Sanitary napkins fly off the shelf in a supermarket in Trivandrum. Young boys in their late teens and fresh in colleges touch and feel the well packed pads and look at the price tag. Young sales girls tell them about the virtues of the wares that they sell. And the boys insist that they need a few packets. Of course they do not use them and their purchase is not meant for their sisters or mothers. It is for their unknown sisters and their mothers who are in the relief camps in the places that they have seen only in the television screens or smartphones, devastated and irrecoverably lost. The posts in the social media say that Kerala shall overcome this flood too. The state is optimistic because it with its concerned citizens had done it in the last year. And all of us pray that it shouldn’t be an annual occurrence.
When boys buy sanitary napkins, none giggles or darts suspicious or surreptitious glances towards them. All of them are serious and business like. When I stand among the same racks and picks up a few packets of sanitary napkins for the women in relief camps, I realize why the boys also do the same. The government advertisements as well as the exhortations of the volunteer groups from all over Kerala send out lists of requirements and sanitary pads top the chart. And sanitary pad is no longer a taboo word in Kerala. There was a time when young girls sent their menopausal mothers or aunts to the medical stores to buy sanitary pads. The men across the counter looked away while handing over the pads covered in black polythene as if they were exchanging contraband. A young girl in Baroda told me last year (when I was teaching them a course in their design institute) that the shop owners even today lampoon them or chide the girls for asking for sanitary napkins. “It’s like we have done some crime,” she told me thoughtfully.
Kerala has a different discourse now about sanitary pads. A year back the word menstruation that requires the use of sanitary napkins, was a taboo in Kerala. None spoke openly about it. In every language there must be words to connote menstruation. In Malayalam they are ‘Masakkuli’ (monthly bath), ‘Theendari’ (Untouchable days), ‘Thottooda’ (untouchable), ‘Thodakku’ (untouchable), Masamura (Monthly turn) and the euphemism and code words like ‘you know what I mean’ and ‘those days’. In my childhood I had seen my mother and elder women in the family entering home via kitchen side and many years later I came to know that it was ‘not to pollute’ the areas where men moved around, that means the courtyard, veranda and the drawing room. Those women never used sanitary pads because they were not available to begin with and even panties were not used. The clothes they used for protecting themselves during the menstruating days were washed and hung for drying far away from the public eyes. It was a thing to hide, a shame and a crime!
Sabarimala changed it all. The ‘decent yet indecent word’ that meant menstruation, ‘Aarthavam’ (recurring cycle) became the focus of socio-cultural and political discourse when a section of the Hindus protested the entry of women between12 and 50 in the Sabarimala Temple. They said that the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappan was a ‘chronic bachelor’ (naishtik brahmachari means one who has decided to be a celibate) and the presence of women in their menstruating age would challenge the deity; to put it in other words the entry of women was against the tradition and the accompanying rituals. There were two opinions regarding this within Kerala itself, especially among the women. With the Supreme Court upholding the right of women of any age to make a temple entry had caused all hue and cry in Kerala. The Government of Kerala, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was under obligation to support the Supreme Court order and protect those who wanted to enter the temple. This divided an otherwise egalitarian Kerala into two; a state of believers and non-believers. There were many protests, counter protests, sit ins, hartals, strikes, riots, baton charges and so on. It is said that the outcome was detrimental to the electoral prospectus of the ruling left which was trounced in the ensuing Lok Sabha elections when its tally was reduced to a mere one.
Women intellectuals, as I mentioned before, took two difference stances on the issue; a section of the women intelligentsia in Kerala argued that with or without the Supreme Court order it was unnecessary for the women to venture into a place dominated by the hyper masculine bodies. They said that the shrine is a place that reproduced the patriarchal values and it was useless and a huge waste of time addressing it. The other faction, which was proven right as the outcome turned out to be positive in the discursive field of Kerala, insisted that it was not their theistic attitude that took them to the shrine but the constitution that gave them right to enter in any place of worship. They were demanding their rights as full citizens of the country; and they were not in loggerheads with the male folk in general but with the ones who said that menstruating women are bad. The worst thing that could happen to Kerala was the mobilization of the upper caste Hindu women, a section of which came out in throngs to oppose the women’s entry to Sabarimala saying that they were ‘Ready to Wait’ till menopause set in.
