When Will Pop Culture Stop Censoring Content About Menstruation?

Period Paath logoEditor’s Note: This article is a part of #Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC, to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management among menstruating persons in India. Join the conversation to take action and demand change! The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.

“It may be a subject that needs to be addressed to younger audiences. But in our society, we still do not talk about ‘that time of the month’ with our daughters. Mothers keep their discomfort during ‘that’ time a secret from the family and a daughter, when going through ‘that time of the month’, is not allowed to go to school during those difficult 3-4 days.”

Pankaj Nihalani, CBFC’s ex-chairperson, had said these words to justify giving an ‘A’ certificate to Phullu, a movie about a sanitary pad-maker. 

While this statement mirrors the truth to a great extent, what Nihalani, ironically, forgot was that the movie was based on the very same premise to push past the taboo, to educate and create space for awareness. 

He further commented on the “two different realities” in India, saying that “when we certify films, we have to be sensitive towards that ‘other’ India, which doesn’t exist in the metros”, when the movie was supposed to be a step towards bridging that gap. 

That the film has issues in its execution and depiction is another story, but to begin with, why are we calling out the very good intent at making this movie? Instead of appreciating a step towards breaking the taboo, he was of the opinion that a man lying down on a sanitary pad, on the poster, is “vulgar”, thereby propagating the taboo and purdah.

Even our courts have, time and again, reiterated and emphasised on the massive outreach mass media has. Cinema aids by having discussions about politically vibrant, marginalised issues on a common platform; it cures the isolation that a normal conversation about stereotypes and taboos will have. 

But, there is staggering neglect about menstrual health or taboos of female masturbation, for that matter, and we are busy censoring content with a potential to generate awareness. Instagram deleted a picture uploaded of the Canadian poet, Rupi Kaur, for lying on a bed with bloodstained pyjamas. 

Rupi Kaur
This image was taken down by Instagram. Image Credit: Rupi Kaur/Instagram

American writer Ariana Abadian-Heifetz, who writes on gender and sexuality, addresses puberty and menstrual hygiene, through her comic book ‘Spreading Your Wings’, which is directed specifically at rural Indian women. She said, during her training sessions on menstrual hygiene, she found thateven when armed with resources and information, girls may still not seek medical help when they have a problem because they aren’t brought up to care about their bodies”. “We want to help girls reframe how they see their bodies,” says Ariana.

While this represents the way our reel-life chooses to portray an issue like menstrual health awareness, the real picture, unfortunately, is no different. In India, 23 million women drop out of school every year when they start menstruating. Access to accurate and pragmatic information is an essential prerequisite to hygienic menstrual practices. Studies from different parts of the country have revealed that awareness and understanding of menstruation as a normal biological phenomenon is extremely poor in different sections of the society. 

Of the sanitary pads used, not all are of good quality and do not provide the kind of absorption and leakage protection and hygiene standards as promised. The Bureau of Indian Standards set out standards for disposable sanitary pads (IS 5405), but these are not enforced. With all this in consideration, the government’s move to scrap tax on sanitary pads is going to massively aid in enabling access to menstrual hygiene management.

The issues here are more than many. The problem is stark because we are dealing with two evils together: not just the lack of awareness, but also a massive lack of resources. Add to that, not just the lack of representation in cinema and pop culture, but inadequate attempts at representing a cause. While pop culture guarantees access, it also entails a great deal of responsibility. These problems highlight the censorship of periods in public spaces, the internet and mass culture. And, we need to move past that.

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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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