THE SANITARY NAPKIN/PAD is an odd object. It, or a version of it—whether it is the menstrual cup or tampon—is used by every woman from puberty to menopause. She will menstruate roughly 500 times in her lifetime, yet the pad is dealt with in whispers. The current attention is vital and fundamental because it could mean that the pad is finally being normalised. The sooner it is seen as ordinary as an item of clothing, the better for millions of women.
The two recent events that have brought the pad into the limelight are the Oscar-winning 26-minute documentary Period. End of Sentence and the Sabarimala temple verdict. While the pad itself is not the pivot of these two events, both deal with the miasma of taboo and stigma around menstruation. And both seek to reinforce a simple truth— menstruation is a universal truth for women, and bleeding can never be desecration.
Pads are as common as a toothbrush in a bathroom but are treated as polluting as a baby roach. It exists, we all know, but it must be always kept out of sight. If it ever comes into one’s line of vision, chhi-chhi is considered a befitting response. But it would seem that finally, and deservedly, the pad is having its moment in the sun. The pad which has always been handed out over the counter in a black plastic bag, then kept in the nooks of cupboards, and scrunched into a ball and ferreted into bathrooms is finally getting the attention it deserves.
Melissa Berton, a producer on the film Period, delivered the best line of the Oscar night when she said, “A period should end a sentence—not a girl’s education.” An affordable and durable pad can often be a girl’s visa to school. As the movie itself illustrates, in the absence of sanitary products and toilets, girls are often forced to drop out of school. A grey-haired grandmotherly figure in the film Shabana—who takes it upon herself to convince other women about the benefits of their in-house pads called Fly—says, looking into the camera, “A lot needs to change.” And that really is the crux.
Period, set in Hapur, just 100 km from Delhi, shows us how woefully ignorant men and women are about this natural human function. When asked, ‘What are periods?’, one boy says that it is an illness of women; an old woman says that only god knows the answer to that question; and a young woman says babies are born because of it. The movie wonderfully captures the embarrassment, misconceptions and stigma that surround menstruation. When society is ill-informed about this biological process, it is little surprise that the pad itself is seen as shameful.
While many antiquated believers oppose the Supreme Court’s verdict of allowing women of reproductive age entry into the Sabarimala temple, and while that debate rages on, what is undeniable is that the case has brought menstruation into the headlines. While menstrual blood has always been dealt with as a mysterious blue liquid that needed to be spoken of in whispers, battle lines were now being drawn through it in the court, streets and TV studios. Pads which were seen as mystifying things, which came with wings and in various types like ‘ultras’ and ‘thins’, are now being peddled by Bollywood superstars.
If the humble sanitary pad can be seen as something mundane yet essential, quotidian yet necessary, if the conversation around it progresses from impure and sacrilegious to natural and life-giving, then we can, finally, dare say, change is here.