The quilt show prize that I will probably die trying to win is the Fine Art Quilt Masters at Festival of Quilts, UK. I was baffled as I studied some of the successful entries this year. These pieces apparently transcend the craft of patchwork and quilting and seem to be more about the artistic concept. I determined that I will eventually get one of my creations juried into this elusive category. I started thinking about how to achieve this accolade in my typically cynical and facetious manner. The cogs started whirring in my mind as I wondered how to make use of one of the ugliest textiles that I own – a black wool shawl that I bought cheaply from the Oxfam tent at the Womad Festival in 2014 when the evening temperature dipped.
I have always flippantly called this shawl a burqa just because it is so black. I decided to think about how to use this within the theme of Purdah, defined as “the practice in certain Muslim and Hindu societies of screening women from men or strangers, especially by means of a curtain.” This quilt is still at the ideas stage but I plan to create something that hinges on the notion of beauty that is hidden.
While tossing these weighty ideas around I looked up taboos in Indian society and discovered the shocking truth that one of the greatest and most shameful secrets involves the subject of menstruation. It may be a slightly uncomfortable and embarrassing subject to discuss in the UK but in parts of rural India it is a forbidden topic. I read a BBC News article about an entrepreneur called Arunachalam Muruganantham. (Read more of his amazing story at the end of this blogpost…)
In the 21st century are still many taboos around menstruation in India. Women can’t visit temples or public places, they’re not allowed to cook or touch the water supply – essentially they are considered untouchable. Muruganantham found that it was hard even to broach the subject in such a conservative society. “To speak to rural women, we need permission from the husband or father,” he says. “We can only talk to them through a blanket.”
There are also myths and fears surrounding the use of sanitary pads – that women who use them will go blind, for example, or will never get married.
The next article that I read online was written by Diksha Madhok for the Quartz India WordPress blog in which she explores the superstitions surrounding menstruation. The one that I found the oddest was that menstruating women should not touch jars of pickles which they would cause to become contaminated. A funny and provocative youtube video sponsored by the sanitary napkin brand, Whisper, encourages girls to go ahead and “Touch the Pickle!” http://youtu.be/PhHLAHqrGvk
(Read Diksha Madhok’s article after the Arunachalam Muruganantham story…)
Eventually I came across a website which sold washable menstrual pads and hand-sewing kits for girls to make their own. I ordered samples which arrived in the mystery stitched parcel and I decided to make a “quilt” of menstrual pads to help raise awareness about this sensitive subject. First I had to research and accumulate materials! The samples were made from 6 layers of cotton flannel with a waterproof bottom layer but I decided that I wanted to donate the pads a women’s group in India after the unusual quilt has been exhibited.
I ordered fabrics from a washable nappy making company and made several prototypes. My pads would all feature Indian striped cotton and tartan flannel as the outer layers with a sandwich of plastic laminated knit, a super absorbent fleece and antibacterial hemp. One of the pads would be made using a pickle print fabric. I decided against sewing on metal poppers and discovered Kams plastic no-sew snaps. The outer fabrics were liable to fray easily and it was not always easy to keep the top edges rounded after I had inserted the shaped absorbent pad into their casings and completed the top-stitching. I worked on this project for several weeks and I worried that the finished pads were not all “perfect” in appearance but I know that they are all very carefully made, fit for purpose and may some day even help to keep a group of girls in education!
BBC NEWS – “In 1998 Arunachalam Muruganantham was newly married and his world revolved around his wife, Shanthi, and his widowed mother. One day he saw Shanthi was hiding something from him. He was shocked to discover what it was – rags, “nasty cloths” which she used during menstruation.
“I will be honest,” says Muruganantham. “I would not even use it to clean my scooter.” When he asked her why she didn’t use sanitary pads, she pointed out that if she bought them for the women in the family, she wouldn’t be able to afford to buy milk or run the household.
Wanting to impress his young wife, Muruganantham went into town to buy her a sanitary pad. It was handed to him hurriedly, as if it were contraband. He weighed it in his hand and wondered why 10g (less than 0.5oz) of cotton, which at the time cost 10 paise (£0.001), should sell for 4 rupees (£0.04) – 40 times the price. He decided he could make them cheaper himself.
