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Human rights lawyer and writer Farah Ahamed’s book, Period Matters: Menstruation in South Asia, was published by Pan Macmillan last year. Farah’s essays and short fiction have been published in anthologies and journals, including The White Review, The LA Review, The Massachusetts Review and The Mechanics’ Institute Review, among others. In 2022, her short stories were shortlisted for the Commonwealth and Bridport Prizes. She was selected as one of the Financial Times most influential women of 2022 for having overcome barriers, set examples, and shone a light on some of the most urgent issues of our time. Kenyan-Asian Farah and her sisters have been involved in raising awareness about menstruation and increasing access to menstrual products in Kenya for more than a decade. Their charity is called Panties With Purpose.
JBR: Let’s start at the very beginning. Would you like to describe your book, Period Matters?
FA: My interest in period poverty goes back to more than a decade ago. But I first came across the problem that young girls were facing more than twenty years ago, when I was working in Uganda at the Aga Khan Foundation and I came across an article in the newspaper that talked about how school girls were missing classes and exams because of their period. I was shocked to realise this. And it made me wonder how much I’d taken for granted. But it took ten years after that for my sisters and I to actually sit down and put together the idea of Panties With Purpose, which is a campaign to raise awareness and provide access to menstrual products to girls in school.
It was when I was travelling through South Asia in 2018 that I began to see that there were many commonalities and many differences in the experiences of young girls in East Africa and young women in South Asia. And it made me wonder at the universality of the experience and also how very subjective it was. And I thought it would be interesting to compile an anthology which would capture the diversity of these experiences. So I started thinking. Who would be the best people to tell me these stories? How would they like to tell it? And it struck me that the best way to do this would be to put at the centre of the storytelling the menstruator and then give them complete creative liberty to tell the story in whichever way they pleased.
So, I gave no brief to my contributors. I simply said please share your menstruation experience or telling us about what area you’re working with, and tell your story in your own way; and ir doesn’t matter whether r you want to paint or write a poem or write an essay, or if you’d like me to do an interview. That’s all I said to them.
And I decided that the book should have famous names like Anish Kapoor, Shashi Tharoor, Rupi Kaur and others. But I also wanted to have the stories of those women or menstruators who are at the margins and who are not part of the mainstream discussion on menstruation. Women who are incarcerated, and those who are homeless. The trans experiences, and people living with disabilities. I wanted their stories to be captured. So that’s how I went about compiling this anthology.
It’s a very interesting and diverse range of contributions that you touch upon from very personal and as you point out, subjective experiences to policymakers, to the legal side, digital side. This is actually a very niche area that you are engaging with. How were your requests for the contributions received? Because you were actually doing it with an aim to publish ultimately, so how were your requests received?
Your question is very interesting because I never thought I was writing about a niche area. I feel that menstruation is so normal and such an everyday occurrence and a natural phenomenon. So, when I approached my contributors, I didn’t have this idea in my mind that I was asking for something unusual, strangely enough.
When I approached them, it was a very matter of fact request. Andsurprisingly not a single person said no. I think I had two people who turned me down, but that was because they were committed to other projects. But every single person became excited and said yes, immediately. And the fact that they had creative liberty, I think, excited them even more.
So, for instance, Shashi Tharoor gave me his essay in five days, Alnoor Bhimani responded right away. Anish Kapoor said I could have his images and didn’t charge me. Rupi Kaur responded straight away. These were all the big names. Tstories that I had most difficulty in getting were the trans experiences. There is so much stigma around their bodies and their lifestyles, and so they were very hesitant to share their stories. But after I guaranteed their anonymity, they were fine.
It is very interesting, Farah, that you have so many voices and the fact that you gave everyone a secure platform. But I will continue to marvel at your ability to invite contributions for publication. Because one of the things which comes out over and over again through the various chapters is the fact that any topic or the practice around menstruation remains a taboo. So what did you learn from this exercise of putting together this anthology? In terms of the menstrual practices and taboos, and also about human behaviour and sensibility towards menstruation.
The whole process of compiling the anthology has been a life-changing experience. I’ve learnt so much and I’ve made the most incredible friends through this journey. Of course, when I was thinking about the anthology, as you mentioned, I was looking at all the different spheres in which menstruation is either experienced or imagined. So, from digitization to entrepreneurial initiatives for instance Jaydeep Mandal’s work with Aakar Innovations to Menstrupedia’s comic books, to how language affects our interpretation of the experience. So for instance, I was thinking about the words we use to describe menstruation, and why certain words missing from our languages which describe menstruation. – And as you pointed out – indicate the shame and stigma around the experience, to constraints in terms of foods that we can or we can’t eat, to restrictions on freedom and movement, to how we are inculcated into practices, how religion influences it, how myths also permeate our understandings of it.
