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How India likes its women: Bikinis in Baywatch are fine, but sanitary napkins? Still taxable

This past Sunday, I was engrossed in a scene from a Netflix movie titled White Girl, where a bunch of 20-somethings (with equal boy-to-girl ratio) were sitting around in a cramped New York apartment and smoking weed. The girls were new in NYC, and were socialising with boys from down their street.

One of the girls started to show off her armpit hair to a boy she just met, and surprise surprise, there was no sense of wonder, or disdain from the boy. He looked at her armpit with awe, if anything, and they proceeded to go about their day.

Representational image. REUTERS

The film stuck with me for the whole day, and I kept trying to visualise how a scene like this would be translated in Indian cinema.

Here are my theories: It would either be a part of an indie film, so we could brush it off as "alternate cinema", or it would probably be cut out from a mainstream film. Because chee chee, women can't have armpit hair.

Infact that's a bit of a stretch. Women can't even have access to free sanitary napkins — they're taxed at 12 percent according to the latest GST bill, and placed in the same bracket as frozen meats and cellphones. Because frozen meat is hard to digest, cellphones are the reason why men in India are raunchy and menstruation? Woh kya hota hai?

Now that's a contradiction. What we see is not what we get.

We see women in Indian advertisements running around in white pants and pretty much winning in life during their menstrual cycle because of the magic powers of some sanitary napkin brand infused with floral fragrances, but none of this a free, or even a basic right.

Having access to aid a biological process is now a luxury. However, items like bangles, sindoor and bindis are tax free.

Here are a few thoughts/questions that went through my mind when I read this news:

  • This validates the idea that once a woman reaches adulthood, marriage and children are of primary importance
  • Do they even know menstruation aids in reproduction?
  • Feminism In India reports (rightfully in all caps), "INDIA HAS ABOUT 355 MILLION MENSTRUATORS. OUT OF THESE, 70 PERCENT CANNOT AFFORD SANITARY NAPKINS" — so are these women supposed to use bangles and sindoor to stop their flow?

Earlier this year, Sushmita Dev, Congress MP had launched a petition asking finance minister Arun Jaitley to remove taxation on sanitary products. This is not all, multiple members of the comedy and entertainment industry, in collaboration with NGO She Says, started a campaign titled #LahuKaLagaanwhere they asked asked Jaitley to abolish the tax on sanitary products for women.

It is important to note that Dev also managed to hand over her petition to Jaitley earlier this month, and his look in the images can best be described as embarrassment. This may qualify as over-analysis, but it looks like his face is screaming: 'Chee chee yeh sab mera kaam nahi hai!'

And yet, despite all the measures taken, there was only a 2 percent difference in the taxation on sanitary products. While earlier the tax was 14 percent, it now stands at 12 percent. I wonder what I could do with that 2 percent difference —  maybe switching to cloth pads seems like a better option?

Meanwhile, let's forget all this noise. Did you know Akshay Kumar is producing a film called Padman? The film is a real-life account of Coimbature-based Arunachalam Muruganantham, who worked towards providing low-cost sanitary napkins for rural women. The film is based on a short story written by Twinkle Khanna in her book The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad.

Twinkle Khanna and Akshay Kumar with 'Padman' Arunachalam Muruganantham. Image from Twitter.

It stars some of the most important actors in the film industry today — Sonam Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan and Kumar himself. But none of the actors have said a word about sanitary napkins still being taxed in India (it would have been good publicity if they did, but for Kumar it may have gone completely against his current patriot image).

Criticising their silence is in no way taking away from the fact that a mainstream film is being made about the issue of menstruation, sanitation facilities for women — which is a huge step forward. But why stop there? Kumar and Kapoor are both national award winners; their clout could make all the difference. Don't women deserve free sanitation for a basic biological process?

At the root of this dichotomy with which we see women in India — (married women? okay. Objectifying women? okay. Basic rights for women? whatsssat?) — lies in centuries of 'othering' that women have had to face. I'm talking about WhatsApp forwards that claim to be pro-women but call us "gentle flowers" "complex creatures" or even "emotionally superior".

I've had countless "well-meaning" friends who have told me that they were raised to "always take care of women" or "make sure she reaches home safe and sound."

Thanks for the "compliments" and the help, but I'm pretty sure we'd prefer access to basic rights.

Pahlaj Nihalani's actions over the past few months pose as perfect examples of what I'm trying to say. While the CBFC is okay with films like Mastizaade and Kya Kool Hai Hum series — which blatantly objectify women in the name of "sex comedies" —  being passed and watched by everyone above 18, films like Lipstick Under My Burkha was not cleared by the board for being too "women-oriented".

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The poster of 2017's Baywatch.

Nihalani was recently asked why he was okay with the many scenes in Baywatch that showed women in bikinis, and his response was: "There was no rationale to cut the bikini images. For one, the series ran on satellite television in India for years and contained lengthy shots of women in bikinis. Secondly, Indian filmmakers really need to stop making such a big issue about bikinis. Go to Goa or Mauritius. The beaches are carpeted with women in bikinis. What is the big deal about such shots?"

This may seem like a rational decision, and one leading media publication called this decision "progessive" (I wonder how clearing scenes with bikinis in a film set on a beach is progessive but more on that later) — but this is a classic case of being okay with nudity/short clothes/sexualisation of women, as long as it caters to the male gaze.

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After all, we did need an Akshay Kumar to bring the conversation about sanitary napkins to the forefront.

Disclaimer: The little bit of humour is this piece comes from the privilege of being able to afford sanitary napkins. This is no laughing matter.


Published Date: May 24, 2017 17:27 PM | Updated Date: May 24, 2017 17:30 PM

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