At the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen last week, musician and activist Kiran Gandhi lit up the room with an impassioned plea to reduce the stigma surrounding women’s periods. “In Senegal, 36 percent of young girls drop out of school every year because it’s not comfortable for them to go to class bleeding,” she said. “In Uganda, many young girls have talked about trying to use dried leaves, plastic bags, reusable materials from mattresses to take care of themselves when they are at school.” Gandhi’s request? That women begin to “shake shit up” and prove that women’s menstrual cycles are natural, necessary, and nothing to be ashamed of.
Gandhi, who performs as a drummer and musician under her moniker Madame Gandhi (and is the former drummer for M.I.A.), became the face of the period cause when she ran the London Marathon in 2015 while bleeding freely. Gandhi spoke with the Cut about the wider implications of her cause, her favorite moments from being in the room with 5,000 advocates for women’s rights, and which issue she plans to take on next.
What were some of your favorite moments from speaking at the Women Deliver conference?
Two women came up to me from PATH, and they said that they wanted to make it clearer in my talk the fact that most women just don’t even have access to the products, not only physically because there are no stores in their rural areas that carry them, but also financially because it’s too expensive. It was interesting because in my mind, sometimes when you give a talk, you’re like, “Oh, I feel like something is clear [and] that came through,” but, for them, they wanted that point stressed more. Then it puts pressure on grant writers [and] development money to make sure that products are made at more affordable rates and that they’re actually distributed in a sustainable way.
It’s been over a year since the London Marathon. Have you seen any concrete and positive results from being so public with free-bleeding?
Absolutely. My intention with free-bleeding at the London Marathon in 2015 was absolutely not to advocate for free-bleeding around the world but instead to say there is so much that we need to unpack when it comes to menstrual stigma. There are so many hugely problematic ramifications of period stigma that I want everyone to talk about it. I want us to confront better ways in rural India, in rural parts of Africa, to get the products they need to feel safe on their period.
The same is true in the Global North. I want to live in a world where a 14-year-old doesn’t feel embarrassed or awkward about having her period, and having to be afraid to go to the nurse’s office to ask for a pad. I want it to be as simple as asking for a tissue if you were to sneeze in the classroom. That’s really the long-term mission. Already in this year there have been so many incredible milestones. The press have been fantastic in covering this issue in a very intelligent and economically driven way, in a very environmentally driven way. I think that’s another milestone: seeing this issue go more mainstream because the press has given it the attention it deserves. Newsweek has put it on the cover; people in England are reducing the tax on tampons. It’s been very amazing actually.
You’re a musician and an activist. How do you decide where and how to spend your time?
The music has been taking up my time more recently because I’ve been spending my time writing lyrics that come from my experience at the marathon; they come from speaking to young women around the world who care about making a difference in gender equality. I would say the two are inextricably linked because I’m writing lyrics that push boundaries and that push others forward. This is a form of activism in its own right. Distributing golden ovary tattoos to men after our shows especially is activism in its own right because it’s asking them to celebrate femininity when men are usually made fun of for when they do.
I know you spoke briefly about this in your talk, but what do you do with the people who say that periods are not high up in our worries as women? That there are bigger issues to tackle?
The issue is that women feel that they can’t participate in the world economy or even in their local economy because they’ve missed grades 7 through 12 in their local school. Period stigma is the beginning of women’s economic disenfranchisement and also marks the beginning of their lack of confidence. If you can’t even feel confident explaining what’s happening to your own body and you feel like things are going to be done to you and make you feel bad, that spills over into other parts of your life, and I think that is really depressing and problematic.
So much of women’s lives are stigmatized. Is there anything else you’d like to see women be up-front about?
I would love to see more women be able to understand their own pleasure and how their own anatomy works when it comes to the sexual reproductive system. I want women to be able to pleasure themselves so that when men come into their lives, they can either teach their male partners how to make sure sex is a very mutual act, and also to not depend on men for pleasure. When you do that, then it becomes the choice of your partner whether or not he or she wants to give you pleasure versus not. Did he feel like it that day, or did he not? I think that’s a huge issue because, especially with pornography, it teaches all of us that sex is defined by the erection and ejaculation of the male penis as opposed to something that is far more mutual. I think we can look at sex as a symbol for gender equality today. If what’s happening in the bedroom is pleasure of one partner at the expense of another, I think then that kind of mentality and attitude spills out into other parts of life: in the office, in the school system, in any kind of environment, really. Those are the other things that I’d like to see women combat, their own understanding of their own sexual pleasure.
What’s next for you? More talks? More-free bleeding? More marathons?
My EP is coming out in the summer; it’s going to be called Voices. I’m heading to London next week with a producer that I enjoy working with. That’s the near future. I think in the long term I want to be writing more. I’ve been writing little ideas for a book about my brand of feminism today. That’s in the pipeline. I want to design a live show that’s super compelling and rich with ideas. And that’s it for now.
This interview has been condensed and edited.