Last night, I watched with millions of my fellow countrymen with bated breath and then sadness as India played and lost against Pakistan in the final match for the ICC Champions Trophy. I was deeply involved, and I celebrated the highs and mourned the lows of my team with equal intensity. Be it at a populist and a rather shallow level, I was Indian and India was mine.
This morning, I wake up and open the paper, and the first thing I see is the news piece on the levy of a 12% GST on sanitary pads (Taxing Women. Narula, Tara. Indian Express. 19 June 2017) . Apparently, sanitary pads are a ‘luxury good’. And my old fury against this hopelessly patriarchal society boils up again.
This is not a country for us women.
Why is this, a big deal?
I can already see most men (and also quite a few women) roll their eyes with the “oh God, not again” expression. But since you already tolerate so much shit that goes around in our society, an argument for justice and fairness shouldn’t test your tolerance levels. If you can stretch your comfort zones to accept the reality of marital rape and domestic abuse (behind closed doors, of course!), then talking about menstruation shouldn’t be discomforting at all. The fact that GST is applicable on sanitary pads but not on kumkum, sindoor, bindis and bangles shows the classic mentality of the Indian man – we want our women to be ‘adarsh, shaleen naaris’, dolled up, pretty and picturesque. We want them to constantly massage our fragile male egos by encouraging them to wear symbols that will scream our existence and our dominance on their identity.
It is the men who can belch and burp and fart and discharge – theirs is a normal human body and whatever it takes in or gives out is ‘natural’. Any such manifestation of the female body, however, is to be shamed, hidden, undermined and insulted – because it just doesn’t appeal to our male fantasies of the female body. Oh, and did I mention male fantasies take precedence over female needs in this country? Because patriarchy is not just outright oppression or deprivation of women; in most cases, it is putting men’s needs and wants, however frivolous they may be, over and above (and at the expense of) women’s needs.
The spectrum of this period-shaming mentality is rich, and it stretches from the family level, of isolating our women from the family during ‘those’ days (continued into the modern age of sanitation), to a national, governmental level, of labelling a basic female need as a luxury good and taxing it. It is a thing of dirt and disgust, never mind even if it propagates mankind. The Indian man expects the woman to address his needs of sex and sons, but he will not address her needs of sanitation and healthcare during the time of menstruation. He has made it pretty clear – “Sex – heavens, yes! Periods – hell no.”
The justification behind exempting sanitary pads from tax levy is infuriating to say the least. Sanitary pads, some say, are not ‘indigenous’ to India; cotton rags are more ‘hygienic and cost-effective’. Easy for the patriarchy to say so; it obviously registers nowhere in their brains that these rags need to be washed very meticulously, month after month, to maintain a basic level of sanitation. Are our men going to wash them? If a vast number of our women today are still washing men’s underwears and catering to almost every need of theirs just short of wiping their asses, are fathers, brothers, husbands and sons going to wash these ‘hygienic and cost-effective’ rags?
It goes without saying that women will be expected to maintain sanitation and hygiene levels all by themselves. The pompous argument here would be – “you face it, you deal with it”. Of course, this logic does not apply to men otherwise they would have to carry out all their chores on their own.
If men would be menstruating, however, the picture would be entirely different. Not only would sanitary pads be free (not just tax-free, completely free), there would also be a whole industry researching on more hygienic, more comfortable options for dealing with menstruation. Periods would be celebrated publicly as a beautiful sign of vitality and procreation. Every need, emotional or physical, in ‘those’ days would be taken care of – and yes, the inverted commas would be off, because periods wouldn’t be a thing of discomfort at all. Men would make them so coveted and prized that women would have to value them and treat men with respect for menstruating.
Why am I being a shrill bitch?
Let’s not pretend this thought did not cross your mind. The fact that you find me to be a shrill bitch ‘unnecessarily’ making a huge fuss over all this is a glaring example and proof of the strength of patriarchy across class, education and society levels in the country. Women are expected to take extraordinary amounts of shit and yet remain graceful, calm, mild and sweet, while men whining at even the slightest discomfort are rushed to and taken care of.
Well, screw that.
The expectations men (and eventually, quite a few women) have from women in this country are staggering. We should study so that we get into a good college, and land into a well-paying job. We should learn how to cook and clean and help out in the house, or else, what will the in-laws say about our family? We should look slim and beautiful, so that we get married on time. Further, we should be slim, beautiful, well-groomed, pleasant in manners and great in bed – so that the husbands are satisfied. At the same time we should bear children (sons) in time so that the in-laws are satisfied. We should be skilled hostesses because hosting guests is a woman’s job, and we should be even more skilled mothers, because the fathers are busy. We should earn enough to support the husband, but less than him so that his male ego is catered to. Oh, and if the husband needs to move for his career? Never mind the degree and the job, just tag along with him.
And now, when it comes to our monthly biological need, we should just shut up and make do with whatever the men can spare for us. Treat any of men’s needs in this manner and see how all hell will break loose.
