The Brown Paper Bag

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.

‘Pad Man’ highlights the work of Arunchalam Muruganantham who invented a machine which could make low-cost sanitary pads for women.

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.

  1. While I was reading the article of Ayesha Malik about Periods don’t have to be dinner table conversation, just make sanitary pads cheap and accessible on March 29th 2019 there were many things that crossed my mind. Some issues I could truly relate to, but some arguments did not sit well with me. Here are my two cents.

    Putting sanitary items such as pads in a bag might not seem an issue, however the symbolic value of the act, in my opinion, has an implication. It symbolically criminalize the buyer and intrinsically says something negative about that buyer’s behavior – the person is doing something that should not be seen/ is frowned upon. You should do it secretly because it is shame-full. So yes, it might not be about the bag, but the treatment of the buyer is different from when that person would buy paper towels. As if we as women are doing something illegal like buying whiskey in a Muslim country. Malik implies that hiding items in bags makes it more accessible for a 13 year old to buy a pad, so why should we not? I ask you, if you as a customer are subjected to implicit symbolic violence and have to hide while trying to do the best thing, will this increase the access? You really got me thinking. Perhaps it’s my Western perspective and Pakistani adolescents like the anonymity when buying sanitary pads, but it still strikes me as a little odd.

    I guess it’s even possible that shops are thinking for their customers and don’t want them to be ashamed while buying the sanitary pads. I still ask myself why you should be ashamed of something that’s natural. However, whether you want it or not, it becomes a paradox. While protecting the anonymity and trying to keep the shame away from the potential buyer, by putting the pads in a brown bag, you are actually doing the opposite. You are putting the focus on this ‘criminal’ brown bag; you see this with drinking liquor in public space for example. Also by thinking ahead for your female customers, you are making it look like they cant think and speak up for themselves. Maybe you should leave it up to the buyer instead of limiting their agency? After-all the customer is King, right?

    Malik also states that some people believe that the Quran mentions that women can not pray, fast or even touch the Quran during their periods. As sceptic as I am, I would love to see the source of that. It sounds a little patriarchal, doesn’t it? Perhaps we should see these verses more in a geographic and historic context. If we imagine that people approximately 1400 years ago were not able to access running water and ensure good hygiene by keeping themselves properly clean, these rules made more sense perhaps. But that is not the discussion I want to go in. Additionally, while you feel that women are not impure, you then end your sentence with that women in their period are unclean. You state yourself, it sounds the same, and after reading that paragraph for me the implications still are the same. Because again, women here are being scapegoated. Men and women both go to the bathroom to pee or take a dump (I like the word shit better). After these natural acts, both genders wash their hands, right? I mean technically it is almost the same thing? You call it a bodily function. There are fluids and other stuff coming out of your body. Do we also put toiletpaper in a brown bag and buy it in secret (since you draw a similar comparison)?

    You state that period and sanitary pads should not be a dinner table topic. However, how do you accept it to become normal if it’s not normal to talk about it? I come from a family where quickly after dinner the fart jokes were brought to the dinner table! I mean I understand that you don’t feel comfortable talking about your periods with your dad or cousin during dinner, but I experience that female friends amongst each-other are very happy to talk about their period and they do not shy away from it either. Maybe a middle-ground can be found; you don’t talk about your period with your dad, but why not talk ABOUT it while your dad is in the same room/ table? It seems it’s a topic that empowers their women-hood. It makes us women!

    What makes me truly sick is how women are treated when they have their period; a frame is set in which women on their period as depicted as sick. Straight away it has implications for movement and practice their daily lives. And not to forget their public life. I mean I understand some girls like to have a little break from their monthly routine, however why do we call them sick? It should actually be the contrary; women are very healthy if they get their period. Biologically speaking they would be sick if their period would not be there, after a certain age. Of course every woman is different but by making them in to a victim that somehow they fell ill and are not able to participate in their social and religious obligations. I agree here with Malik, that some cultural and religious taboos should go if they negatively impact women’s health. I would go a little further by claiming that a taboo in itself is negative so we should get ride of them all.

    I would ask myself: Would we also expect that from female pilots that are flying a PIA plane? I mean, picture yourself sitting in a plane and the female pilot finds out she has a period. Or when you are being operated by a doctor that has her period, would we expect that she does not operate us any more? Would you rather have that cancer in your brain than being touched by an ‘impure’ menstruating doctor? Or eat your mother’s food when she has hers? I think in the 21st century we can conclude that most people can continue their daily routines, and thus religious obligations, because we most people have running water and soap.

    To to sum up. I like Malik’s article and I think it’s important that we are talking about this topic. There are parts in her article I agree with. However, I do think a period should be dinner table conversation. As uncomfortable as it may seem. Because only then sanitary pads can be truly accessible for our Pakistani women and girls, without a sense of shame, with or without a brown bag.

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