With comics against prejudice
"Against stigma on menstruation"
Menstruation is rarely discussed in India, because women on their periods are considered to be impure. With the aim of eliminating misunderstandings about menstruation, Aditi Gupta, together with her husband Tuhin Paul, has launched the educational comic Menstrupedia, which has been translated into 15 languages, including 11 regional Indian languages. What follows is a conversation with the founder about purity, shame and feminism in India.
Ms. Gupta, how did it happen that you founded a comic about Menstruation?
Menstrupedia was born out of my own experience, facing the stigma on menstruation. But the work started when I decided for the first time in my life to openly discuss it with a man. This was in my design studies with my batch mate Tuhin. And we were 25 years old.
What was his reaction?
He got a little sad, because nobody told him what is happening to a mother every month. He would have helped his mother or tried to give her some comfort, but he couldn't.
But do you think women want a special treatment?
Anybody would want to have comfort. But if you have to share a taboo, it just would make you feel ashamed. Like what many victims of sexual harassment feel and don’t speak out. That is the reason why child molestation and harassment is so hidden. Nobody talks about it.
I read that female chefs are not allowed to work, if they have their period.
Many of the households in Gujarat are still not allowing women to cook during their menstruation. I think this belief came about in order to give women a rest. But now it is manifested in a way that women are 'impure'. I don't have a problem if the family wants to treat women with a rest, but it's a very hypocritical thing. You can give a woman a menstrual leave without branding her impure.
Are there more restrictions for women in India?
You have a lot of places where are signs: Shoes not allowed, cameras not allowed and menstruating women are not allowed. Do you know why women are not allowed to go to the temple during periods? Because women’s bodies are considered to be a temple. That is why a temple cannot go into a temple. And that is again: Patriarchy.
Can you explain the concept of purity?
It's a systematic way of controlling the females. There is an excellent book called 'Purity and Danger' by Mary Douglas. I don't know who put the honour of women in their vaginas. It is stigmatized so much. And there is so much of honour dispute. If one community has to let down another community, they go on raping the women first and killing their children.
Unfortunately, this is still reality. How was is for you growing up in India?
I grew up in a time where many female fetuses were killed. I think I'm doing good. That's a pretty sad joke, but true. My parents are luckily open-minded, but as a girl I had no sanitary napkins, too. Not because we couldn't afford it. It was shameful to buy and this affected my self-confidence, my education. I needed to use rags, which is sustainable. But the problem is that I needed to hide. And I remember, how horrible it was during the rainy season. I used to cycle to my school and wearing that much of cloth.
And why is it that important to talk about, you solved your problem, too?
In India about 50 percent of the women do not use any sanitary products during their period. In the coming five years, 55 million girls in India are going to have their first menstruation. And because it's a stigma, 88 percent of the women are going to believe that this is not a natural process. There is a reason for it. If you see the books at school, the chapter, which talks about menstruation is completely missing. Only a small number of schools address it sometimes. We have a special sense of shame. And all the teachers are raised like that.
Aditi Gupta and her husband Tuhin Paul | © Menstrupedia Where does this shame come from?
It has a lot to do with how women are raised. My mother inherited the shame. I'm living in a culture where there is a sense of sin. People think, if I touch a holy thing during my period, it becomes impure. Because your religious institutions are saying so. Everybody is saying so.
It’s a phenomenon of Hindu culture?
In other religions there is a stigma, too. I remember, when I had my period, I went to Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) to pray and there was no sign, which said: Women on their period are not allowed. In my 4th year of engineering many thought that I'm a Punjabi rather than a Hindu. In Muslim communities, women are not allowed to put henna on their hands. in Jain families it happens that women need to sleep on a mat instead of in the bed.
How do you know how families are handling that?
I'm the shameful girl who went to many houses in semi-urban areas in Gujarat for my research. And it has nothing to do with which economic background you come from, the taboo is everywhere. In fact, I faced more opposition from the educated class than any of the villages to which I went. And women become the biggest driver of controlling themselves.
Even buying condoms is stigmatized. I heard women just tend to order online.
I know. Buying drugs is even easier than buying a sanitary napkin or condoms. But it is changing slightly. There was the first ad for sanitary napkins showing real blood. And the company we are working with launched the #touchthepickels-campaign. Touch pickles is something which is strictly forbidden for menstruating women.
How did you solve the problem with your family?
I involved them in my project. The first prototype, which we designed in college, was in Hindi and my mother was the editor. When we then quit our jobs they were a little up sad, but now they are alright. She always keeps a copy with her to show it to people. And Tuhin’s mother edited the Bangla edition.
What did you learn by dealing so much with this topic?
When we started, we thought that the concept of ‘shame’ is just an Indian problem. And we had a little idea that it would be definitely a South Asian problem. We have a similar culture and similar attitude towards how women's bodies are seen and how secretions coming out of women’s bodies are seen. But after my TED talk I got so much response even from Italy or the US.
How far has the reach of your book spread?
Apart from India, the US is the country where our books sell the most. But we are also working in Nepal and South America. We have 15 languages. India itself is so diverse, so we have ten regional languages and other foreign languages like English, Nepali, Spanish, Russian or Bulgarian. Business wise, it doesn't make sense to translate it into Bulgarian, but it is a very beautiful language and somebody said I want to translate it for you.
In the comic book, which is recommended for girls from nine years on, you mainly explain the use of sanitary napkins. Do you think it’s the best solution?
Personally, I prefer a menstrual cup, but I don't think a nine-year-old would like to use it. We talk about pads and cloth. And we tell how you could make your own cloth pad and how to use it hygienically. It’s important, if you don't have the resources to buy it.
Is nine not a bit young?
It is important to talk about menstruation before it starts. That’s why we explain chapter by chapter how to grow up with it. And that is why we made it a comic book, so that nobody is threatened by it. You need to respect the culture. Parents are not in favour of their girls 'reading a dirty book'. And that's why we had to objectify everything. I’m not sure if India is ready for that, but we would make this book also for boys and for parents. Education is our activism.
Natalie Mayroth works as a journalist and photographer. In the past, she has reported on China and India. In her works, she focuses on social and cultural topics – from gender to pop culture. She holds a Masters in European anthropology and Iranian studies.
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