I conducted a workshop which looked at how menstruation is depicted in different forms of art at a university in Lahore. It attracted over 40 participants who engaged in the images and clips I shared, and also made art of their own.
I spoke about the diversity of menstruation experiences and the importance of inclusivity to ensure all menstruators were part of the conversation.
While the workshop went very well and one person even went back to his organisation and committed to spending the CSR budget on making his workplace period friendly there was also a huge backlash.
Initially there were calls for the workshop to be cancelled and postponed because I was promoting immorality and so called ‘western’ liberal ideas. But, after some debate, it went ahead.
After the workshop the heat came from two quarters, and included both men and women.
The first was against the poster which they said was indecent, and vulgar. They said it was an affront to their culture, values and norms. The poster suddenly appeared on extremist blogs, and everyone was condemning it. I love the poster and the Indian queer artist, Rah Naqvi’s superb work. On campus, the poster was banned and taken down from social media. It was an attempt to erase the event from the memory of the school, officially, and ‘mitigate’ the so called damage I caused to the university’s reputation.
The second group of people claimed that by promoting inclusivity I was advocating for LGBTQ rights, which they believe is criminal. I did speak about LGBTQ, and argued that all experiences are legitimate and should be acknowledged and respected.
The aim of the workshop was to widen the conversation and normalise periods. It wanted to show how menstruation has been portrayed in film, advertising, art, sculpture and so on, and provoke a debate on the messages being conveyed. I highlighted the trans experiences, those living with disabilities, those who are homeless and incarcerated. I wanted to show, how we can and should be more open to our ways of understanding this ancient, natural, biological phenomena.
It was never my intention to offend anyone. I don’t think anything about periods is shameful, dirty or impure. I don’t think any person’s experience is less important than another’s.
But I received hate messages on social media calling me all kinds of names, telling me to go back to my country and accusing me of corrupting the values of young people, even being the she-devil! None of this bothers me.
What has shocked me is the lack of humanity and compassion at the heart of this society. Those shouting and scolding me have no imagination, and fear anyone who is not like them. They are frightened of a menstrual blood, a tampon, a pad. They are afraid of women’s power. They feel insecure when they see a poster or listen to a conversation that broadens their mind. To them it means they might to lose control. So they hit back, as fast and as hard as they can.
I learnt alot from this experience. I am not the same person I was two weeks ago. I understand what it means to speak about a ‘taboo’ subject. I know what it feels like to be shunned and punished. My stall at an exhibition where I was promoting local artisans was cancelled. I found my name on various fundamentalist right wing blogs-those of bearded men, the men of my nightmares. Some people have stopped speaking to me. I am very self- conscious when I am walking around now. I don’t feel safe and think I am always being watched, and judged.
I now know, not all women want the same thing. Some prefer to perpetuate the stigma and myths and shame around menstruation. They live in the shadow and under the umbrella of patriarchy, so to keep their position secure, and their men supporting them, they have to silence women who live and move in the world, in a different way from them. They don’t want things to evolve.
Some people said to me, and it was well meaning, I know. ‘We aren’t ready for this poster yet,’ ‘the time hasn’t come for this conversation yet.’ These phrases were prefaced by, ‘of course, your work is important.’ These were attempts at a type of consolation and also to warn be to take care about my security.
I am not sure what I think about this. Who decides when the time is right? Who gets to determine what is appropriate? When will we stop abusing basic human rights? A cliche yes, but if not now, then when? And it was not my objective to expose anything, the Period Matters triggered something that was already there.
I hope something good comes out of all of this. I hope the homophobia, and mysogny which is at the heart of this extremely patriarchal society will change oneday.
Maybe, this too, is part of the magical work of Period Matters. To unsettle, to provoke, to help transform for the better.