An inspiration by any other name? Musings on the Menstrual Man

arunachalamI came across this article today, about Arunachalam Muruganantham, the ‘Menstrual Man’ of Amit Virmani’s documentary film. In the article, Vibeke Venema of the BBC World Service describes Muruganantham as ‘The Indian Sanitary Pad Revolutionary’. I’ve been watching friends share the article, as well as videos of Muruganantham’s talks. In fact I shared some myself when I first started noticing this man’s work some time ago. But it has slowly dawned upon me that there is more to this narrative of the triumph of innovation and enterprise over ignorance and superstition than meets the eye. It all comes back to the word ‘revolutionary’. What does that mean? What does being a revolutionary entail? What are the implications of being a revolutionary?

This article I found interesting because it not only highlighted Muruganantham’s work, but his personal sacrifice and philosophy as well. His wife and mother are back with him now, but for a while there was every possibility that he would be alone for life. Such single-minded dedication is rare, especially in the face of so much opposition. It’s one thing to develop your idea with all sorts of support and social sanction. But it’s another thing entirely to have to work against every single norm you’ve been raised with and every single individual you love in order to realise your goal.

I find it problematic that people appropriate his experience to add to their management slogans: ‘pursue your passion’, ‘live your dream’, ‘fight against all odds’ etc. The reason they can do this is that the odds he fought against are not ones that they personally hold as important. So to them, what he did seems like this big success story, one that they feel they could support right from the start. After all, he was fighting ignorance. What’s not to like? But it becomes a very different story when the ‘odds’ being fought against are ones that you personally value. What is the line between a terrorist and a hero?

From the perspective of his family and village, he was overturning norms built over generations. It isn’t just in villages that menstruating women are segregated. I personally know women who won’t enter their prayer rooms at home when they are menstruating. Just because this man figured out how to fit his solution to menstrual mismanagement into a business model, suddenly he is a hero for the world. But at the root of the venture for him – at least at the start – was to demystify menstruation and thereby allow women to fully function in society, rather than hiding their rags, falling prey to infection, and being seen as too dirty to mingle with others. If women are disallowed entry to temples because they are dirty when menstruating, making them menstruate cleanly would take away the material basis for the symbolic marginalisation. I am not saying that this was his prime motive. I am saying that it was all part of the same principle. He couldn’t bear for his new bride to live a part of her life separate from his. This in itself overturned a lot of customs and beliefs. Menstrual secrecy is part of the formalisation of gender zones in some societies.

Just to be clear, my point is not that what he did was wrong. In fact it was simply wonderful. What I want to do is try to articulate how hypocritical it is to applaud his radical idea while we still point fingers at anyone who tries to overturn norms that we subscribe to. It is only by othering his family and village members that we can see him as a hero right from the start, see his sacrifices as noble. From their point of view, he was a heretic, tearing apart the fabric of their society. That he did what he did is certainly laudable, but let us be honest with ourselves about the exact way in which we frame him as inspirational for us. Would we do what he did – in the context of our OWN society? Overturning our OWN norms? Would we even have the capacity to be critical about them?

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