Also, I learnt how there’s a hesitation to pass on information, so in some areas women will not tell their daughters about the experience. I was also intrigued to find that, for instance, in Uttar Pradesh, there is research to show that 88% of men didn’t know about menstruation until they got married. In Balochistan, girls as young as ten years old are married off as soon as they get their period. So, the great variety of the different types of menstruation experiences was mind boggling. And it made me realise that essentially, there’s no right or wrong way to have this experience and no culture is better or worse than any other. So, every experience should be validated and respected.
Which brings me to this understanding of dignified menstruation, which means having access to a choice of menstrual products, whether they be reusable pads or tampons or a menstrual cup. And all women should be educated about these options and have access to a choice of menstrual products. And they should also have the right to have an experience which is free from shame and taboo.
And related to that, there should be agency. A choice whether to participate or to stay away from certain activities. And freedom to have an experience which is not shrouded in dirt and shame.
For instance, I was really intrigued when I had the opportunity to visit a Bashali, , which is a maternity home in Chitral, in Northern Pakistan. And this is a place where women go for 5 days to rest during their period. This is a space that is curated by them. And they go there and this is their time away from their families to rest. In the Bashali, they tell stories, they share their experiences, they gossip. And they make art, they sing songs. And this is a chance for them to bond, and establish some sort of female solidarity around the period experience. And I marvelled at how forward thinking this was compared to some other places where women are asked to stay away from every type of type of engagement in life because they’re considered unwell or dirty.
This is the opposite. Here, women are put away because they’re expected to rest. Sorry, asked to go away. Actually, women choose to go away and rest, while in other places women are asked to go away because they’re dirty. The great contrast was really interesting for me.
I’ve also realised that there’s an opportunity for the menstruation conversation to be engaged with on many different platforms. . Whether you look at art, television, advertising, films or different mediums of art. From embroidery to acrylics to graffiti to wall murals — there’s so many opportunities, so many strategies which are available for people to engage with this experience, to try and come to terms with it, to understand what it means to themselves and to others around them. And I think this is critical in helping us get to a point where we can be more imaginative and compassionate about menstruators. And I hope the book will be able to do that.
Farah, I think the very fact that your book exists and it exists in the blood red colour on the book cover design with a detail from one of your paintings, the fact that it is a tangible product where every single contribution speaks about menstruation. I think that is a huge step that you have taken to dignify this taboo subject to talk in public about something which is universally regarded as taboo. You’re a very strong woman. You’re extremely strong and for that, I think all of us should be grateful because you have done something which many have found very difficult. There have been many attempts in the past. Let me give you two examples. One is that there used to be a feminist press called Kali for Women in India. It was the first feminist press in Asia, and it did a book in Hindi and English called Shareer Ki Jankari and it had these flaps, where you could look at different parts of the body. And it talked about the menstrual cycle. It was not available in mainstream places in trade markets or anywhere else, and this was published in the late ’80s and it was republished I remember in the early part of this century because I worked on that book production. And large quantities of it used to be sold in rural areas. There was a demand, but it wasn’t given the visibility for whoever were the gatekeepers. Secondly, we had a campaign here, I think again about 20-25 years ago, by a very well-known Ayurvedic firm called Dabur. They have a product called Pudin Hara Pearls. Pudin hara being an extract from the mint leaves which we use for digestive ailments. We use it for indigestion, etc. They discovered in their laboratories that it was effective for period pains; they ran a campaign. It all crumbled and now no one knows that this Pudin Hara Pearl is so effective because women ‘s health and sexual health and their matters and their rest are still considered taboo. So, my question to you is that when you talk about dignity, when you talk about all these taboos, etc, that you have learned, and when there are these little attempts to balance it, who actually carries these memories of traditions and practices? Who does it?
Thank you for that question. I mean, you are right, many women, in fact, many others having been making efforts to normalise the experience or to give it its place in a woman ‘s life for many years. I mean, I’m thinking of Ismat Chughtai and her writing about a taboo subject in her short story Lihaaf. And also the poetry of Fehmida Riaz. And I’m also thinking of Shashi Deshpande writing about menstruation in her fiction and also about marital rape, when it wasn’t even known as that decades ago. These are just attempts by women through literature and poetry to capture what lies at the heart of a woman ‘s identity. And of course, these texts were banned or shunned or never reached the mainstream as such.
