The sanitary napkin isn’t some vulgar affront to polite society, but a perfectly valid prop to protest patriarchy, says Srishti Dutta Chowdhury.
The launch of what is being touted as the ”Sanitary Napkin Movement” in the heart of an essentially sex-negative society presented unprecendented risks, to say the least. As attempts at AgitProp go, this movement too, was kickstarted with the use of incendiary instruments to provoke the mass, forcing them to react one way or the other. Messages, through words and sketches, on newly purchased sanitary napkins as well as nyakra or cotton rags—used in some households, discreetly and with sufficient consternation—were stuck or hung on barks of trees. Posters with clear headings and sketches were made and put up on the notice boards. Indeed, there was no prior intimation to the ”general mass”. The University authorities weren’t forewarned either; but before you all jump the proverbial gun, let us first look at what exactly the concerned student activists were intending to do.
AgitProp is an abbreviation of the Russian agitatsiya propaganda, a potent political strategy in the arsenal of a socialist propagandist. (I do not use the term ‘socialist’ lightly here, and with good reason, as I will explain later.) “Agitation, whether spoken or written, generally focuses on one event, and one contradiction, and seeks to make a single idea powerfully clear to broad numbers of people. It is like a sharp knife seeking to expose and make raw a glaring contradiction and draw blood around it.” This is a very interesting weapon to have to mobilise public opinion against the status quo. Pointing fingers in the right directions, reassigning our senses regarding the convention, tradition and practice of shame, honour and transparency, as well as re-evaluating the existent set of norms and ideas is not only commendable, but also extremely pertinent.
However, the primary intention of an AgitProp initiative is not a call for immediate action, but the preparation of the proletarian mind which, when it comes of age, will decide to react in its own time against prevalent oppression. “As for calling the masses to action, that will come of itself as soon as energetic political agitation, live and striking exposures come into play,” Lenin wrote in What Is To Be Done. “To catch some criminal red-handed and immediately to brand him publicly in all places is of itself far more effective than any number of ‘calls’”. Lenin also called for organising “wide, striking and rapid exposures of all the shameful outrages. When we do that (and we must and can do it), the most backward worker will understand, or will feel, that the students and religious sects, the peasants and the authors are being abused and outraged by those same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing him at every step of his life. Feeling that, he himself will be filled with an irresistible desire to react”.
What we currently observe happening in the city of Kolkata should be considered only the beginning of the preparation to take patriarchy—both the brazen, unapologetic kind and the unseeming, internalised kind—by its proverbial horns. Coming back to the socialist question, I flinch to have to think of any other way to qualify the coming together of likeminded feminist student-activists using AgitProp to mobilise mass opinion against the question of gender.
Before getting into the criticisms the movement is facing, let us very briefly discuss the context to such a movement. The #PadsAgainstSexism movement was started by Elonë Kastratia in Germany, who stuck messages on sanitary napkins which she put up in various public places on 8 March, International Women’s Day. The taboos around sanitary napkins in India—barely a few months ago, India Today reported that “[three] women staff of a surgical gloves manufacturing company in Kochi…allegedly [conducted] strip-search of more than 30 women employees…to find out who had left a used sanitary napkin in a washroom”—made the protest resonate with Indian feminists. The movement was initiated by members of the forum Periods, which strives to “work towards a better understanding of gender and feminisms through praxis.” Our friends used the sanitary napkins, predominantly, to get across messages like “I wish the rape culure repulsed you more than my blood”, “I have periods; I am not unwell”, “We don’t want sympathy, we want sensitisation” and “I bleed monthly. Get used to it.”
Now, we would do well to remember that we are still talking of a society that refuses to mention sex as normally as rapes are discussed, openly, unheeding as if to trivialise the gravity of such acts; that still denies intercaste marriages and sanctions honour killing and dowry, villifies the birth of the female child, nullifies live-in heterosexual relationships, vindicating the women while incriminating the men for rape; that cannot accomodate homosexual relationships, let alone allow marriage and adoption. As Eve Ensler once said: “I come from the “down there” generation. That is, those were the words—spoken rarely and in a hushed voice—that the women in my family used to refer to all female genitalia, internal or external. I never once heard the word clitoris. It would be years before I learned that females possessed the only organ in the human body with no function other than to feel pleasure. (If such an organ were unique to the male body, can you imagine how much we would hear about it—and what it would be used to justify?) Thus, whether I was learning to talk, to spell, or to take care of my own body, I was told the name of each of its amazing parts—except in one unmentionable area.”
The protest was questioned on the grounds that having put sanitary napkins to extravagant use, the movement has betrayed its elitist notions of feminist issues limited to the urban space. I would like to gently remind the reader that these “ignorant”, ”reactionary” and “nearsighted” student activists are also making use of rags (more commonly used in suburban and rural households). Even if they did not, they would not be negating or ignoring the plight of women in the rural areas at all. Women, irrespective of class, caste, creed, nationality or colour mentruate every month and thus to a cetain extent share the experience of patriarchal oppression.
