In the spotlight: India’s Pad Women

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In the spotlight: India’s Pad Women

Sunday, 10 March 2019 | Himanshi Sharma

In the spotlight: India’s Pad Women

Oscar-winning documentary Period. End of Sentence — which is set in Kathikhera village in Uttar Pradesh, India — has not just brought international attention to the issue of menstrual hygiene, it has also opened up important questions about the ethics of practising intersectional feminism, writes HIMANSHI SHARMA

A few months ago, a heartbreaking headline caught my attention as I scrolled through my Facebook feed. S Vijayalakshmi, a 14-year-old girl who was menstruating while cyclone Gaja hit Tamil Nadu on November 16, was forced to live in a separate hut to enforce the custom of segregated sleeping for menstruating women and was killed when an uprooted coconut tree fell on her hut. Vijayalakshmi hadn’t died due to the cyclone, what had killed her was her family’s deep-rooted belief in the practice of segregating women’s sleeping quarters during menstruation; it forced her to live in a markedly vulnerable and unsafe space despite knowing of the oncoming cyclone.

This practice isn’t limited to Tamil Nadu either. Gond and Madiya communities isolate their menstruating women in gaokors or tiny huts built at the peripheries of the village and lacking in basic amenities like water, food, beds, and electricity. Upper caste communities in North India restrict the entry of menstruating women in kitchens, and the Sabarimala temple issue brought to forefront the larger pan-Indian phenomenon of denying menstruating women entry into temples. Menstruation is considered ‘impure’ in most parts of the subcontinent, and while grassroots activists have been working for decades to spread awareness among both men and women to counter this taboo, the stigma persists.

 In February, Netflix’s Period. End of Sentence won the Oscar in the ‘Documentary Short Subject’ category at the 91st Academy Awards, which resulted in a barrage of op-ed pieces heralding the event as a game-changer on menstruation management in developing countries. The documentary is set in Kathikhera village in India, near Hapur in Uttar Pradesh. The project was funded by high school students at Oakwood School in Los Angeles. The producers of the film were sensitive to their position as outsiders, and took care to hire a local NGO, Action India, to help them through it.

Nayantara Roy, writing for Documentary Magazine, notes: “The Oakwood girls and Rayka Zehtabchi (who directed the short film) say they were aware that they were making a film about a foreign culture, from what may be a position of privilege.”

Zehtabchi observes, “We were filming people telling us things that they don’t want to be talking about, so we were always trying to not be invasive, especially with the camera [and] edit. Echoes Oakwood student Helen Yenser, “I never wanted it to be a film that said, ‘Look at these poor women, at this backward village.’ The United States also has issues with menstruation and stigma around it. When we added pads and tampons to low-income schools in New York, attendance went up.”

National and international coverage of the award lauded the Academy for breaking the taboo, and initiating conversation around menstrual health awareness. Multiple articles have been written about the producers in the United States who “empowered” the shy women in the documentary. Take for example Beverly Anne Devakishen, writing for Feminism in India: “At the start of the documentary, these women find it difficult to even talk about their periods. By the end of the film, their confidence has grown and their pride in their work shines through.”

For a documentary funded by people who call themselves allies and are extremely aware of their privilege, it is truly ironic that its post-Oscar coverage has been remarkably tone-deaf, reeking of the same “white-saviour” fawning that the producers on-record had been trying to avoid. Further, it may be the case that the documentary brought international attention to the issue of menstrual hygiene, but when it comes to initiating public conversation on the issue within India, the credit would more justifiably go to Akshay Kumar’s Pad Man despite being an average movie at best, than the Oscar-winning Period, given that the former had a much wider reach across the country, especially in places where this discussion was needed the most.

The documentary itself has also received some backlash from activists within India who allege that it distorts facts and exaggerates the problem to create an Oscar-worthy narrative. Sinu Joseph, menstrual educator and founder of Mythri Speaks Trust, has called the film insensitive and accused the filmmakers of violating the rights of teenagers shot in the documentary. Marni Sommer, a professor for Colombia University, has also shown scepticism about some of the claims made by the short film, especially with regard to the dangers of reducing menstruation to an issue only worth addressing in context of girl education.

However, the most problematic aspect of the documentary, in my opinion, is the way sanitary napkins have been packaged as a panacea. The pads that women entrepreneurs in this film manufacture with their home machine are bio-degradable. However, there are no statistics at the end of the film to tell us how many of these pads were actually sold.

 Further, Arunachalam Muruganantham’s previous experiments with sanitary napkins have been largely unsuccessful. These machines often break down, the pads were found to be of low quality, and it has been noted by multiple activists, including Joseph, that they need to be changed often. To push for sanitary pads in villages where women have traditionally been using eco-friendly cloth napkins seems ecologically disastrous. Perhaps the better method would have been to educate women enough so they can make informed decisions to manage their period. Clean cloth napkins are as good an option as plastic napkins manufactured by corporations, and additionally are eco-friendly. Menstrual cups, though initially expensive, are also a better long-term investment, given that they last longer.

