Adult women don’t bleed blue, yet advertisers for sanitary napkins and tampons have long preferred using blue liquid to showing blood. Instagram feels squeamish at the sight of period stains too. But Spreading Your Wings, an upcoming comic book on puberty, menstrual hygiene and social norms for girls in rural India, portrays the opposite – periods are finally treated as a beautiful experience to be celebrated, rather than a shameful secret.
Sample a simple metaphor from the book: when you are expecting guests, you make fresh food, put out clean towels and fresh bedding for them. When they don’t arrive, you don’t keep the same food and bedding for someone else coming a month later. Period blood then, is like food and bedding for a baby – if the the baby is not coming this month, your body must prepare afresh for the next one.
The book doesn’t stop there – it also explains the importance of waiting till the right time and age to have a baby. The graphic metaphor here is a boat sailing through a narrow river and crashing against the sides, as opposed to having a smooth ride through a wide river. As you get older, the book explains, your hips will be wide enough to let a baby pass through without difficulty.
The title, Spread Your Wings, references the process of becoming a butterfly. “The transformation can be scary, but it’s also beautiful,” said author and activist Ariana Abadian-Heifetz. “Also just as every butterfly is unique, you cannot compare your body to others. People need to celebrate diversity.” Abadian-Heifetz founded the 100-page book, which will be published in Hindi and English and uses fun illustrations and relatable stories to explain the workings of the female body and how women can take care of themselves.
Born and raised in Boston, Abadian-Heifetz had a personal connection with India thanks to her part-Iranian heritage. “My passions are around gender and equality, and India is an interesting place with its urban-rural and socio-economic divide,” she said. In 2014, she started working with the Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojna and began conducting training workshops with rural women in Uttar Pradesh.
While many girls in UP had already been mobilised into young women’s self-help groups and were gaining financial advice and knowledge, they lacked information about a crucial area – their own bodies. “Besides the basic biology knowledge they got from their textbooks, they didn’t have any understanding of how their bodies worked, and how to keep themselves healthy,” said Abadian-Heifetz. “Interestingly, when you would tell them certain myths were not true, their response was, ‘Of course, we know that’. They wanted to know how they could convey this to their parents and change the social thinking around it.”
It was the writer’s understanding that Indian women in rural areas needed more than just information and resources – they needed the communication tools that could facilitate challenging conversations with their family. The 27-year-old began working on Spreading Your Wings with a team of illustrators, researchers, gynaecologists, editors and translators. “It was essential that we had a gynaecologist on board to ensure everything we conveyed was medically accurate,” she said. “Supplying any misinformation would only further the problem.” When it came to the Hindi translation, it was important that the language be simple, and the terms relevant, yet appropriate so young girls reading the book did not feel turned off by the language.
The illustrations in Spread Your Wings are colourful, clean and attention grabbing, so the information remains the most important factor. Lead illustrator, Delhi-based Pia Alize Hazarika said: “The diagrams were an interesting challenge because they had to strike a balance of being informative and not overly simple, without getting too graphic.”
Nyamat Bindra, the project and research associate, had extensive experience working in the field of sexual and reproductive health and with women in Delhi’s slums. With her team, she conducted research in Delhi, Patna, Bhagalpur, Chandigarh, Haryana and even with students in Pokhara, Nepal. While taboos around menstruation abound, Bindra had to make sure none of their interactions came off as preachy or patronising. “They don’t live in the same circumstances as us so you have to be sensitive to that,” Bindra said. “We wouldn’t force women to buy pads. If they used cloth, we would tell them to use a clean one every time, or how to properly wash and dry biodegradable pads. It’s not enough to tell them to eat well, when they may not have the means to do so. It was giving solutions, like using dal ka pani, or the water lentils are boiled in, to knead the dough for their bread to gain additional nutrition.”
Spreading Your Wings is currently being crowdfunded on Indiegogo and is slated to release in October. While Abadian-Heifetz is working on getting a market price for the book with the publishers, Zubaan Books, she’s also hoping to get permanent funding which will make it available at a subsidised rate, so it can be picked up by NGOs, schools and skill centres. “I hope the book inspires questioning, a feeling of pride in the body and empowerment, not just in taking care of themselves but in being able to freely have conversations with people around them,” she said.