“It was in 2000 when I was working for the Aga Khan Foundation in Uganda that I learnt about how underprivileged girls were missing five days of school every month because of their period. It made me realise that while I had the luxury of a choice of menstrual products and carried on with life as normal during my period, poor girls were using leaves, feathers, mud, and dirty rags and hiding at home. Almost ten years after that, my two sisters and I started an informal campaign, Panties with Purpose. We wanted to raise awareness and also help school girls with menstrual products. Since then, through partnerships with community-based organisations, Panties with Purpose has sponsored health education and skills-training workshops across one hundred and fifty locations in Kenya. We have lobbied for period-friendly schools and workplaces, the distribution of free period products in schools, supported innovation around developing pads using local materials like sisal, as well as the removal of the tampon tax,” tells me Farah Ahamed of her profound initiative. Her work as an activist led her to conceptualise and create the astoundingly relevant book, Period Matters: Menstruation in South Asia, a groundbreaking anthology that “includes essays, poems, stories, interviews and eight different mediums of art, including neo miniature, embroidery, photographs and a dance. It carries perspectives of politicians and policymakers, entrepreneurs, artists, academics, students, nuns, activists, poets, and those living on the margins.”
Could you tell us about the beginning of Panties with Purpose, and the experience so far?
In those days, the phrase ‘period poverty,’ hadn’t been coined, no one used to talk about periods openly, it was a taboo subject covered in shame. We decided to keep our strategy simple: we would ask donors to give us new cotton underpants because we felt that if they had to go out and buy a pair of underpants instead of donating cash, they would be more likely to talk about the issue with their friends. Also, as we were not a registered NGO or a charity, this approach would make it easier for us to manage our operations. Our plan worked. Within less than two months we had friends of friends and even strangers writing to us from Dar-es-Salaam and Kampala, to Mumbai and Sydney, to Hong Kong and Vancouver saying they were moved by the issue and wanted to support us. Schools in Canada, Australia and the UK told us they were engaging their students in menstrual health debates, with one of them even hosting a ‘menstruation awareness’ concert where the entry ticket was a packet of pads or underpants. Friends said they would host birthday parties where instead of gifts people could bring a dozen pairs of underpants. Our target had been to collect 4,000 pairs of underpants, but we ended up receiving over 40,000 pairs from sixty cities. Thanks to a donation from Virgin Atlantic and many friends, the underpants were then transported to Kenya. Later, in a school in Kibera, Google sponsored our first-ever event on International Women’s Day in 2011, which included a menstrual health workshop.
One event which has stayed in my mind is when we did our first distribution at the Langata Prison, in Nairobi. It was a long drawn out process to gain permission to enter the prison, because the authorities had never had a donor who wanted to give pants and sanitary pads. Finally we received approval and taking enough to help 1000 inmates we went along. On the day we had arranged a musical and poetry performance by famous Kenyan artists and gave each inmate four pairs of pants and a packets of pads. The event was going smoothly until I saw the women arguing amongst themselves. I asked the warden what the fiasco was about. She said the women were fighting over the colour of the underpants, many of them wanted black with lace and there weren’t enough of them, and others were saying two packets of pads was too little. They had ‘heavy days’ so what were they supposed to do? The heartbreaking scene of women shouting at each other, over a pair of underpants made me realise that women everywhere were the same, incarcerated in here, or out there in the world, all wanted to feel feminine whether it be in black lace or white cotton. I also began to appreciate that every person had their own unique experience of menstruation.
After that I couldn’t look at my drawer filled with underpants of every colour the same way. And every time I would worry about which pair of underpants to wear to match my dress, I would think of those women squabbling over a pair of black lace pants.
Another incident that has remained in my memory is from a workshop we conducted at a school in Kibera. A young girl shared how she would tie the sleeves of two thick sweaters around her waist when she had her period because she knew her uniform would get stained, and she didn’t have a pad. She didn’t want to miss school, so what choice did she have? She also revealed that when she walked home from school, she often met men who offered to give her money so she could buy pads, but in exchange for a favour. With every story I heard, I knew we had to keep trying to change things. Just as periods are normal, supporting other women and girls through their period began to feel like the most normal thing to do. Even if we could help only a 100 girls every month, we would keep doing it. With ongoing support from friends and regular donors, since then we have been able to help 16,000 girls with more than 55,000 pairs of underpants. I had been travelling around South Asia during 2018 and 2019 and when speaking to people about their menstruation experiences, I found that while many of the issues around menstruation were similar to East Africa, many were culturally specific.
Could you acquaint us with the inception of Period Matters?
In the summer of 2019, I was working on an essay on how menstruation had been portrayed in fiction, by female and male authors and the differences in their approach. It occurred to me that the diversity of menstruation experiences could best be reflected in a book which included both fiction and non-fiction. When I started writing the proposal, in my mind it felt like the book was already fully formed. It felt like an effortless exercise and the ideas just flowed. I became very excited, as I felt the book had come with its own force.