I am, however, wary of dismissing the film altogether on account of these reservations. In the lead up to Women’s Day, the conversation around Period opens up important questions about the ethics of practising intersectional feminism. Period gets a lot of things wrong. While it is true that women in rural India don’t often discuss their gynaecological health with men, the implication in the documentary that they don’t talk about it at all is patently false. Women discuss menstruation with other women they’re close to and their shyness in front of the camera, as Joseph has also noted in her piece, is just that. They would have been just as awkward had they been talking about childbirth, marriage, or sex. This doesn’t necessarily mean that rural women don’t discuss these subjects amongst themselves; it simply highlights how they have internalised that menstruation is a “women’s issue”, which must not be discussed in public. There is no denying that there’s an element of shame that dictates such behaviour.

However, this discomfort with discussing their period in public must be understood in context of their patriarchal upbringing. If a camera crew had arrived unannounced on a bunch of teenagers in a non-elite co-ed classroom of a developed country, they may have responded with the same flustered embarrassment as shown by the students in the documentary. To zoom in on the face of a petrified student visibly struggling both with the second language, which the classroom setting forced on her, as well as her teenage self-consciousness was cruel. The justification offered by the filmmaker, that the moment stretched for three minutes in real life, and that the 30-second cut was non-exploitative, is culturally ignorant.

And yet, I believe the filmmakers when they say that they obtained the consent of all participants. I don’t, however, trust the part where they say that it was informed consent. Consent can be as simple as a signature on paper; and yet for a 15-year-old struggling to come to terms with a sense of self, growing up in a patriarchal society, what does it mean to give her consent to being filmed in an Indian classroom where more often than not the teacher is the supreme authority? Especially when she has intuitively learned that she must have ‘brought it on herself’ because she raised her hand to answer the question. I don’t expect the Iranian filmmaker to be sensitive to these nuances; these culture translations can be tricky even for people living three hours away in New Delhi. But then again, how dare I assume the girl lacked agency? Without evidence, my interpretation of events is pure condescension. 

The documentary, however, also gets a lot of things right. The storytelling on the whole is empathetic. Sneha’s journey, which forms a big part of the 26-minute documentary, is relatable and empowering. In the beginning of the documentary, when asked why she wanted to join the Delhi Police Force, she says that it would help her escape marriage. If one was to apply radical feminist theory to her answer, the measure would seem inadequate to dismantle patriarchy, but for Sneha a job with Delhi Police would perhaps translate into increased decision-making power within the family. It will definitely translate into economic independence. Most middle class women from small towns and cities have been in Sneha’s place in one way or another; they know continuing their education, or getting a job (in other cities) are some of the few ways in which they can delay an arranged marriage. They display the same strength as Sneha does, every day, because failure is seldom an option.

The documentary also does an excellent job of showing, in limited scenes, how the women re-negotiate their identities once they begin earning. To dismiss the documentary for not being perfect in its practice of feminism speaks of a very blinkered approach towards the issue. How productive is it, in the long run, to shut down all efforts at reaching out just because they’re not perfect in the end? If nothing else, Melissa Berton’s documentary is important because it showcased the hypocrisy of a member within the Academy. “It’s well done, but it’s about women getting their period, and I don’t think any man is voting for this film because it’s just icky for men,” a male jury member had anonymously said to The Hollywood Reporter. The comment exposes yet again how stigma around menstruation is not limited to rural districts in the developing world. That a film about menstruation managed to win an Academy Award is still a huge deal.

The most important scene sequence of Period comes towards the end: Two women working in tandem to tie some pasture grass together. It’s a reminder that invisible though their work may be, but rural women already work in both homes and fields to keep their households running. It is also a visually powerful image, metaphorically — women working together, acknowledging each other’s work, in and through the documentary. And that, in the end, is precisely what we want from the Feminist movement going forward. An acknowledgement of the struggles of women in varying positions — from boardrooms to corporate and sarkari offices, rural fields to sex work — and respect for the time we take towards achieving our goals.

This is not a call for celebration of women or womanhood in vacuum; it is a call for the celebration of newer solidarities among women from across the world. It is a hope that we’ll learn from our mistakes, and be more sensitive and respectful of each other’s differences. Let’s celebrate this spirit of global sisterhood without invoking a uniform woman — let’s celebrate real, flawed women who’re angry, loud, delicate, promiscuous, strong; women who menstruate, and those who don’t; women who’re mothers, and those that never will be; women who wear clothes that they want to, and those that are still getting there; women who are privileged enough to define their politics, and those who aren’t there yet.

The writer is an Assistant Professor (Guest) at Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi