Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Period. Exposed. Bloody Red.



Why is it so difficult for educated women to wrap their soiled sanitary napkins?

Make no mistake here. I amaze myself – and disgust others -- at my own ability to talk about poop, pee, fart and puke with complete nonchalance. I was raised to understand that these are essential body functions, and many childhood evenings were spent with my father and brother discussing the fart sounds of different people we knew; the mother would bury herself behind a book, pretending she had no relation to us. Only a couple of ex-boyfriends have not winced when I would attempt a minute-long monologue about either of the four taboo topics before them (I would shut my mouth at the right moment, because I knew they were always wearing running shoes).

But hygiene – or the lack of it – makes me wince. And no, this is not about the laments of the lack of toilets in India. This is also not about women still wearing pieces of cloth instead of the ones that are advertised promising a ‘happy period’. This is about educated women who know it well that soiled sanitary napkins need to be wrapped before disposed. You might feel this is a non-issue. An unintentional sighting of the dustbin in toilets of the institutions with squeaky clean facades would reveal something else.

I work in the office of a large newspaper, and this particular floor of the building houses three different publications. The Siberia-type-cold office where I work is flanked between offices of glossy magazines where extremely beautiful women and men work. Women in beautiful clothes, just the right amount of make-up, swanky heels, and artfully-acquired fake accents. Women who wouldn’t smile at each other when they adjust their chiffons and silks in the cramped bathroom space. Educated women, with absolute access to drinking water, and water in their faucets, and more.

Yet, the other day, and yet another day, I went into the toilet, only to see a blob of bright red tissue staring at me from the uncovered paper bin. There was no attempt at covering it with a pile of tissue paper (which flows like the Nile in such offices).


When I lived in New York in a women’s residence that can house 373 women, I assumed that I was living with mature women. We were about 30 women living on each storey. Every morning around 8am was a rush hour in the achingly slow elevators, and we jostled for space amid the fragrance of expensive perfumes and the sights of the best brands off the racks from Times Square. Photographers, fashion designers, bankers, researchers, students, journalists, analysts – the brightest of the brains in the most beautiful female bodies covered in the latest fashion trends, were on their way to work.

We had two sets of bathrooms with individual showers and toilets to share, and the housekeeping did an impeccable job of keeping the place clean. Yet, every now and then, a soiled sanitary napkin, with its crumbling sides and red-to-brown middle and netted top cover lay exposed in the bins near the showers. Was it so tough for such smart women to wrap their own sanitary napkins? I once lamented before the front desk that this was unbelievable. The lady there sighed with a smile, “Darling, why is this unbelievable? We hear this all the time!”

These might be the same women who would “Yuck!” aloud when the stench of ammonia from public toilets reaches their nostrils. They would refuse to use such public toilets, and I know of many women who would hold up their bladder until they reached a clean toilet. But women not wrapping their soiled sanitary napkins is a stupidly global phenomenon.

Few years ago, I had done a story about an organisation in Pune that works with waste pickers. With some smart origami moves, they had created a paper packet, with a sticker on it that announced its purpose – for the disposal of soiled sanitary napkins. The idea of the packet was to restore some dignity in the hands of the waste pickers, so that they do not have to confront a soiled sanitary napkin – or a diaper – with their bare hands, when women refuse to wrap them. The idea has its flaws, but they surely can be fixed. When I had told my mother about this idea, her surprised eyes soon turned moist, and then she said, “They are doing such a work of punya.” (= a spiritually noble deed).

But if there is such a huge market of being hygienic – right from anti-dandruff shampoos to metallic foot scrubbers – can’t women learn to behave with something as personal as their own sanitary napkins?

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