Aasha Khosa/New Delhi
Irfana Zargar, also known as the Padwoman of Kashmir for her pioneer effort at spreading awareness about menstrual health and hygiene in Kashmir, says she continues to battle the taboo and rigid attitudes of people on this crucial health issue concerning women.
‘Irfana Didi’, as the 31-year-old woman is called by her beneficiaries, says after creating a supply chain for the distribution of sanitary pads to some 500 needy women in Srinagar each month, her focus is on making men understand why they need to take care of their women during those 5 days of the month.
“I see men building big houses everywhere in Kashmir. They spend lakhs on giving marble floor to their houses but they cannot spend Rs 40 to buy a packet of sanitary pad for the women in their life,” says this young Kashmiri woman who hails from Srinagar downtown.
Irfana fixing a sanitary kit in a public toilet in Srinagar, Kashmir
“I tell people at my awareness camps that women are not machines to do all the chores, take care of the family, and produce children; they suffer from mood swings, depression, abdominal cramps, bloating, and pain before and during their periods. They deserve to be pampered and taken care of by their men.”
Speaking with Awaz-the Voice over the phone from her Srinagar home, Irfana said she is unable to expand her campaign as no outside support is coming her way. She uses part of her salary and occasionally uses social media to ensure the supply of disposable sanitary pads to women, who cannot afford to buy the same.
Irfana discovered how women continue to suffer from serious health issues due to the lack of hygiene observed during their periods and this remains a dark secret with her, for lack of awareness.
An emotional moment for Irfana Zargar during her campaign
She says during her nin-year campaign, she came to know of many women who suffer from vaginal and uterus infections, and PCOD (Polycystic ovarian disease) due to their unhygienic ways of managing their periods. “I have seen women getting divorced and their reproductive tract infections causing marital discords,” Ifrana says.
During her occasional travels to far-flung areas of Kashmir, she observed that people there have no sense and awareness about menstrual health and have poor hygiene during those days.
Irfana’s determination to pursue her cause can be gauged from the fact that she walked miles in Srinagar city during the Covid-induced lockdown to help women who had no access to sanitary pads. Before that, she had been regularly stocking some 19 women’s toilets in Srinagar with sanitary pads for women who get caught unawares and start bleeding middle of the day.
Irfana Zatgar uses boat to distribute sanitary pads inside the Dal Lake localities
During the lockdown, she received distress calls from women and even men for sanitary towels. She made sure to help each caller by walking down to their place and delivering the same as there was no means of transportation available.
Irfana has dedicated her mission to her father, who passed away at a younger age. She lived with her mother in Nowshehra, a Srinagar downtown area
Her pioneer work won her several awards and accolades. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Minister Smriti Irani, and actor Raveena Tandon mentioned Irfana’s work in their social media posts.
She uses part of her salary that she gets for her job at the office of Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC), where she handles the helpline meant for the public to register their grievances.
Irfana Zargar at work to spread awareness about menstrual hygiene
“I tried to contact several offices and private companies for sponsoring my helping me so that I can help more people and expand my mission but, so far, nothing has come my way.”
Irfana thinks that despite working voluntarily for nine years, she finds public toilets across Kashmiri unclean and none have the provision for stocking sanitary pads.
“Forget about any other place, in Srinagar which is being transformed into a smart city, toilets inside public offices remain unclean and have no provision for maintenance. Also not a single toilet in offices of the city has provisions for sanitary pad dispensers.”
She recently visited Sheikh Noorudin Noorani’s shrine at Chrara-e-Sharif in central Kashmir and found the toilets in very bad shape, unclear, and unhygienic, especially for women who can easily contract Urinary track and other infections through the use of dirty toilet seats.
“A shrine of a mosque is a sacred place and maintaining its sanctity and cleanliness is so important. I felt pained. The same is the condition of most other shrines and mosques in Kashmir,” Ifrana said.
She held an awareness camp for men and women at Chrar-e-sharif and distributed sanitary napkin kits to both men and women. “An elderly lady came to me and asked me why I was speaking about a subject that is a shame.”
“I explained to her the biological phenomenon and told her that it’s nothing wrong or to be ashamed of talking about. I explained to her that this biological process in a woman’s body was Allah’s blessing. Also, she must understand it’s happening to her daughters, daughter-in-law, and granddaughters, her loved ones, and therefore taking care of these women is her responsibility as well.”
“Thereafter the elderly woman became thoughtful and blessed me. She took away a couple of packets of sanitary napkins that I was offering free of cost for use to all,” Irfana said.
Irfana Zargar with a Kashmiri woman
After attending her job at SMC, Irfana takes a bus to travel to different parts of the city for the distribution of sanitary napkins to identified beneficiaries. “Through experience, I have earmarked some areas of the city where people with meager resources live in large numbers.”
However, Irfana has realized a good change - men no longer run away from attending the awareness camps that she arranges under the guise of impromptu ‘gupshup meetings.
“At Chrar-e-sharif, when I spoke to men, they didn’t run away and told me they would take care of their women at home during those five days of the month.”
She feels she is working in the name of Allah and it’s ”sabab” (good deed) in the eyes of Allah.
Irfana Zargar involves men into her campaign
“I am not able to send my mother to Hajj but I think this work is also being done in the way of God.”
She said once she was live on Facebook on the "donate one pad" campaign, and she was getting a good response when someone showed it to her mother at her home. "I was so happy to receive a call from her in the middle of the live show and to know that she was proud of me added to my enthusiasm.”
Due to her exposure to Kashmiri women, she is more aware of the turmoil in their lives. Irfana says that drug abuse among the youth, including women, and domestic violence in Kashmir, are emerging as the new dark secrets of society. "The situation is highly explosive," she says.
“The scourge of extramarital affairs and drugs is running the lives of Kashmiris and yet nobody talks about it,” she said.