This is what one of the participating student activists of the movement have to say regarding the criticism they are facing: ”I think the demographic of our group Periods is such that rendering it the ‘elite’ tag is not very difficult. Our choice of language, access to media (social or otherwise), the houses we reside in, etc. are clearly of one ‘type’—the type that votes for the Communist Party and conducts Saraswati Pujo and Bhai Phota. The type that calls itself progressive yet shudders at the thought of pasting sanitary napkins in a public place. We have indeed failed to form ties with women with different class backgrounds than ours, and I have no qualms accepting that criticism. Having said that, I’d like to point out that our campaign was not a novel one, neither is it limited to University circles. A few months ago when female workers of a factory in Kochi were strip-searched because someone left a sanitary napkin behind, the workers sent letters on sanitary pads. The stigma of menstruation and sexual violence is something that women of all classes fight against. It is unfortunate that the corporate media focusses on ‘our’ side of the story and edits out the bits that are not ‘newsworthy’. The tendency of pitting class against gender is not something that goes down well with me and the comment that ‘goribder senti diye dheke rakhlei hoy (the poor is concealed, in reality, using sentimentality)’ was quoted by me because I felt it was relevant. Students who spend thousands of rupees on fests were suddenly concerned about rural women who don’t have access to sanitary napkins and they said that usage of sanitary napkins was a waste of money. They even suggested that instead of politicising this issue we should have distributed sanitary napkins to women. Firstly, this is a very high-handed charity-oriented train of thought that depoliticises the topic. Secondly, the economic model of distribution is not a sustainable one, at least for college-going students like us. I thought that it was a condemnable appropriation of the plight of rural Indian woman to justify an essentially right-wing position.”
The other primary concern of the critics (this includes the acting vice-chancellor at Jadavpur University) was how aesthetically unappealing and inappropriate it is to use pads to protest. The idea that there are objects one can and should use to protest and objects that I cannot and should not use to protest is a disheartening one. Besides, accusing the activists of obscenity and indecency and cheap theatrics does little but prove their point. The social construct that prohibits women from doing various things—eating sour food, entering places of worship, entering kitchen, even going out of the house—during menstruation is the same construct that dictates what should not be considered normal and should be deemed shameful and fit to be hidden. It is also the same construct that decides what is appropriate clothing for women, desirable behaviour, and so on. The docile submission to patriarchy, in a thousand different ways, has trickled down to the minds of even moderately sensible people in society, to whom the very idea of speaking of menstruation in a public capacity sounds deliberately reactionary. “An advertisement shows a man in underwear being attacked by amorous women,” writes Professor Soma Marik. “This is not subject to such rabid social media attack. Why? Is it not because we are taught that menstruation is a particularly shameful womanly secret that must never be brought out into the open? Whereas our recent liberalism consists of using women’s bodies (and men’s at times) to sell goods. So we do not teach girls, and boys, that it is a normal part of the female human existence, and there is nothing shameful about it. Instead, we (including the progressive, secular we) all too often keep silent when rules are imposed about what menstruating women are allowed to do, where they are allowed to go in, etc. Behind the rhetoric of aesthetic is the politics of gender construction, which dictates how women should behave, how they should dress, what they should wear, what words they should use.”
With both the earlier #hokchumbon campaign and this one, two dimensions tend to be overlooked. One is that a woman’s body is not subject to the diktats of society. The other is that these forms of protest were devised to respond to violence or perceived violence on women. In the #hokchumbon case, it was solidarity with women attacked for display of intimacy. In the present case, it is because there was a complaint about sexual harassment, and a number of activists felt the administration, as well as others, were being insensitive to it.
Once upon a time, in my school and college days, I saw people coming up and attacking feminists by saying, “I am not a feminist because all this bra burning is vulgar and stupid”. They never looked at the context of the so called bra burning. It was a protest against the Miss America Pageant. Bras were just one of the items protestors were encouraged to bring that day that signified how the male-dominated culture was keeping women locked into rigid ideas of beauty, but they weren’t burned. Starting a fire on the boardwalk was illegal, so protestors opted to dump Playboy magazines and other items in a Freedom Trash Can. Still, the bra-burning image remained—a symbol that was easy to belittle as women focussing on something trivial. Today, the attacks are carried forward by heirs of the same tradition, whose opposition to “uncouth”, “unaesthetic” behaviour is often a cover for an attack on women’s right to live on their own terms. So to those who are attacking the movement as vulgar, as oposonskriti, my open challenge is this: give a clear definition of oposanskriti first, then explain why this protest falls within it, and why women are compelled to live under terms dictated by patriarchy.
In response to a rather intriguing comment made by a celebrity that ”Protests should maintain decorum and purity’”, it needs to be mentioned that she, and many others, missed the very point the students are trying to make by suggesting their methods are indecent, vulgar and impure (sanitary napkins=vulgar?). It is perhaps time to fight the patriarchy within—the kind that causes even people who consider themselves feminists and support the cause to fail to see the deliberation in the usage of sanitary napkins—and not compromise nor reconciliate with this right-wing bourgeois idealogy.