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2018-11-28 06:09:40 Commentary

Bollywood has been on something of a roll in China over the past few years, with films such as “Dangal” and “Secret Superstar” sweeping the box office. So, when I learned that “Pad Man” — a popular 2018 release about an Indian man trying to invent a better, more affordable menstrual pad — would be coming to Chinese theaters, I had  every reason to expect the trend to continue. Yet, it’s taken almost 11 months for the film to get a Chinese release date, and it will hit theaters with a new title: the far less descriptive “Indian Partner.”

Although the delay and name-change are frustrating, I’m thrilled that the movie will finally be accessible to Chinese audiences. Like much of the world, China has made great strides in overturning millennia-old taboos and stigmas surrounding menstruation that once made any discussion or depiction of this natural biological process unthinkable — albeit mostly to men. Yet even today, many Chinese still prefer to steer clear of the subject. That’s why movies and pop culture events like “Pad Man” are so important: More than entertainment, they offer us a chance to reconsider our implicit biases and reframe the debate around women’s health issues.

Too many countries — China included — continue to see ensuring access to modern feminine hygiene products as outside the scope of government responsibility. In so doing, they fail to consider what a lack of access to such products means for millions of impoverished women. If this is to change, we need more people to speak up and share their stories. No longer can we allow our predominantly male government and business elites to turn a blind eye to women’s issues.

A still from the film ‘Pad Man.’ From Douban

A still from the film ‘Pad Man.’ From Douban

Such indifference is not a recent phenomenon. There is almost no mention of menstruation in China’s male-dominated literary canon, for example. With no written references, women passed down important knowledge pertaining to their bodies through speech. Unfortunately, this means that over time, thousands of years of female experiences have been lost.

I can trace the story of my family’s women back only as far as my grandmother. In the early 1940s, when she first got her period, she didn’t have access to disposable menstrual pads. Growing up in Jiaxing, a small city in the eastern province of Zhejiang, she was taught to use a reusable cloth pad instead. The primary issue with these pads was that they had to be washed after each use. To complicate matters, menstrual blood was then widely believed to be “impure,” and women were not allowed to wash their pads in the same river that others did laundry, or to hang them with other clothes, to prevent contamination.

Although China underwent dramatic political changes in the two decades between my grandmother’s first period and the ’60s, when my mother entered puberty, little technological or social progress had been made when it came to period products. The taboos surrounding menstruation were not among the traditional beliefs targeted during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, and many Chinese of that generation continued to regard periods as a source of shame. Growing up, my mom would refer to her period in a tone of barely concealed abhorrence — if she spoke of it at all. Whenever she couldn’t avoid the subject, she would merely reference it by saying she had “fallen into misfortune,” a common saying among members of her generation.

Chinese menstrual hygiene products from past to present.

Chinese menstrual hygiene products from past to present.

Women of that time continued to use reusable cloth pads, though newer versions tended to be thinner and were intended to be used with coarse toilet-paper lining for added protection. It was not until the early ’80s — my generation — that disposable pads began appearing on Chinese shelves. Although these represented a quantum leap forward in terms of comfort and ease-of-use, such luxuries were out of reach for most ordinary Chinese. It would be another 10 years before non-wealthy urbanites — my mom included — would begin to use the far more comfortable disposable pads.

My life was considerably easier in this respect. Growing up, my friends and I rarely referred to our periods as a “tragedy.” We treated them more like an unavoidable inconvenience: “Auntie’s here for a visit,” we would laugh, and the pads themselves we jokingly called “auntie rags.”

Market imperatives — reintroduced to China in the late ’70s as part of the reform and opening-up period — also helped reduce the stigma surrounding our periods. Manufacturers’ desire to sell more products led them to launch televised awareness and ad campaigns. Importantly, these ads were seen by more than just women. Given the frustratingly abstract nature of our biology classes — where old feudal taboos would rear their ugly heads once more — many boys of my generation probably got their first exposure to periods from watching commercials. Alas, advertisers’ reliance on metaphor may not have given young viewers the most accurate picture: Some of the boys in my middle school class thought menstrual blood was the same blue color as the liquid advertisers used in place of period blood.

I truly believe it’s important to share these kinds of stories to help normalize and destigmatize menstruation. With this in mind, I recently sent out an online questionnaire asking Chinese to share their experiences with feminine hygiene products. Indicating just how much more open people have become to discussing the topic, I received more than 900 responses — most, though not all, from young, highly educated urbanites.

I know from my mother and grandmother how hard it can be to make do without access to modern feminine hygiene products.

Although I intend to make use of all their responses in my research, I’d like to focus more on an often-overlooked group’s stories. Reading the experiences of women from rural areas reminded me that awareness of, and access to basic hygiene products is still not something every Chinese woman can take for granted. Part of the problem is cultural: Villages tend to be more conservative and patriarchal, and individual privacy is not always respected. Some of the women who shared their stories with me reported feeling awkward buying pads from male cashiers or worried that even the presence of such products in the house might cause their fathers discomfort.

Just as critical is the issue of period poverty: the inability to pay for feminine hygiene products. It’s a problem that affects women all over the world, even in developed countries. As of late 2017, there were still more than 30 million people in China living on less than 2,300 yuan ($350) a year — a number larger than the total population of Australia. Meanwhile, mid-range feminine hygiene products can cost between 0.5 and 4 yuan apiece, a significant sum. Although charitable organizations have organized campaigns to provide pads and tampons to women living in poorer parts of China, they remain inaccessible to many.

This can affect women’s physical and mental health. I know from my mother and grandmother how hard it can be to make do without access to modern feminine hygiene products, and stigmas and insecurities toward menstruation can keep women from going to school or working while on their periods.

That’s why moments like the potential release of “Pad Man” are so important. The Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui’s candid admission in 2016 that she had competed during the Rio Olympics while on her period was an example of how an influential figure can reshape public attitudes. Many women — and even more men — had simply assumed that strenuous activities would be off-limits during menstruation, and Fu’s statement led to a widespread discussion of some of the stereotypes surrounding periods.

I hope “Pad Man” — which in India has been credited with paving the way for the repeal of taxes on menstrual pads, making them cheaper and more accessible — can have a similarly galvanizing effect on China. Women have been forced to suffer in silence long enough. It’s time to speak out and demand that our needs and our stories be given the attention they deserve.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Fu Xiaofan and Sun Yijing/Sixth Tone)