The Indecent Girls of Izzatnagar: On JU & PadsAgainstSexism

The first sixteen years of my life were spent studying in a sophisticated urban English-medium girls’ school where the students were subjected to some “compulsory recreations” like dance, sewing or swimming irrespective of whether the girls were interested in pursuing them or not, and no provision for selecting an extra-curricular of her choice was given whatsoever. The students who were already good dancers, practicing singers, or whose mothers were connoisseurs in the art of weaving almost always took away the cakes while a large number of girls, suffering from the awkward humiliation of having to exhibit amateurish dance steps or raise hoary voices in front of the trained ones had no respite whatsoever.

As far as swimming was concerned, imbued with an obvious shame or awkwardness vis-a-vis the changes of the young adolescent bodies newly acquainted and still hostile to puberty, many would feel uncomfortable to come out in swimsuits. Instead of considering other options like making recreations open to choices, carrying out a counselling program or introducing swimming at a younger grade to accustom the students, the authorities took to threatening the girls with dire consequences if they refused the weekly hours of swimming. The female instructors would threaten to strip-search us because we often used menstruation as an excuse to avoid swimming. Though an actual strip-searching never really took place, at least with my classmates and I, the preceding hours of nerve-wracking tension and fear of having to expose our bodies to foreign hands amounted to a sort of authoritative ragging that none of us had the courage to raise voices against.

As lanky, impoverished fourteen fifteen year olds slowly responding to the changes and consequences of the uninviting world of adulthood, with little knowledge about our rights we suffered many unjust orders thus, unprotesting, with fingers on our lips. The recent incident of an alleged strip-search of female employees in a Kerala factory after a sanitary napkin was found in the factory’s washroom took me back to those school days when having periods earlier than your classmate put you on a pedestal of superiority or allowed you to bully those who were yet to start bleeding, with a strange sense of empowerment. Its intriguing how power relations and patriarchal power structures change according to one’s position, situation and immediate surroundings.

While in the all girls’ junior school period was in a sense empowering, in the co-educational senior school I attended, it became a matter to be safe-guarded well beneath your sleeves. If any male friend spoke up about periods, usually in a frivolous manner or in a triumphant tone due to a privileged access to its secret knowledge, more often than not, the girls would have their faces lowered in exasperation. If some girls discussed periods with their male friends, groups of girls having overheard them, considered it to be highly sacrilegious.

Once into Jadavpur University,  I never felt menstruation to be a hush-hush issue that cannot be discussed about normally with my male friends but as many of my female friends would agree too, talking about issues kept under the turban of patriarchal taboo till date like menstruation  or masturbation in public or to a person of the opposite sex is often looked down upon as a “shameless” vulgarized gesture. Societal hypocrisy when it comes to gender issues is neither logically understandable, nor an unambiguous reality but a consistent nonchalant practice that only manages to amuse or enrage our severely battered dignities. Thus, a European woman’s #padsagainstsexism campaign goes viral in the social networking sites with loud applause but a similar campaign by fellow students of same University is subjected to unprecedented negative criticism.

A few days back when a group of Jadavpur University students carried out a gender sensitization campaign by writing messages to protest rape, victim-blaming, patriarchal conventions and break societal taboos revolving around issues like menstruation, a large section of the students were offended by it. Since the sanitary pad campaign initiated in relation to an alleged case of molestation of a girl who refused to let her bag be checked during the annual fest organized by the Faculty of Engineering and  Technology Student’s Union, Jadavpur University (FETSU), and the campaigners issued a few messages on the pads allegedly expressing their support for the girl while the incident is still under the scanner of police investigation, many students are opposed to this biased perspective; according to them, the alleged molesters, who are students of the same university might as well have been victimized in the whole incident and thus, issuing public statements by self-determining the victim and the victimizer in a yet to be resolved legal case is objectionable.

I personally feel that instead of taking a stance without substantial proof in favour of either the complainant or the alleged molestors is not the requisite action of the time, rather, we should campaign in favour of a quick, unbiased investigation which throws light on the reality of the incident that took place. At the same time, foul-mouthing a crucial social campaign just because some of its messages are issued related to the tendency of victim-blaming in favour  of a girl who has filed a police complaint, or regarding some inter-faculty tensions, is completely disregarded. Following the footsteps of Jamia Milia where some students carried out a similar campaign, the students at JU too were summoned by the authorities under a newly formed probe panel, because of the form of protest they resorted to, questioning the fallacy of a society which still finds a medicinal kit like sanitary napkin repugnant, and an issue like menstruation a tabooed subject of discussion that is too “sensitive” to be brought out into the light of awareness.

Although the Acting Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University couldnt supply a substantial cause behind the authoritative opposition to the sanitary pad campaign and refused to “use certain words” on national television, some of the students who are bothered to the extent of questioning the utility of such campaigns extensively on social networking sites have reasoned that destroying sanitary napkins by writing messages on them and sticking them around is a sheer “wastage” in a country where only about 12 percent women can afford to use them. Unfortunately, they are bothered by the utilization of a twenty rupee packet of pads for an assertive social cause in favour of basic human rights as against deep-rooted patriarchal notions of gender discrimination, but not by the burgeoning capitalism of shopping malls, branded coffee shops or retail shops, monthly internet connections or 3G smartphones which enable them to update their virtual rebellion.

I wonder how many protesters out there who are performing artists made their art subjective to the audience’s free contribution, or took up the distribution of biodegradable ‘Anandi’ pads priced 40% lower than the lowest available market competitor to their housemaids before alleging that that the sanitary pad campaign is elitist in nature, separated from the below-poverty-level reality of our impoverished country. I wonder how many anti-campaigners to whom concepts like “feminism” or “gender-activism” are words of sarcasm to vilify the cause or attack the “gender-activists” with a triumphant glee in social networking sites, have taken to the streets introducing she-cups or washable cloth pads for mass awareness. Suddenly, a packet or two of sanitary napkins used to combat societal hypocrisy has become the headache of a certain section of “selectively active” activists catering consciously or unconsciously to the diktats of chauvinism.

My message of solidarity goes out to those brave boys and girls who, having committed the “crime” of a sanitary pad campaign and by questioning if menstrual fluid is more repulsive than molestation have come under the scanners of right or wrong determined by the powerheads of a patriarchal society. Dear indecent girls of Izzatnagar, this is no country for menstruating women. Your cunning-cunt bloody witchcraft threatens the autocracy of patriarchy. One sanitary pad campaign, and the flow of attack from Men Rights Activists, pseudo-feminists, ‘meninists’, pseudo-liberals, controversial independents,  questionable free-minds, facebook(only)- activists overrides all the blood that flowed from your uterus since you committed the crime called puberty.


[The photographs used here are from the #padsagainstsexism campaign in Jadavpur University and they are taken by Joyee Banerjee.]

Sreyashi takes refuge in painting or reading poetry when she is not meddling with the intertextualities of comparative literature.


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