As far as advertising products goes, I think there is still a lot of resistance from patriarchal institutions to give airtime to these matters, so I know that in some places advertising menstrual products is not allowed at supper time because this is family time, because periods are seen as something strange and frightening, , dirty, shameful, and inappropriate for an open discussion.
Even look at the way packaging is done of menstrual products; look at the way pads are packaged. The labelling is always in pink, suggesting it is girly andweak. We even call them ‘menstrual hygiene products,’ which suggests that you need to use this product to have a hygienic experience because the in built cultural assumption made by corporates is that menstruation is a dirty experience. So they tell us, this is why you need this hygiene product. So that is how corporates using certain language conditions us to thinking that what’s happening to our bodies is impure or dirty or shameful.
What I am trying to explain is how these are some of the ways in which myths and stories are perpetuated and enter into culture and condition us.
Now, who gets to tell those stories and who gets to reclaim them? We do, us all of us, menstruators and people who support menstruators. Which means everybody, because nobody would be here if their mother hadn’t menstruated. And I think as you mentioned earlier, the cover of the book is a striking art detail made from menstrual blood, which the artist Lyla FreeChild harvested. And in the river of blood she has the lotus symbol floating there which she reclaims as a symbol of purity and her connection with the Earth.
I remember when the book came out, there were people writing to me saying ‘this is disgusting, thanks for the trigger alert.’ There’s no way I’m holding this book in my hands’. I was shocked to see so much resistance. Because the book cover is not made of real period blood. I mean it’s a visual, an art work made from menstrual blood. But there’s so much mental resistance to normalising periods. I think in some strange way people are afraid of menstrual blood. They are afraid of its power. They are afraid of the fertility that it offers. You know, I’m thinking about this all the time. What is it that people are afraid of? What is it that makes them nervous? Why do they want to control and monitor this area of our bodies so much? Whether it’s through digital tracking apps or putting women away, or segregating them? What is it about the menstruation experience that makes us feel so squeamish and uneasy? Is it a lack of control? Is that we are afraid that if the menstruator’s realise their power we will lose the so called societal stability that we have?
Recently I conducted a workshop in Lahore on period art. And the poster for that workshop had images of art work made by one of the top artists coming out of India, Rah Naqvi. She was in Forbes Young Top 30 under 30 just last month. And the poster had her artwork which included embroidery work on a pad, tampon and a pair of underpants. And people in Lahore went mad. Certain people in Lahore, those conservative elements, said this is unacceptable, This is corrupt. This is disgusting. This is wrong. You can’t have these kind of posters showing such things.
In my mind, I think why not? What is it about the idea of blood on a pad, or a tampon that makes you go crazy? What is it? Surely, it’s not just religion and culture. It is something much more personal which goes to the core of the person reacting. Because it is a visceral reaction, and it tells us something about them.
I think it is an identity issue. I think that unless we change the conversation in our homes and in our classrooms and in our workplaces to normalise it and say this is who we are, periods are part of our identity as human beings — all of us are here because somebody menstruated — I don’t see how we’re going. to have a bigger change take place.
This is part two of a conversation with human rights lawyer and writer Farah Ahamed. In part one, Farah had discussed how her book Period Matters came about, the diverse contributions, and taboos around menstruation. How women writers tried capturing it in their literature and poetry and how also compiling this anthology has been a life-changing event for her. We pick up where we left off with Farah Ahamed speaking about the silences created in social spaces by talking about menstruation, even though they know when a girl or a woman is menstruating and the need for normalising this biological function.
I’m glad you brought in your recent experience and I’m sorry in some ways for having this conversation because it is brutal what you have to experience at times. But on the other hand, being the activist that you are, this is extremely important that it is precisely these moments of heartache and worry and violence that you talk more about it and you sensitise. That’s why I think you’re a very brave woman as well. And this comes out over and over again, Farah, in the contributions in the book, including your essays and the other contributors. There’s a phrase which comes like a refrain. ‘They all know, full stop’. They all know. It’s chilling because if the UNICEF report of 2019 is to be believed, the world at any given moment has at least 1.8 billion menstruating women, and every day the number rises when the young girls are added. So why this backlash? Why this persisting silence to recognise menstruators?
Why people want to keep the silence and the shame around that experienceI think varies from individual to individual, from culture to culture. I think it would be difficult to give a general answer to that question. But I think what you raised earlier about the brave women in the book is one answer to that silence.