He fashioned a sanitary pad out of cotton and gave it to Shanthi, demanding immediate feedback. She said he’d have to wait for some time – only then did he realise that periods were monthly. “I can’t wait a month for each feedback, it’ll take two decades!” He needed more volunteers.
When Muruganantham looked into it further, he discovered that hardly any women in the surrounding villages used sanitary pads – fewer than one in 10. His findings were echoed by a 2011 survey by AC Nielsen, commissioned by the Indian government, which found that only 12% of women across India use sanitary pads.
Muruganantham says that in rural areas, the take-up is far less than that. He was shocked to learn that women don’t just use old rags, but other unhygienic substances such as sand, sawdust, leaves and even ash.
Women who do use cloths are often too embarrassed to dry them in the sun, which means they don’t get disinfected. Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene – it can also affect maternal mortality.
Finding volunteers to test his products was no mean feat. His sisters refused, so he had the idea of approaching female students at his local medical college. “But how can a workshop worker approach a medical college girl?” Muruganantham says. “Not even college boys can go near these girls!”
He managed to convince 20 students to try out his pads – but it still didn’t quite work out. On the day he came to collect their feedback sheets he caught three of the girls industriously filling them all in. These results obviously could not be relied on. It was then that he decided to test the products on himself. “I became the man who wore a sanitary pad,” he says.
He created a “uterus” from a football bladder by punching a couple of holes in it, and filling it with goat’s blood. A former classmate, a butcher, would ring his bicycle bell outside the house whenever he was going to kill a goat. Muruganantham would collect the blood and mix in an additive he got from another friend at a blood bank to prevent it clotting too quickly – but it didn’t stop the smell.
He walked, cycled and ran with the football bladder under his traditional clothes, constantly pumping blood out to test his sanitary pad’s absorption rates. Everyone thought he’d gone mad.
He used to wash his bloodied clothes at a public well and the whole village concluded he had a sexual disease. Friends crossed the road to avoid him. “I had become a pervert,” he says. At the same time, his wife got fed up – and left. “So you see God’s sense of humour,” he says “I’d started the research for my wife and after 18 months she left me!”
Then he had another brainwave – he would study used sanitary pads: surely this would reveal everything. This idea posed an even greater risk in such a superstitious community. “Even if I ask for a hair from a lady, she would suspect I am doing some black magic on her to mesmerise her,” he says.
He supplied his group of medical students with sanitary pads and collected them afterwards. He laid his haul out in the back yard to study, only for his mother to stumble across the grisly scene one afternoon. It was the final straw. She cried, put her sari on the ground, put her belongings into it, and left. “It was a problem for me,” he says. “I had to cook my own food.”
Worse was to come. The villagers became convinced he was possessed by evil spirits, and were about to chain him upside down to a tree to be “healed” by the local soothsayer. He only narrowly avoided this treatment by agreeing to leave the village. It was a terrible price to pay. “My wife gone, my mum gone, ostracised by my village” he says. “I was left all alone in life.”
Still, he carried on. The biggest mystery was what successful sanitary pads were made of. He had sent some off for laboratory analysis and reports came back that it was cotton, but his own cotton creations did not work. It was something he could only ask the multinational companies who produced sanitary products – but how? “It’s like knocking on the door of Coke and saying, ‘Can I ask you how your cola is manufactured?’”
Muruganantham wrote to the big manufacturing companies with the help of a college professor, whom he repaid by doing domestic work – he didn’t speak much English at the time. He also spent almost 7,000 rupees (£70) on telephone calls – money he didn’t have. “When I got through, they asked me what kind of plant I had,” he says. “I didn’t really understand what they meant.”
In the end, he said he was a textile mill owner in Coimbatore who was thinking of moving into the business, and requested some samples. A few weeks later, mysterious hard boards appeared in the mail – cellulose, from the bark of a tree. It had taken two years and three months to discover what sanitary pads are made of, but there was a snag – the machine required to break this material down and turn it into pads cost many thousands of dollars. He would have to design his own.
Four-and-a-half years later, he succeeded in creating a low-cost method for the production of sanitary towels. The process involves four simple steps. First, a machine similar to a kitchen grinder breaks down the hard cellulose into fluffy material, which is packed into rectangular cakes with another machine.