Today there is a temporary truce; neither of the sections has won the argument. But the Kerala society as a whole could remove the taboo around the phenomenon of menstruation. The menstruating woman is no longer a taboo in Kerala, nor is the word ‘Aarthavam’ a word to be spoken in shame or under breath. From school boys and girls to the older men and women now utter this word without the shame attached to it in the previous days. There must be people who still observe the traditional ‘untouchability’ pertaining to menstruation. But the apparently everyone has become comfortable with the word. The word lost its taboo and negative connotations because the word menstruation, Aarthavam was made visible by the temple entry discourse in Kerala. The more you make a word visible through utterance the more it loses its taboo edges. Menstruation was made visible in Kerala. Today, Aarthavam is a word that both parents and children speak with a lot of pride. Reaching menstruating age is still a private celebration, just to let the relatives and immediate neighbors know that the girl is now of the ‘marriageable age’. There was a time when girls kept the news a highly guarded secret for the shame attached to it. Even in the girls only schools, I am told that girls used to speak of it as if something wrong had happened to them.
Visibilisation of the word ‘Aarthavam’ has changed the whole social discourse in Kerala, one should say. While the selling of sanitary napkins came home with the television sets since 1980s, the advertisements still used the euphemistic words or the taboo words in a more appealing way. People in front of the television looked the other way when the advertisements came flashing in the screens. But the advent of the contemporary technology has now enabled a majority of girls feel good about their bodies and the bodily cycles. The advertisements also have lost it ‘you-know-what-I-mean’ whispering style. They are now bold and beautiful. Girls like Rupi Caur post their photographs in the social media showing the menstrual stains on their bottoms. Women artists started working with sanitary pads as their medium of expression. The world has changed.
When the boys pick up a few packets of sanitary napkins to send their invisible and distant sisters and mothers in the relief camps, I am sure they are not feeling any kind of perversion or distortion of facts. They know that their female counterparts have something called menstruation and they need additional appendages to deal with it. And like tea and coffee, fresh clothes and night gowns, they need sanitary pads too. They also need privacy to deal with their bodies. The government and the district administrations talk of providing hygienic toilets in every relief camps. Film stars like Jayasoorya send chemical toilets to the relief camps. They have also developed systems to dispose the used sanitary pads. In Kerala, data show that during menstruation 85% of women use sanitary napkins. 6% use locally prepared napkins. Only one percent use tampons. It is interesting see that when the relief camps started, men sitting in different places started suggesting over social media that the women in the relief camps could use ‘menstrual cups’ because it was reusable. Another set of experts came up in the same threads saying that it was not advisable to use menstrual cups in relief camps because that needs a comfortable environment, first of all to use and secondly to get familiar with the use of it. The lower percentage of tampon usage could be aligned to the ‘strangeness of it’. Menstrual cup would take a few more years to be in general use and that also could happen only when the health workers, NGOs, Government agencies and above all the advertisements do their work for propagating this idea. Remember all these discussions were/are initiated by men and they feel responsible while doing it.
I have portrayed a very positive image of Kerala men and women vis-à-vis the sanitary napkin and its use during the days of deluge. I do not claim that Kerala has overcome all its social taboos. There are several avenues where the state has to make headway. Slow and steady work would turn this society much egalitarian. And the second flood situation would make people think more scientifically and less religiously so that the discussions of such private matters in public would lose its taboo and become normal so that the discomforts of the others could be easily understood by the people who are in comfortable positions. This is a good sign and, remember, the boys are becoming more aware of their sisters.