10 years ago today, I first used the cup. It helped me transform my personal fight against menstrual untouchability to a public one.
What do you see in this picture? Just a family enjoying a day out. All day, I might add. There was a time when I would have preferred to plan such an outing on a more convenient date – one when I was not menstruating. But we did not choose the date: this opportunity to see the Grand Canyon fell into our lap as a by-product of travel to Tempe, Arizona. There was a time when the inconvenience would have put a damper on the idea of walking around a national park, from morning till night.
As it turned out, my period posed no inconvenience, a fact I found so mind-blowing that I sought to shout it from the rooftops. After approaching (and being rejected by) a number of dailies, I published articles in several monthlies. (Ha, ha.)
What made the difference? Was it the grandeur of the canyon? No, it was something much smaller, something I used for the first time that July, ten years ago. It was the menstrual cup. I had heard about it from friends six years earlier but had not tried it till then. As it happened it was July 14, coincidentally the day that in 1789 the people of France stormed the Bastille, abolished feudalism, and started a new chapter in human rights.
Do I invoke this revolutionary history in commemorating my initial use of the cup? Mais non. Those citoyens sang of spilling “impure blood.” (Note: Many French people including former First Lady Danielle Mitterand have called for changing the national anthem.) The first step in fighting menstrual untouchability is to recognize that menstrual blood is just blood, not impure and nothing to fear. The cup makes it easier to see this, and is perhaps why my experience of using the cup spurred me to fight menstrual untouchability. To fight the notion that women were polluting, or that our ability to give life, signaled by menstruation, was a cause to deny our freedom and dignity. To take seriously and talk freely about our health and hygiene needs, and state simply that we would not be ashamed of the blood that supports human life. May all who so bleed march forth and declare Liberté, Égalité, Non à l’intouchabilité! Liberty! Equality! No to Untouchability!
Today you can find so many articles singing the praises of the cup that you could probably read one every day and not run out. Save money! Celebrate your body! Save the planet! Enter the temple! Save time! Touch the pickle! Swim! Water the plants! Is there nothing you can’t do? Enthusiasm like this is hard to contain and I looked for any opportunity to tell women about the cup, in the US, in India, online and off, and, along with another new enthusiast, Kamayani, at the AID-India Conference in Delhi in 2005. And many meetings since then, urban and rural.
While it is easy to write about the cup, when talking with women individually one needs to guard one’s zeal. Whether in the villages in India or in the metros in the United States, women take their time mulling over the idea and it is neither ethical nor strategic to rush them. Though it is rapidly gaining in popularity, even today most women have not heard of the cup. Online, women can find plenty of information and support when looking into the cup. In villages when I talk about the cup, it’s more of a solo show. If only there were other women, preferably from their own village, who could share their experiences. But who would be the first to try it? Would she be able to buy it? Have water to clean it? And would she like it?
Many people contacted me after The Hindu carried an article on the cup. Some of these represented companies and organizations, and some, like me, sought to make cups available for rural women. Though she had heard about it at the AID-Delhi conference, it was nearly ten years later, during this wave of fresh buzz about the cup that a friend from a village decided to try the cup. She liked it right away, and started telling her friends.
Much has happened over these ten years. Jivika cloth pads have gained popularity in the village and beyond, tailors are earning income and many women are making their own. We have talked about and encouraged women and girls to question menstrual untouchability and to learn more about their bodies. In the process we have at least busted through menstrual un-talkability. Women, men, tailors, couriers taking our packages are talking about menstrual pads and even laughing about them.
We’ve a long way to go. Still, worth a moment to pause to see how far we have come.