The cakes are then wrapped in non-woven cloth and disinfected in an ultraviolet treatment unit. The whole process can be learned in an hour.
Muruganantham’s goal was to create user-friendly technology. The mission was not just to increase the use of sanitary pads, but also to create jobs for rural women – women like his mother. Following her husband’s death in a road accident, Muruganantham’s mother had had to sell everything she owned and get a job as a farm labourer, but earning $1 a day wasn’t enough to support four children. That’s why, at the age of 14, Muruganantham had left school to find work.
The machines are kept deliberately simple and skeletal so that they can be maintained by the women themselves. “It looks like the Wright brothers’ first flight,” he says. The first model was mostly made of wood, and when he showed it to the Indian Institute of Technology, IIT, in Madras, scientists were sceptical – how was this man going to compete against multinationals?
But Muruganantham had confidence. As the son of a handloom worker, he had seen his father survive with a simple wooden handloom, despite 446 fully mechanised mills in the city. That gave him the courage to take on the big companies with his small machine made of wood – besides, his aim was not really to compete. “We are creating a new market, we are paving the way for them,” he says.
Unbeknown to him, the IIT entered his machine in a competition for a national innovation award. Out of 943 entries, it came first. He was given the award by the then President of India, Pratibha Patil – quite an achievement for a school dropout. Suddenly he was in the limelight.
“It was instant glory, media flashing in my face, everything” he says. “The irony is, after five-and-a-half years I get a call on my mobile – the voice huskily says: Remember me?”
It was his wife, Shanthi. She was not entirely surprised by her husband’s success. “Every time he comes to know something new, he wants to know everything about it,” she says. “And then he wants to do something about it that nobody else has done before.”
However, this kind of ambition was not easy to live with. Not only was she shocked by his interest in such a matter, but it took up all of his time and money – at the time, they hardly had enough money to eat properly. And her troubles were compounded by gossip.
“The hardest thing was when the villagers started talking and treating us really badly,” she says. “There were rumours that he was having affairs with other women, and that was why he was doing such things.” She decided to go back home to live with her mother.
After Shanthi, eventually Muruganantham’s own mother and the rest of the villagers – who had all condemned, criticised and ostracised him – came round too.
It took Muruganantham 18 months to build 250 machines, which he took out to the poorest and most underdeveloped states in Northern India – the so-called BIMARU or “sick” states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. Here, women often have to walk for miles to fetch water, something they can’t do when they are menstruating – so families suffer.
“My inner conscience said if I can crack it in Bihar, a very tough nut to crack, I can make it anywhere,” says Muruganantham.
But slowly, village by village, there was cautious acceptance and over time the machines spread to 1,300 villages in 23 states.
In each case, it’s the women who produce the sanitary pads who sell them directly to the customer. Shops are usually run by men, which can put women off. And when customers get them from women they know, they can also acquire important information on how to use them. Purchasers may not even need any money – many women barter for onions and potatoes.
While getting the message out to new areas of the country is still difficult, Muruganantham is sceptical about the effectiveness of TV advertising. “You always have a girl in white jeans, jumping over a wall,” he says. “They never talk about hygiene.”
Most of Muruganantham’s clients are NGOs and women’s self-help groups. A manual machine costs around 75,000 Indian rupees (£723) – a semi-automated machine costs more. Each machine converts 3,000 women to pad usage, and provides employment for 10. They can produce 200-250 pads a day which sell for an average of about 2.5 rupees (£0.025) each.
Women choose their own brand-name for their range of sanitary pads, so there is no over-arching brand – it is “by the women, for the women, and to the women”.
Muruganantham also works with schools – 23% of girls drop out of education once they start menstruating. Now school girls make their own pads. “Why wait till they are women? Why not empower girls?”
The Indian government recently announced it would distribute subsidised sanitary products to poorer women. It was a blow for Muruganantham that it did not choose to work with him, but he now has his eyes on the wider world. “My aim was to create one million jobs for poor women – but why not 10 million jobs worldwide?” he asks. He is expanding to 106 countries across the globe, including Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.
“Our success is entirely down to word-of-mouth publicity,” he says. “Because this is a problem all developing nations face.”
Muruganantham now lives with his family in a modest apartment. He owns a jeep, “a rugged car that will take me to hillsides, jungles, forest”, but has no desire to accumulate possessions. “I have accumulated no money but I accumulate a lot of happiness,” he says. “If you get rich, you have an apartment with an extra bedroom – and then you die.”
