Periods don’t have to be dinner table conversation, just make sanitary pads cheap and accessible
I don’t care if Pakistanis love putting pads in a brown bag. If it increases access it’s a price I’m happy to pay.
Periods. Those five days a month (seven in Ramazan amirite ladies) when women monsterate have been the subject of much debate about cultural and religious attitudes towards women generally. More importantly, they’re the focus of many initiatives seeking to increase the availability of sanitary materials to manage menstruation. I recently read this piece where the author talks about how measures which aim to increase access to such products left her feeling ‘ambivalent’. The real issue according to her is the cultural stigma around periods and how we need to promote a girl’s ‘authentic engagement with her body’. This horoscope advice which could literally mean just about anything intends to encourage girls to see their periods as normal.
Here’s the thing – I don’t entirely agree with all of this. Yes of course we should see periods as normal and most of us do see them as normal – women who don’t get their periods are very aware that this is irregular. What she means is that it should not be seen as something shameful or as something to hide. I’ve seen a few tweets about this on Pakistani twitter too which encourage women to shun that brown bag we get our sanitary pads handed to us in and boldly ask for them rather than pointing and saying ‘yeh please dede yeh yeh nai iss se neeche ji yeh’.
The last time I bought sanitary pads was in a rush. I had a bus to catch and I had just started my period alarmingly on the very day my period tracker told me I would start my period (I mean what are the odds) and had to run into our local superstore in Abbottabad to buy them. I asked the lady behind the till for them (there’s a separate ‘women’s’ section in this store) and as I was about to dash she goes ‘tehriye tehriye!’ and proceeds to agonisingly slowly put them in the brown bag and hand them back to me. Whenever I buy pads in Lahore they’re also put in separate plastic bags – though the bagboys there do seem to love justifying their jobs with arbitrary categorisations I can never keep track of and I always end up leaving the store with 7 items in 6 different bags. But my point is – I don’t care. I don’t care that everyone loves putting a bag on it and keeping it on the down low. If it increases access it’s a price I’m happy to pay. If it makes it easier for a 13 year old to come into a store and buy pads or if it makes it easier for men to buy pads for the women in their lives, it’s worth it.
The main issue is access to pads. That’s why projects which aim to ensure all women have access to hygienic and sanitised material are so important.
The main issue is access to the pads. How do we increase that? By making them available and affordable and by affordable I mean free for the people who aren’t able to afford them and cheap-ish for everyone else. That’s why projects which aim to ensure all women have access to hygienic and sanitised material are so important. Period poverty can have severe impacts on women’s health and education. Girls miss school when they’re on their periods or use dirty rags which are harmful. Many rural women would balk at the price of a pack of Always. The film Padman, starring human sedative Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte and Sonam omg-how-is-she-still-acting Kapoor, really brought this to the fore for me. It highlighted the work of Arunchalam Muruganantham who invented a machine which could make low-cost sanitary pads for women that were far cheaper than commercial pads. The film also focused on the cultural and religious taboos which made it difficult for him to make the machine or work on something related to the issue at all.
I think that’s where I draw the line. If the cultural and religious taboos prevent access to hygienic material that have positive impacts on women’s health then they can go. If they are of another kind which don’t necessarily have a negative effect on our life or health then they can stay. For instance, some religions prevent women from participating in activities when they are on their period. In Islam, women don’t fast or pray on their periods and also don’t touch the Qur’an. Some people take umbrage with this saying it indicates that our religion thinks of women as impure when we’re on our periods. I don’t agree – I just think it sees us as unclean. That sounds like the same thing but given the focus on ritual cleanliness, it makes sense that we wouldn’t be able to engage in religious practices when we’re on our periods – because of that inherent uncleanliness.
The new quest for period positivity doesn’t really acknowledge this – the fact that it’s a bodily function and like all bodily functions it can be kinda gross. There were complaints about the blue ink shown in adverts for sanitary pads because it’s an attempt to sanitise periods but I don’t need to see blood on a pad in an advert to know what it’s like just like I don’t need toilet roll adverts to show what’s actually being cleaned.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that attempts to normalise or remove stigma are wrong but that we should focus on removing this prejudice when it affects the availability of sanitary materials, not by encouraging periods to be a dinner table topic. This might be the iron-deficiency speaking but you can brown bag my pads all you want just make sure you have them and they’re cheap.
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