The beginning of August saw the pictures of Kiran Gandhi being reported in the media worldwide. The lady had done a simple act. She ran 26.2 mile (42.2 km) London marathon pad-less while on the first day of her periods. Some media outlets called her brave, others decided to not show her period stained pictures and still others, shamed her. It has garnered international attention in a short time. With her free flow, a debate has started on the obsessive need to maintain menstrual hygiene in secrecy. This article is about a woman’s freedom to make her own menstrual choice including following a belief system or choosing free flow.
Many have questioned why she didn’t use a sanitary product, of course most of these objectors have never run a marathon while on their periods. We reached to a woman marathoner who’s also an advocate for better environmental practices, Shilpi Sahu. She told us, “People train for months rigorously for full marathons. Everything is important – what to eat, what to wear. Even the wrong underwear can cause rashes. And despite great planning people still struggle to finish the Full. Periods add additional discomfort. Sanitary pads cause massive rashes on inner thighs which take days to heal. Tampons aren’t good for very heavy bleeders and are uncomfortable too (they slide down when full). Menstrual cup is probably the best although it is not going to work for heavy flow days (leakage happens at least for me and I live with it, who cares if someone sees. Just wear black to avoid stares!) and yes the continuous movement for 4-5 hrs isn’t pretty with something lodged down there.”
I went through plethora of comments to understand public opinion. People compared bleeding freely to peeing and shitting in public view while raising the aspect of hygiene. Their mortal fear was accounted by a future situation on the ‘what if’ of women choosing to bleed freely. What puzzles me most is their blatant attempt at drawing comparisons between bleeding freely with open defecation and public urination? Feces and urine are waste material left after the digestion and absorption process while menstrual blood is the shedding of endometrial lining and the blood from there, how do you compare the hygiene quotient of the three?
Menstruation is a biological process that is special only to the menstruators (women, transmen) which cannot be compared with any other biological process. Let me break it to you, menstruation takes precedence over other sex-defined process. Not because of our ability to bleed but because there is so much shame attached to it. One article even posited semen as a comparison. Kiran Gandhi’s example proves how much shame we feel at the sight of period blood.
The spectators also claim the disgust from smell of period blood. If you have ever used anything other than sanitary napkins, you would know this is far from truth. Our social conditioning trained us to believe how dirty, impure and unclean period blood is while in reality, it is not far from any other blood from our body. Even if you use just cloth during periods, there is absolutely no smell from the blood.
Let’s now deal with the question of Kiran Gandhi’s hygiene and of others she might have risked when she chose to flow free. Shilpi reasons, “In all honesty, I think she chose her comfort over what is considered proper by society and she also wanted to to make a statement by choosing free flow. Choosing comfort is totally understandable I think. Did she put others at risk? Hey how about these ‘hygiene products’ like disposable tampons and sanitary pads generating huge pile of non-biodegradable waste every month and getting disposed in landfills and incinerators? Landfills don’t pollute? Or incinerators don’t create air pollution? Is that not a risk to others? But a woman choosing to run a full marathon with blood flowing down her legs suddenly put people at risk? Everyone knows that sanitary napkins and tampons contain harmful chemicals exposing women to a cocktail of chemicals every month. Using these products is more dangerous act, no? She could use cloth napkins but then, She was wearing pants. In rural areas in India, people bathe in open rivers on period days. Fish die and poop in water bodies. Our rural folk aren’t wiped out, they probably have better immunity than the urban folk who sanitize themselves like they are born with OCD. Nature can handle some contamination in limited dosages. But large scale contamination like sewage of whole city flowing into rivers, tonnes of sanitary pads burning and generating toxic leachate – NOW that is unhygienic!!”
Kiran wrote in a recent piece, “In the past century we have only come up with three viable solutions to help women comfortably deal with their periods – a tampon, a pad and a cup. And because we have not owned the dialogue around our own bodies, others have been able to use it as an insult against us.” This reminds me of the controversial piece by Sinu Joseph which was published last month. Sinu took a firm stance in favor of women choosing their menstrual hygiene for themselves. She called for providing information in schools and communities for making that choice. That’s as far as the beliefs of the two women go.
In Sinu’s opinion, traditional practices of menstrual seclusion with privacy and comfort are a choice women make according to their belief system. She argues against imposing “another’s belief system and forcing women to “break the taboo” is unnecessary social engineering”. Kathy Walkling responded to this in Eco femme blog, “if that’s true and women do chose happily to follow their practices without coercion, then lets leave them alone. But what to do when this is not the case – when a woman feels negatively affected, physically or psychologically by a practice she inherited but does not feel at home with? We have seen this repeatedly – even among a group of closely connected rural women: their experience of the same practice differs. For example while some women may welcome a break that ritual exclusion affords, another woman feels degraded by that same practice. We must not fall into the other extreme trap of glorifying all traditional practices without distinction.”
Sinu goes on to say that institutions are creating a market for sanitary products via dismissing cultural practices around menstruation as regressive taboos. Adding, she further accuses, “happily joining hands with such organizations are the sold out Indian NGOs, who have made menstruation their means of sustenance.”
Contrast this with the story of Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj, who was recently awarded Magsayay Award. Anshu’s Goonj is addressing the basic need of cloth among the rural poor of India by recycling the cloth considered waste by the urban population. Among the different kinds of cloth recycling done by Goonj, they make basic cloth pads by washing, cleaning and cutting of the urban cloth waste. I’m sure it wasn’t a manufactured need that lead a man to devote his life to the cause.
For their response, Dasra quoted the report Spot On which maintains that it all comes down to giving girls options and that it is never about a ‘sanitary napkin revolution’. In almost every interview we have had on the report, we have said that cloth is just as good a solution as a sanitary napkin, if a girl is taught how to wash it and dry it. Bholi’s story provides an instance of what happens if women are not well-informed of their menstrual choices.
When Sinu says, India doesn’t need a Sanitary napkin revolution, we shake our head in an affirmative yes. However, India and in fact, the world needs a Period Revolution which has already started. We can either deny and hide in shame from dealing with it while women like Kiran continue to make their choice of comfort but the fact is, it is here to stay. You might not agree with her choice but giving it to her anyway is what this entire revolution is all about.
Even today, many runners delay periods with hormonal medicines to be able to run. While one can say this is their choice, I differ in that would they have ‘chosen’ it had menstruation not been considered shameful and secret? We are all for the choice that women make about dealing with periods but how far is society willing to give it to them remains a bigger problem?
(with inputsfrom Shilpi Sahu, Kathy Walkling, Evans Rebello of Dasra)