He prefers to spend his time talking to university and college students. He’s an engaging and funny speaker, despite his idiosyncratic English. He says he is not working brain to brain but heart to heart.
“Luckily I’m not educated,” he tells students. “If you act like an illiterate man, your learning will never stop… Being uneducated, you have no fear of the future.”
His wife Shanthi agrees with him on this point. “If he had completed his education, he would be like any other guy, who works for someone else, who gets a daily wage,” she says. “But because he did not complete school, he had the courage to come out to start a business of his own. Now he’s employing other people.”
Shanthi and Muruganantham are now a tight unit. “My wife, the business – it is not a separate thing, it is mixed up with our life,” he says.
When a girl reaches puberty in their village, there is a ceremony – traditionally it meant that they were ready to marry. Shanthi always brings a sanitary pad as a gift and explains how to use it.
“Initially I used to be very shy when talking to people about it,” she says. “But after all this time, people have started to open up. Now they come and talk to me, they ask questions and they also get sanitary napkins to try them. They have all changed a lot in the village.”
Muruganantham says she does a wonderful job.
He was once asked whether receiving the award from the Indian president was the happiest moment of his life. He said no – his proudest moment came after he installed a machine in a remote village in Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where for many generations nobody had earned enough to allow children to go to school.
A year later, he received a call from a woman in the village to say that her daughter had started school. “Where Nehru failed,” he says, “one machine succeeded.”
DIKSHA MADHOK – “In his first Independence Day speech, prime minister Narendra Modi discomfited the country when he stressed on the pain and diseases many Indian women are vulnerable to because they do not have access to toilets and have to control their urges till after dark. Hardly any other prime minister has discussed sanitation for women so frankly and openly.
While that is bad enough, attitudes about another normal female bodily function—menstruation—are even more rooted in superstition. The extent of ignorance regarding menstruation has been documented in a recent study by sanitary napkin maker Whisper and market researcher IPSOS. The survey was conducted among more than 1,100 respondents from across India.
The results show that the stranglehold of custom and superstition is not easing even in urban areas.
A majority of women believe that they should not touch a pickle jar during their periods. They also don’t water plants, enter temples, cook food or sleep in the same bed as their husbands. Most of these taboos are rooted in the belief that a menstruating woman is impure and can contaminate anything she touches. It is important to note that most of the people interviewed were not from villages, but urban Indian cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore and Hyderabad.
According to research firm Euromonitor, nearly 70% of Indian women, out of ignorance and poverty, use old rags instead of sanitary towels to stem their periods. Such unhygienic practices increase the risk of reproductive diseases in Indian women.
Seventy five percent women in India buy sanitary napkins wrapped in a brown bag or newspaper, because of the shame associated with menstruation. They also never ask a male member of the family to buy sanitary towels or tampons.
Aditi Gupta is the founder of a website and comic book called menstrupedia.com, which aims to shatter the stigma associated with periods. She says she used old rags while growing up to stem periods because she was too embarrassed to ask a male shopkeeper for sanitary napkins. “I come from a very educated family, but we never questioned the shame or myths surrounding the female body,” says 29-year-old Gupta, whose one-year-old website on menstrual awareness gets nearly 100,000 visitors every month.
Women also fear social discrimination, both within and outside their homes. Nearly 50% of the respondents from South India do not share a bed with their spouse during periods. More than one-third of urban Indian parents treat their daughters as impure during periods.
One of the most popular myths surrounding periods is that a woman is impure during this time and her touch will spoil pickles. Many families still forbid girls from entering the kitchen while they are menstruating.
“Decades ago, village women used to bathe in ponds and during periods they were told to avoid communal bathing.” says Aditi, while explaining why women do not wash their hair while menstruating. “But now we live in modern, urban houses with private bathrooms.”
Along with this survey, sanitary napkin brand Whisper has also launched a campaign called Touch the Pickle.
The researchers also interviewed more than 200 men about periods, and the good news is that almost all of them want the secrecy and embarrassment to end. However, both men and women learn very little about periods while they are in school. In fact, more than half the women did not know much about menstrual cycle till they got their first periods.”