There is one expectation, ONE expectation from Indian men, and that is complete financial provision for the family. Not physical beauty, not household skills, not even equal treatment – simply financial provision. In order to enable them to do that, all their needs and wants are catered to from a very young age, and yet they cannot fulfil that one expectation independently anymore. They need their wives to earn money alongside them (as well as fulfil all the traditional expectations). The lame excuses of inflation and a weak economy suddenly make sense in their case, but no explanation is enough to justify priority to women’s needs.
Indian society, shame on your men – they are so underachieving that the country needs to tax a basic female need to make money.
The social and political frustration
Patriarchy has begun for me at home. Some of my earliest memories are of festivals or weekends, when men would sit around, reading newspapers, chatting idly, while the women, many of them earning as much as their husbands would be in the kitchen – making tea and breakfast for them. As a young girl, I would join my girl cousins in serving tea and breakfast to the men, and then going around after some time, collecting empty cups and plates. The women would heat their bath water and find their towels in between cooking their lunch, and when it would be lunch time, the first pangat would be of men and kids. An afternoon siesta would be on men’s cards while the women would have their lunch and clean up before taking a nap; a short one of course, because they still had to cook dinner. Dinner would be the same as lunch, though sometimes, the woman would be quick enough with the cooking and thus able to join in.
Independence in religious views was never for the women, though during one Ganeshotsav at an unguarded moment, an aunt of mine had exclaimed – “who likes to spend the whole day cooking and preparing for all the poojas! I have no choice, I do it mechanically.” She holds a Masters degree and earns as much as, if not more than, my uncle.
My choice of Arts stream for a career (“so you will just get some degree and marry a software-wala?”), my travels to the US and Hong Kong (“is this necessary? Instead of that stay close to home, it is safer. And you can give time to learning how to make rotis and maintaining a house as well!”), and my overall inclination towards making male friends and being interested in ‘less feminine’ activities have been heavily frowned upon. My mother’s side of the family is more liberal, and my mother personally has been extremely supportive of my decisions, but the worry over the lack of feminineness in me and thinness in marriage possibilities has been very real and persistent over a period of time.
Thankfully, I have a husband who highly values gender equality, and is sensitive towards women’s rights, needs, wants and desires. My personal struggles are not only greatly lessened, but they are also shared, as he steps in with as much help and solid support as possible whenever my gender is turned into a hurdle. I am also lucky to have quite a few fantastic men as family and friends who always treat me with utmost respect and equality. I wish I could say the same about all the women around me, and across the country.
Also, the struggles at a family level are blended with memories of love and support which is why I can let go to an extent and accept their mindset. The disconnection at a societal and political level is greater and deeper, with few possibilities of redemption or respite.
I have a distinct memory as a five-year-old being turned away from an informal discussion of some RSS members and my uncle. Later that day, when I learnt about the nationalistic and pan-India nature of RSS, I expressed a desire to join in, but was told “RSS is not for girls and women. If you are interested, you can join the female wing when you grow up.” My five-year-old mind then could not fathom the logic behind such a rule: if both men and women belong to India and India to them, why can’t they work together? Why a separate wing? Then a small voice spoke at the back of my head –
Perhaps, India is not really my country.
I was even more miffed when several years later, a young RSS supporter told me that a separate women’s wing instead of men and women mingling in RSS was preferable. “If we see potential and capability of women, we will groom them and give them positions of power as and when we see fit. But it is better that they function separately and not try to dominate RSS.” If he would not have been a good friend otherwise, I would have whacked him for his overbearing, patronising smugness.
The trouble with all this is that I genuinely love the nation called India, and I am proud of being a Hindu. The rich culture and the great potential of India motivate me. The core philosophies that embed the diverse spectrum of Hinduism command my fascination, respect and pride. I also appreciate RSS for some of the good social work it does, and I do believe that currently, BJP is way better than Congress, CPM or any of the regional parties in Indian politics. And yet, it is the male chauvinism of the country, the twisted, ritualistic version of Hinduism, and the patriarchal mindset of RSS and the BJP government that repel me time and time again.
As a liberal, gender-neutral, individualistic woman, I have no place in the Indian and Hindu right wing faction. While I have political and economic differences with the Left, it is with them that I find space, an identity and a voice as a woman. The Right has utterly failed in overcoming its male chauvinism and patriarchal mindset, but I am still a centrist. If it were not for my strong, personal belief in India’s nationhood, Hinduism and its philosophies, and certain aspects of free markets and privatisation, I would be a hardcore Leftist.
The latest humiliation of women by classifying their basic need as a luxury good is but one incidence in the long series of events, big and small, which happen continuously at all levels of society and intensity, be it through something as significant as law and social/economic practices or something as minor as sexist ‘dumb-woman’ jokes circulating on Whatsapp. Each of these is a crack in our love, involvement or respect for the Indian society and conventional Hinduism.
Give me one reason why, as an Indian woman, I should respect and cater to the needs of this society. Give me one reason why, even as a so-called upper caste woman, I should respect the rites and rituals of Hinduism.
Give me one reason, why as a woman, I should call India my country.
– Gauri Noolkar