Security at the airport or anywhere else in India is always tight. At most locations, the standard procedure is to form two queues: one for men, the other for women. Each man goes through a metal detector. Then, a male security guard runs a wand over the male’s body. All this activity takes place in the open for everyone to see. Meanwhile, on the women’s queue, there is a table on which a woman must place her purse. The purse is opened and riffled through. The woman continues through the metal detector, and retrieves her purse on the other side. She is then taken into a room or small make-shift curtained area, where a female security guard runs a wand over her body. Note that the pat down occurs behind a curtained screen. The woman exits the security area.
At the airport, the hand baggage travels through an x-ray machine, while the woman goes through security. After receiving the stamp on her ticket, the woman then collects her baggage. This collection point is where I had trouble while traveling to Malta. Something in my cavernous travel bag raised the alarm with security. The female security guard met me with my bag at the counter. She started combing through the contents, asking me to open zipper pockets. She removed my Vodaphone 3G dongle.
“A 3G stick,” I said.
She looked at it, asked the guard behind her about it, and placed it in the plastic bin next to my bag. She continued to examine my bag.
In the same pocket, she found a Playtex tampon, pulled it out, and asked, “What’s this?”
I blinked, blushed deeply, and babbled, “Um. A tampon.”
The guard looked at it curiously and placed it in into the bin. She spoke to the woman at the x-ray machine. Clearly, something else had set off the concern about my bag. The search continued. Finally, she pulled out my travel wallet with my passport. Inside, slid into a little pen holder, was a stainless steel pen. The pen is a compact shape for travel. But, in truth, to an x-ray machine, it probably looks like a large bullet. She made me open the pen and demonstrate that it was a pen. Thankfully, she did not make me demonstrate the tampon’s usage.
This scenario would not have happened in the US. Why? Because the security guard would have recognized the wrapper and its contents. Admittedly, Playtex tampons are not commonly seen in India, but it would seem logical that a woman would recognize one. Not so in India. In India, the only tampon available is ob.
According to AC Nielsen, less than 12% of Indian women use feminine hygiene products of any kind. Let alone tampons. These products have been on the market for some time, so why don’t more Indian women use feminine hygiene products?
- Embarrassment about sexual health
- Lack of awareness about human anatomy
- Myths about menstruation
Like the US, several myths exist in India around tampon usage. The most damaging is that girls who use them will lose their virginity. If you’re married, this issue is obviously not relevant, but there still seem to be many misperceptions about usage. In the US, tampon myths are busted through marketing campaigns targeted toward young girls.
In India, because of low market penetration, the tampon companies do not produce such slick videos. Instead, Indian women turn to Menstrupedia.
Menstrupedia: Busting menstruation myths
Menstrupedia is the brainchild of Aditi Gupta and Tahin Paul. Born out of Aditi’s own frustration about the taboos and myths surrounding menstruation, Menstrupedia seeks to educate young girls, their mothers, and even their fathers and brothers about the beauty of menstruation. The beauty of red.
I had an opportunity to speak with Aditi a few months ago. She was open about her personal experience with tampons. She was a young woman learning to swim when she realized the value of tampons. She noted that even though the choices are few, buying tampons is relatively easy in urban areas. Imagine the scenario:
You walk into a store where no one knows you, and you ask for a product. In India, these products are sold at chemists and typically kept behind the counter. You’re in and out. Usually. I then relayed the following story to Aditi.
An expat’s tale of tampons
A sophisticated, well-dressed, 30-something expat woman strides into a chemist shop in a trendy Mumbai neighborhood. She’s had an unexpected visitor, and she’s desperate.
“Do you have any Tampax tampons?”
The chemist blandly replies, “No, we don’t sell those. Why do you need them?”
The flustered expat blinks and blushes.
“I-I-I’m bleeding from my vagina,” she stutters.
“I’m sorry, but I need a note from your husband giving you permission. He needs to explain why you need them.”
Exasperated, the woman imagines the letter her husband would write:
Returning from her reverie, the woman asks if they have anything else. The chemist points to the Always Whisper pads in the locked counter case.
“But, I have a swimming lesson today. I really need a tampon, not a pad.”
The chemist shrugs.
The expat woman asks for a 15-pad pack, pays for the pads, and leaves. The next time she goes out-of-country, she will need to remember to bring back Tampax tampons.
During our discussion, Aditi asked me to imagine being a young girl in a village trying to buy a tampon.
A young girl’s tale of taboos
A young girl in a rural Indian village has discovered she is bleeding from the place where she pees. Terrified, she runs out of the house to find her mother. Her mother explains that she’s started chumming. She offers the girl rags to place inside her underwear.
“Tell no one. You must avoid cooking food and praying pujas.” says her mother.
“But, it’s Diwali. Everyone is going tonight,” the girl pleads.
“Not you. You are to stay here,” says her mother.
The next day, the young girl decides to get something better than rags. She has seen the Always Whisper and ob commercials on TV. She travels a couple kilometers to the local chemist. The local chemist is her mother’s brother and the girl’s uncle. She looks for feminine products and finds only pads locked in a glass case. She must ask her uncle for the pads. She freezes. If she asks, everyone will find out that she is menstruating. Everyone. News travels fast on the great Indian grapevine.
The young girl stands at the counter, bouncing on her heels. Back and forth she sways trying to decide between humiliation and hygiene.