“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.
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 that “even 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.