In their letter, Singh and Thawani (1) highlight the gender insensitivity of the government which, after declaring items such as sindoor, bindis and condoms as tax-free, opted to levy 12% tax on sanitary napkins, equating the napkin with items such as packaged dry fruits, fruit juices, cell phones and so on (2). While the new sanitary napkin tax is actually a drop from the earlier 14.5%, in a regime where all taxes were reconsidered and revised, the authors’ argument that sanitary napkins should have been exempted from tax is absolutely valid.
Taking off from their letter, I wish to draw attention to the fact that taxes on sanitary napkins are a symptom – of a state/society that is both schizoid and callous: sanitary napkins are required because women have menstrual cycles and the cycles are, to evoke Simone de Beauvoir (3) part of essential female physiology; absence of menstruation could imply, among other things, an infertile female body, and infertility, which translates into the incapacity of a woman to contribute to creating the next generation. This definitely does not fit into the state’s scheme of things either, and yet, when the female body shows visible physical signs of fertility, the state levies taxes on products which come in to provide some degree of comfort and ease to women. Talk of paradoxes!
The issue is, among others, one of evaluating and comprehending the female body and its processes, in this case, specifically, menstruation. Sophie Laws in Issues of Blood points out that the way a society deals with menstruation reveals much about how it perceives women (4). Let’s ask, why are condoms untaxed? Simple: the state wishes to keep population growth rates and incidence rates of HIV under check. The male condom, in terms of functionality, helps contain semen – a bodily secretion – ejaculated by the male body. So does the sanitary napkin with respect to menstrual blood, a bodily secretion, but because the spilling over of this blood does not threaten the state with population boom or a pandemic, napkins are considered an item of luxury, in other words, optional.
But this is not to say that the state – as placeholder of a male panopticon – is at ease with female bodily fluids: many of us would remember the furore that broke out in 2015 when Instagram removed the photograph of a young woman sleeping. Rupi Kaur, her face turned away from the camera, a bright spot of menstrual blood visible on her pajamas and on the bed. After protests followed the removal, the photograph was restored (5), but the fact remains that the spontaneous perception of a section of society had been that menstrual blood, if visible, is obscene, shameful, and vulgar. However, it is important to note that blood per se is not obscene; only blood emanating from specific parts of the female body, is. Anthropological literature is replete with observations about menstrual blood and the blood of childbirth considered dirty and polluting across several cultures (6, 7). While Kuntala Lahiri-Dutta (8) points out that there are cultures where menstrual blood is considered the life-force and thus pure, they are more of exceptions than the norm.
In a country where girls are forced to drop out of school upon reaching puberty because less than 10 percent of schools have gender-specific toilets and adequate water (8), taxing the sanitary napkin will have a markedly detrimental effect on schooling rates, even as the same government promotes the girl child and encourages elementary education. In a country where seven percent of rural women use sanitary napkins (8) while others use cloth or absorbent ash, etc., making bangles tax-free and taxing sanitary napkins makes little sense. It is well documented that several rural women, faced with unmet sanitation needs, suffer from reproductive tract and related infections (8). The question of gender intimately overlaps with that of public health.
Invoking the legitimate axis of cultural difference, Lahiri-Dutta points out that all women do not manage menstruation in the same way, adding that not all communities use sanitary napkins; in fact, constant use of napkins impacts women’s health (8). However, against the reality that India shows up, I argue that sanitary napkins should first be made tax-free – actually, heavily subsidised in rural parts – and then, when they are abundantly available at cheap rates, let women decide if they want to use them or not. That will be a different story. But the bottom line for now is that taxing sanitary napkins grossly violates basic health rights, especially those of poor, rural women; it is an irredeemably gender insensitive and anti-public health move. One is certain the government exchequer will thrive without earning off sanitary napkins.
Rakhi Ghoshal (firstname.lastname@example.org), Assistant Professor, School of Law; Auro University, Surat, Gujarat: 394 510 INDIA