Taxing Women

GST classification of sanitary pads as a ‘luxury’ item shows tax regime’s male gaze.

Written by Tara Narula | Updated: June 19, 2017 12:41 am
Indirect taxation regimes rely on distinctions between “essential” goods and “luxuries”. Aids to menstrual hygiene must be classified as essential. This levy speaks to a disturbing lack of perspective in decision-making and the sad absence of feminist thought in the mainstream.

The imposition of 12 per cent tax on sanitary napkins under the new GST regime has come under criticism, as it is, in fact, a tax on periods, rather than pads. The tax on sanitary napkins applies only to persons experiencing menstruation. It is estimated that 355 million Indians are post-pubescent and pre-menopausal “females”. A privileged minority (12-20 per cent) amongst them has access to pads. The rest rely on cloth, synthetic materials, sand, ash, even cow dung cakes to see them through their periods.

One in four girls drop out of school when they start menstruating — girls miss as much as 20 per cent of the school year due to menstruation. It ought to be obvious that pads, an aid to menstrual hygiene, cannot fall within “luxury goods”, and should be exempt from taxes, in principle and practicality.

My protest against the imposition of GST on pads is less about the increase in their cost than the need for a taxation regime to be self-reflexive as regards the blind promotion of gender norms. Indirect taxation regimes rely on distinctions between “essential” goods and “luxuries”. Aids to menstrual hygiene must be classified as essential. This levy speaks to a disturbing lack of perspective in decision-making and the sad absence of feminist thought in the mainstream.

In considering whether the taxing of pads is constitutional at all, Gautam Bhatia (lawyer and author of the blog “Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy”) writes that “taxation gives the State a powerful weapon to mould behaviour” and taxation regimes must be tested against constitutional norms.

Taxation, therefore, can be tested on the cornerstone of laws and policy relating to discrimination — the imposition of GST on pads is incompatible with Article 15(1) of the Constitution as it is per se discriminatory against women. Schools, workplaces and other public spaces are not built to accommodate the menstruating body; a tax on pads feeds into this systemic disadvantage.

In their appraisal of goods and services, the powers that be seem to have premised their assessment of need on an idea of womanhood, rather than the corporeality of females. The statement made by the state in exempting kumkum, sindoor, bindis, alta and bangles is to paint a picture of the ideal Indian woman as visibly married and Hindu.

It would appear that the GST Council has succesfully imported a technique from visual arts and introduced the “male gaze” into the taxation regime. The GST Council has focused on the crimson-stained parting of a married Hindu woman, the dot on her forehead, the bangles adorning her wrist.

The reality of a menstruating body is decidedly un-sexy, un-holy and uninteresting in this heterosexual male fantasy of the ideal Indian woman.

There are arguments against the exemption of sanitary napkins — that the product is not indigenous to India (neither is penicillin), not comfortable, not sustainable. Reusable cotton rags could be hygienic and cost-effective. Whether pads are indigenous or not is no reason to deny them to Indian women, since, lacking alternatives, access to pads can be directly linked to access to healthcare.

If the GST Council had exempted cotton cloth for women whilst taxing sanitary napkins, the sustainability argument may have been compelling. If cotton rags could be cleaned properly, they may be an alternative. Yet, it is not for the environment that pads may carry a12 per cent levy, but out of a gender normative assessment of propriety and necessity.

The levy of GST on sanitary napkins tells us that there can be no presumptions as to the recognition of equality of persons, disadvantage, and the importance of women’s work in this country.

The writer, 29, is a lawyer practising in Delhi.

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