So, for instance, Amna Mawaz Khan interpreted her menstruation experience through dance form. She uses dance as a type of resistance. So she’s not speaking but just moving the fact that she’s not speaking and just moving and showing through her gestures, how she resists patriarchy and oppression, and how she embraces her femininity is a powerful, strong statement about the ways we can speak back. And in fact this is the first time a book in India has a QR code for a dance. And I have thank Pan Macmillan for being so open minded and futuristic and being so supportive of this project because without them this book would not have come to fruition.
Another brave woman in the book is Granaz Baloch. She conducted the first ever menstrual health workshop in Balochistan and she received death threats for carrying it out. Balochistan is a very conservative, tribal area. But she was brave enough and had the courage to conduct a workshop with young women who then became so empowered through their writing and poetry and the artwork that they made, that they said that they would go back and conduct similar workshops in their villages. So that chapter in the book is called, ‘Starting a menstrual revolution.’
And there are other examples of people doing interesting work. In Jharkhand, Srilekha Chakraborti managed to get the community’s youth together and they painted a mural on a wall near a well and near the post office, where everyone could see this image of a young woman sailing on a pad and another of a woman in the shape of a tree bleeding. So, these are answers to that silence. This is us saying no, we won’t be silenced. . We will paint, we will dance, we will write, we will sing. We will express our identity and our creativity in the ways that we wish. We won’t be silenced.
But you know that silencing can come from many quarters. It can come from someone as close as your parents in your home. And there are gentler ways of speaking back to that silence. It doesn’t have to be violence, which is what we see around the world. There are many ways of speaking back. I mean, it could be through environmental protection entrepreneurial activities like Jaydeep Mandal does through Aakar’s biocompostable pads. This is another way of breaking that taboo around the subject.
I mean if you look at the women in Iran, and the revolution that they have started, they are using their hair, using henna, using their menstrual blood. And they are not just saying listen to us, we won’t be silenced because of our bodies, but they are also they’re also expressing their solidarity with other women’s movements around the world.
Jaya, you talked about 1.8 billion menstruators? Yes, we are all the same, millions of us. We’re all part of that revolution. We all have our own ways of speaking back to that silence, to being silenced. To that oppression. And so I think it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to resist in small ways.
I mean, I don’t see myself as a brave woman. Actually, I don’t see myself as courageous. I just see myself as an ordinary person trying to do something in my own way. And then you know you leave it to the world to make of what it will. You just do what you can and leave it at that. What else can you do?
And those efforts you mentioned earlier on by Dabur and Kali I think are important because even though they came to nothing, we’re building on their efforts. They put a brick in the wall, and we are building on their efforts. And others coming after us will continue to put their blocks.
Earlier on, you also mentioned your daughter had started a campaign around breaking the silence at her school and that is so inspiring to hear because it means that young people are being mobilised and they are our hope and they are our e future. So yes , I think that this is something that all of us have a role to play in. Both men and women, and every other gender. All of us have a role to speak back to that silence.
It is important for all of us, and in fact there are two quick questions. I will put them together because you talked about the pushbacks in little ways. So the whole recognition of period leave in the workplace and to be able to talk publicly about sanitary pads or cups. What does it mean in terms of gender parity? Or don’t you think it’s just a basic human right?
I think that the right to have a dignified menstruation experience, one that is free from stigma and shame, is a basic human right. And I think the right to access a choice of menstrual products is also a basic human right. So those two things I think are non-negotiable.
Now, the issue of period leave is debatable. For some, they feel that it is medicalising the experience, others feel that it will lead to more discrimination. I think that it should be an option for women to have period leave and it should be made available. And I think it should be part of HR policies. I think that menstrual products should be made available in workplaces free of charge because #justlike toiletpaper. Menstruation is a normal, bodily experience. Toilet paper is freely available, so why do we discriminate between toilet paper and a pad? Both should be free and available, and we are working towards that.
I think that period leave is necessary because women have a variety of different experiences around menstruation, and for some it’s an extremely difficult time and one of discomfort. And so, if they need to be supported during those days, it is only right that they should be. And I think that it’s only right that there should be a space in an office block or in a building where women can go and rest, and have access to a first-aid kit and have a place where they can have a fan on, if they are having a hot flush during menopause.
Menopause leave is another issue. Menopause is still not being discussed enough. There is invisibility and shame around the menopause experience and seeing the older woman as the crone and not being relevant anymore because she’s not young, attractive and fertile. So that is another whole area related to menstruation which still needs so much work.
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, co-founder, Ace Literary Consulting and Associate Professor, School of Modern Media Studies, UPES University, has been associated with the publishing industry since the early 1990s.
Audio production: Anil Chauhan