearly everyone had already experienced menarche. It was explained as though it was a burden, something that we just had to deal with. There was no talk about complications with periods – excessive bleeding, irregular periods, PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) etc, and no other product mentioned apart from pads.
It was only last year at Bandra Station, where I witnessed a woman who was homeless, lying on the ground, covered in menstrual blood, that I realised the dire need for menstrual hygiene, especially among the urban poor. My first thought was to search whether I was carrying a pad to give to her, but then I realised, “How is a single pad going to help her whenever she menstruates if she cannot afford them?” Passersby regarded her with disdain as though it was her fault, her irresponsibility, that she was in this predicament. After all, shouldn’t women protect the sensibilities of the patriarchy by never revealing that they bleed? Indeed, the world’s oldest and largest disappearing act.
This incident struck a chord with me and based on the teach-a-man-to-fish analogy, I began to research on alternate, cheaper menstrual products and their disposal. I am currently working in an NGO wherein women from the surrounding slums are employed in manufacturing and door-to-door selling of sanitary napkins.
Menstrual cups have recently taken the market by storm – the upper-class market that is – and I sometimes feel the need to shift to a cup due to my advocacy for more sustainable sanitary products. Many, however, fail to consider the subjectivity of periods. I regard mine as fortunately mundane, no excessive or irregular bleeding or unbearable cramps, while others experience debilitating pain and some even PCOS. The developers of the IUD assumed that women’s uteruses were uniform and reduced women to reproducing machines, mere wombs. This was based on the premise that the European and American scientists had a better idea of how to curb the population in the Global South, than the inhabitants themselves.
Similarly, many view the menstrual cup as the solution we’ve all been looking for – sustainable, convenient, cheaper in the long run and advocate that all of womankind shift to it. However, what is neglected is the lack of infrastructure, clean water, basic facilities like toilets and most importantly, women’s agency in choosing what product is suitable to their body, by weighing the pros and cons.
I had recently watched a video of trans men’s experiences of menstruation – something that is so innate to our femininity is viewed by them as a constant reminder of their sexual ambiguity, their in-betweenness, something which is difficult to shed. By saying that periods are a ‘woman’s issue’, creates a singular identity of womanhood as being constitutive of bleeding, and if we don’t bleed, are we really woman enough?
In conclusion, yes, menstruation must be discussed among men, but even among women, the singular understanding of particular menstrual products, what constitutes periods, and in turn what periods constitute in terms of gender and sexuality must be broadened to facilitate open dialogue which can take place through education or policy. This will pave the way for a more inclusive space, one where subjectivities are discussed so that no one feels ignorant and isolated in dealing with their own experience.