Business Standard

<b>Mitali Saran:</b> Be a man. Wear a sanitary napkin


Mitali Saran
In all the talk about "women's issues", a small, important fact often goes unsung: misogyny is a men's issue. The English language so efficiently herds our thinking along stereotyped gender lines that we don't even notice it. Our metaphors, so powerful and so beloved for so long, are gendered. Man up, we say. Grow a pair. Take it on the chin. Be a man. (Absurdly, we say this to women too.) It means: be strong, be aggressive, be resilient, don't cry, don't back down, as if not having "a pair" is to be weak and cowed and weepy.

The crisis of Indian masculinity is that it cannot break out of its own stereotype on account of what self-defence expert Ashwin Mohan, speaking last week at the Women of India Leadership Summit in Delhi, calls "the man police" - the cohort of male peers who goad each other to maintain self-assigned checklists of manliness, and take it upon themselves to bully men who don't subscribe to those checklists. The violence that men suffer at each other's hands, and at their own, feeds into the violence that they visit upon women.

The man police is brash because much of it is comprised of people who aren't confident of their masculinity and may well be the opposite of resilient and strong by temperament themselves. The easiest way out is to pick on men who depart from the masculine stereotype in the way that they dress or speak or relate to other people. It must be terrible to have to live in constant denial and dismissal of pain, uncertainty, fear and love. One imagines that if someone told the man police that there is no penalty for failing their own checklists, they would collapse in a heap of sobbing relief. In fact, a man fully in control of his sense of self can wear a sanitary napkin without ceding an inch of masculinity. On the contrary, it makes him a hero to hundreds of millions of people.

If you haven't yet heard of Arunachalam Muruganantham, look him up on TED talks or Ink Talks. It will restore your faith in the virtues of real masculinity.

He's from a poor family in Coimbatore - a workshop helper, son of a farmer, school dropout - who decided to engage with one of the most basic and least talked about aspects of womanhood: menstruation. Many men have only the vaguest notion of what menstruation is about beyond cliches like "that time of the month", preferring not to focus on it, either nonplussed or repulsed by it. In India, as in many other places in the world, menstruation is seen as unclean and impure, menstruating women are banned from some places of worship, and the whole subject is sort of taboo.

Mr Muruganantham saw his wife slinking off to the bathroom with a bit of cloth so dirty that he wouldn't have used it to wipe down his motorbike. He discovered that she wasn't using the sanitary napkins available in the market because the expense would force her to cut the family budget for milk. He discovered that almost all rural women use filthy cloth, husk, sawdust and other risky, unpleasant material to manage menstrual blood when they use anything at all. He began experiments to develop a hygienic, low-cost sanitary napkin.

In the course of his research - so unorthodox that his wife and mother both departed - he got feedback on his prototypes from medical college students, examined used sanitary napkins, and wore one himself, exchanging his usual boxers for "triangular-shaped underwear" and injecting animal blood into it from a tube as he walked around.

Eventually someone submitted Mr Muruganantham's sanitary napkin to a contest at the Indian Institute of Technology without his knowledge: it won first prize. Since then his mission has been to turn a country in which not much more than 10 per cent of women use hygienic sanitary napkins into one in which 100 per cent of women use them - and to generate one million jobs for rural women in the process. His innovation converts the multimillion-dollar plant used by multinationals into a $1,000-odd machine that can employ up to 10 women.

Mr Muruganantham is driven by the desire to respect and promote the health, dignity and financial empowerment of rural women. Respecting and caring for the well-being of women, trying to understand their problems and helping to solve them, putting himself in their shoes, do not threaten his sense of self one bit. That's the kind of masculinity that commands real respect - not by demanding it but by earning it.

The vigorous conversation about gender in India needs to make room for the issues surrounding masculinity; the man police is as controlling and oppressive to men as patriarchy is to women.

Disclaimer: These are personal views of the writer. They do not necessarily reflect the opinion of or the Business Standard newspaper

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First Published: Oct 11 2013 | 10:40 PM IST

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