By Smriti Bhoker
It was an ordinary Tuesday evening. My partner was making food for two of my friends. My
period was late again, so while sipping wine, I groaned about it with an anecdote about how
tampons had stopped working for me. It wasn’t meant to be a particularly riveting story - ornamental and relatable, as opposed to oratory, and certainly not the podium upon which you expect a friend to set up her soapbox, but oh well. I expected they would take from it as much as one can take from a story about someone being stuck in traffic.
Evidently, one of my friends disagreed.
She began to lecture the room about how everyone should switch to menstrual cups, implying that bleeding women are a genuine threat to climate change and our resistance to the cups is the sole reason for the suffering of rag pickers in our country. Once she vacated her temporary soapbox I took a minute to think about the correlation of mensuration with sustainability.
Period Poverty: Lack of Awareness, Lack of Access
Before we move towards this correlation, let’s look at where we are in terms of menstrual
According to the National Family Health Survey, 62% of young women in the country use cloth during menstruation.
Even in urban India, not all women are comfortable using tampons due to the fear of breaking their hymen. There is a general lack of awareness of mensuration in our country that restricts other menstrual options. Using a cup or a tampon is unthinkable in rural cities. Even in urban areas, the cup is mostly used by women in their thirties.Menstrual cups make the most sense in a metropolis if you have a career and the luxury of options. In a state like Bihar, where 82% of young women still use cloth during menstruation, it is quite far-fetched to say that menstrual cups will solve everything. (Curiously though,I can’t help but hypothesize that the overall carbon footprints of these Bihari women and their cloths would likely be a fraction of those made by my friends in the air conditioned Mumbai flat altogether., on any given day of the week, bleeding or not.)
As a developing country, we still suffer from period poverty, i.e. a lack of access to menstrual products, education, hygiene facilities, waste management, or a combination of all of these factors. It is beyond tone-deaf, in an environment such as this, to suggest sustainability should be prioritized over the choice of menstruators regarding what products they use, particularly considering that it is a choice based primarily on their relationship with period poverty - lack of awareness (regarding what options are out there and what the general pros and cons of each are; as well as access to the products themselves, and in some cases, access to clean water, basic sanitation and hygiene needs.
I will take you back to my Tuesday evening now, where three working women in their late twenties are discussing menstruation in a posh Mumbai apartment. This discussion is warranted as long as you don’t start deciding for other women in the room. That’s where this act of idiocy finds itself a name:
Behold "Luxury Feminism."
In South Asia, luxury feminism is very similar to white feminism.
If you are an upper caste, upper-class woman who uses feminist theory as an aesthetic to their personality and/or brand to speak over marginalised women or be completely unaware of their situation before speaking on a gendered issue, then you are a luxury feminist.
Luxury Feminists are usually made up of tone-deaf stances, and they rely on feminist merch to clarify their position on the current political spectrum. I coined this term in my second year of master’s when I saw a casteist senior of mine post a picture of the annihilation of caste with the backdrop of fine marble and soft lighting to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti. Unlike white feminism, the doctrine doesn’t rely on showcasing softcore racism. Instead, luxury feminism relies on social media trends. Due to the abundance of time they have, they follow every minute issue and prepare a rehearsed opinion for every subject. However, this opinion is often safe and in sync with their class-caste privilege.
This well-rehearsed opinion never materializes into action through monetary help, i.e, donation to the said community they are fighting for and/or community outreach. Moreover, it’s an opinion that will only be vocalized where and when it appears to bolster the social-woke-ness points of the opinion-holder, and rescinded when threats to their personal vestiges of privilege arise. Following caste politics is the new accessory. The showcasing of luxury feminism often exists in echo chambers, as an aesthetic with no impact or motive. It purely exists to further complement the perceived virtuosity of the opinion holder, while at the same time, derailing much needed conversations and occupying spaces that we, as upper caste-class feminists, don’t have to fight for anymore.
Luxury feminism doesn’t believe in passing the mic, and hence it’s just some entitled feminists who want to hold discussions on the rights of Dalit women without ever knowing any Dalit women personally, or acknowledging their inability to speak to a vast part of the experience of Dalit people, let alone Dalit women. To put it simply, luxury feminism doesn’t believe in passing the mic because the mic itself is the end-goal - any impacts on the cause are merely secondary.
