What do menstrual pads, alcohol and meat have in common? Any woman who has purchased menstrual products from her local pharmacy or kirana shop would be familiar with the fact that it is first wrapped in newspaper and then packed into a black polythene bag. Such peculiar treatment is also meted out to alcohol and meat to ‘conceal’ the taboo attached to these products.
Menstrual activism, as the name suggests, rallies against menstrual taboo and champions period positivity, education and equality. Given that half the population bleeds on a monthly basis, it is not talked about enough. There is an all-pervasive culture of silence and erasure of menstruation from public view. From a young age, girls are told to whisper when talking about menstruation or advertisements which show a blue liquid (representing blood) being poured over the pad.
Why is menstruation considered an uncomfortable or dirty subject to deal with when public urination by men is considered a routine occurrence? The lack of sanitation facilities like toilets and running water effect affect both the genders but, women get the short end of the stick.
Social media has emerged as a tool to highlight and fight oppression, to organise protests and outreach. Menstrual activism has certainly made its mark on the internet; it has helped generate tangible social change. In 2015, Instagram removed a picture by Rupi Kaur, who is a poet and artist, for “going against community guidelines.” In the post, Rupi Kaur was lying on her bed and bleeding through her pyjamas. The censored image was later reinstated with an apology from Instagram.
Notably, Rupi Kaur remarked that while society turns a blind eye to the objectification, commodification and violence against women, it censors and shames menstruation which is a natural biological process.
An activist who went viral for speaking up against period poverty and stigma was Kiran Gandhi. She ran the London Marathon while free bleeding to raise awareness about it. Radical menstrual activism, which is an important subset of menstrual activism, forges vital alliances with artists, environmentalists and anti-capitalists. Menstrual art is unapologetic in its celebration of the female form and period blood in order to de-stigmatise menstruation and empower people who menstruate.
Menstrual activists also promote the use of reusable menstrual products like cloth pads or menstrual cups. It can significantly reduce the amount of menstrual waste being generated and discarded into the environment. Moreover, the ‘luxury’ tax attached to commercial menstrual products is a serious bone of contention. In India, a GST of 12% was initially imposed on sanitary products, but it was later exempted by the government after citizens’ protested. Bleeding is certainly not a luxury. Menstrual products are essential for maintaining personal hygiene.
Menstrual activism also encourages innovation in menstrual hygiene such as Arunachalam Muruganantham’s low cost sanitary pad making machine, biodegradable menstrual pads or period underwear. Innovation and collaboration go hand in hand to make this part of girl or woman’s life easier.
One of the most important goals of menstrual activism is creating sustainable policy changes. For example, the debate about menstrual leave is a step in the right direction. Recently, Scotland became the first country in the world to provide free menstrual products to women in all public buildings. Period poverty has become more acute than ever before due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Period positivity and body positivity/representation on social media is also providing insight about health conditions like PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) and endometriosis and the fertility issues associated with them, PCOS and weight gain, dysmenorrhea etc., which are not openly discussed. The superstitions and myths about menstruation in India add fuel to the fire of misinformation about periods. Aditi Gupta and Tuhin Paul, founders of Menstrupedia (which is a comic book explaining puberty to children), are doing their part to provide accurate information about menstruation.
Menstrual activism is not afraid to challenge the status quo. It dares everyone, regardless of age or gender, to speak up and discuss menstruation. Menstrual activism has been more relevant than ever because of rising inequality, misogyny and classism in the world. The normalisation of conversation about menstruation will be half the battle won. The other half consists of arriving at context-oriented solutions, prioritising the needs of marginalised and underprivileged girls and women.