Another example of luxury feminism is their hyper fixation on sustainability. Savarna Vegans who want to fight for sustainable dietary habits while demonizing tribal food choices have to be one of the most staggering examples of it. Not to suggest that there is anything wrong with sustainable dietary choices, but in a country that lynches its minorities for consuming meat while a big chunk of the tribal population relies on animal meat as their way of life, echo chambers filled with working women who can afford a Satvic plant-based diet shouldn't make sustainable food options a hill they want to die on.
Now that we understand the privileged lens of Luxury Feminism, let's talk about blood.
What is Sustainable Mensuration and Who is It For?
In a 2018 report by WaterAid India and the menstrual hygiene alliance, it was revealed that
almost 1 billion sanitary pads are disposed of every year. Most of the leading sanitary napkins are non-biodegradable. These sanitary pads are made up of adhesive materials such as polypropylene and polyethene. Since the core component is plastic, it takes up to 800 years to completely disintegrate after disposal. It is classified as non-recyclable waste, with the added confusion of whether to consider it menstrual waste or plastic waste. The highly unsustainable model of waste disposal in our country has put exhausting pressure on menstruators to save the environment.
When the better half of the country doesn’t have access to the existing sanitary options itself, it becomes a bit tricky to convince them to use cups that are associated with taboo and aren't as easily available or affordable. Even in developed countries, where most people might have access to it, we forget to mention that some menstruators might have vaginismus or a history of sexual trauma that makes it impossible for them to use cups. Knowing all of this, it is a bit classist as well as ableist for these thinkers to make menstruators the face of saving mother earth.
Using a cup or not using a cup should be a personal choice, and it should not come from the
guilt of not doing enough for the environment. (Is it just me, or is it amazing how quickly any object associated with, or regulation of, the female body has to be appropriated as part of someone’s political agenda-making crusade?) Unfortunately, sanitary napkins create so much
waste, but slowly and steadily, companies like SheWings are coming up with biodegradable
sanitary napkins (their product disintegrates in 60-80 days). Apart from that, there are different ways to help the environment. The onus of making the world more liveable should be on companies who produce plastic-based sanitary napkins, not on those who have no choice but to use what they think is best for their bodies.
Essentially, if you can afford to invest in a cup and your vagina allows you to use it, then sure,
choose that for your body, but don't guilt other people around you into using it because of the last-minute article you read. Menstruators with privilege have a responsibility and that is to make sure they dispose of their sanitary waste in a way that reduces harmful impacts on peoples and places to the extent possible. Apart from that, their choice of sanitary products is completely their business. I can't believe I have to comprehend this, but guilting menstruators into using cups is a lazy way to absolve the system that fails the working class more than it will ever fail a luxury feminist.
On Wednesday, I spoke to a gynaecologist friend about my tampon story and she told me I had a septic shock. Forgive me if I’m not going to be using a tampon anytime soon, but perhaps I can at least help other luxury feminists widen their gaze.
Responsibility for Public Infrastructure
The responsibility of eradicating period poverty falls upon the government and the public
infrastructure. Without normalizing menstruation to an extent that women can make an informed choice for themselves, we cannot jump to making them use menstrual cups. Like my social policy professor used to say, "Nothing happens in isolation."
We have to remember that our country’s menstruators are not just made up of a clique of luxury feminists. We have to remember that many in this country lack the access, availability, and/or agency to define so many of the products which interact with their lives, let alone something as personal as a personal hygiene product. (literally, the ‘personal’ aspect is in the name folks.) Moreover, the government’s involvement should not be overlooked. A large part of our country witnesses deaths due to unhygienic methods rural women use for mensuration. Should this not be the the focal point of the conversation instead? I would like to hope that we hold the institutions and governance accountable before we come for people who are choosing what they know is best for their bodies.
About the author
I’m a published Urdu poet, I work as a Screenwriter while working on my research proposal for my PhD. I have a knack for learning new languages because I’m a quick study. I have my fingers into a lot of pies, academically; which lets me learn and excel at a lot of things which I think keeps me on my professional toes. Making modesty the only thing I genuinely struggle with. Find me on Instagram @smritibhoker