I decided the anthology would move away from the conventional to a deeper and more honest cultivation of stories about menstruation. I asked myself: How could the different perspectives be best presented? Who would be the writers and artists to capture the diversity of representations? The answer lay in complete creative liberty. There would be no brief on genre or format, only an invitation to contributors to share their individual stories in their own way. I wanted to highlight how menstruation stories could be told and interpreted in every genre and art form. To show how it influenced every aspect of life. How it was subjective and affected by context and culture. To illustrate how menstruation is experienced by different people in South Asia.
My decision to focus on South Asia was motivated by two events. The first is when I was stopped and asked if I was menstruating as I was about to enter a Jain temple in India. The second is when I picked up a packet of sanitary pads while shopping at a supermarket in Pakistan and a male shop attendant rushed over and told me to hide them in a brown bag to avoid being humiliated at the checkout counter. I found both incidents disturbing – being questioned about intimate details of my body by a stranger and having my behaviour in a public space controlled because menstruation was associated with shame. I realized once again how much I had taken for granted.
How did you curate the pieces of this anthology?
The book became my lens on the world. You know how it is when you want a new mobile phone, every person you meet, you’re looking at their phone, asking about the special features, the model number and the camera. And before you know it you’re bombarded with images of phones, from adverts. Your obsession follows you. That’s how it became for me. Everywhere I went, whoever I met, the questions at the back of my mind were, what is their experience of menstruation? What was their first encounter like? How is their understanding influenced by their context? How do they feel talking about menstruation? How do they cope with it? What do they use? What constraints do they face? Were there any moments of respite? What creativity and activism did their interpretation of menstruation inspire? What was happening to the plastic in pads? How was it affecting the environment? What about period tracking apps? Who were the users? Sometimes I had the opportunity to ask, other times I just observed.
Through the book I wanted to illustrate there were no barriers in the way we could share stories about menstruation. I made a wish list of the people and the perspectives I wanted and tried to gather as many diverse voices as I could; the fictional account of a young boy Guna, growing up in Pondicherry, interviews with women sweeping the streets of Anarkali at 5am, activist nuns in Bhutan, the trauma of a transman living with dysphoria, and how social media spaces are policed and kept period free. I wanted to hear every story. The more I searched, the more I uncovered. A male artist accused of appropriating women’s bodies for his art, a female artist harvesting her own menstrual blood to paint, a young activist defying a tribal code of honour to hold a menstrual workshop, a transwoman desperate to imitate the period experience, a mountain community where women left home during their period to go and rest in a safe, communal space.
And I kept asking myself, what and where are the stories we don’t usually hear? What about women who are homeless? Or living through natural disasters? What about those living with disabilities or who are care givers? Are there any cultures which celebrate the rite of menstruation? What happened during the days of Partition? How did women cope during the Covid pandemic? How do people who menstruate cope in ‘period unfriendly’ homes or workplaces?
Did the creation of this book come with roadblocks?
I conceptualised the book in 2019. That was the summer before we went into the pandemic. There were many times during the past three years when I thought the book would never see the light of day. Publishers had stopped printing, booksellers stopped stocking them and Amazon decided that they were ‘non essential.’ There was also so much global turmoil and anguish during those two years, it didn’t feel like the right time for the book. I didn’t know when the ‘right’ time would be, but I knew I had to keep my faith in the vision of the book and the publisher’s commitment to it.
Some of the contributors had been an influence in my life prior to the conception of the book. For instance, I had read Shashi Deshpande’s novels many years ago in Nairobi, in the 1980s, which described the rituals of a character during menstruation. That was my first time to come across menstruation in fiction. Very few novelists ever mentioned this aspect of a woman’s life in their work, and I knew from the outset I wanted an essay from her in Period Matters. Others entered the scene further along its progress. From small beginnings, my search for the best contributors gradually reaped rewards and one avenue I pursued led to another.
Many of the artists and writers were working under constraints of culture, financial and health anxieties, bereavement and domestic pressure. And there were other challenges to overcome such as living in remote locations with power outages and no internet. Some perspectives took longer to find because there was no one willing to talk about the transman experience of menstruation, but in the end we found a person brave enough to share his story. There was also the challenge of finding someone who would share stories from Afghanistan. I put out a call, and while many women and one man responded saying they were keen to share, none of them came through. I had almost given up hope, but then I was delighted when I found a contributor through the help of an acquaintance.
There was also the aspect of translation. I had to ensure that as far as possible, while interviewing I had a translator who was sensitive to the cultural context of the subject and the nuances of the vocabulary used. For example, I have a friend who connected me to someone in Dhaka which enabled the book to have a chapter with insights into factory worker’s experiences. But this involved several people helping with interviews, translations to English, transcriptions, and rechecking facts. Each chapter came with its own little journey.
A particular incident which moved me to writing my short story, Hot Mango Chutney Sauce, was the threatening male gaze on the homeless girls I interviewed outside a shrine in Multan. The men were watching us from the side lines and I felt the girls were being pressurised not to reveal anything which could upset the men’s idea of ‘honour.’ I invited the girls to meet me in a quieter place, but they were reluctant. I realised that the girls believed that sharing the intimate details of their bodies and lives with me could have ramifications for them. Women face all kinds of obstacles, even talking about menstruation is difficult.
I had informal conversations with dozens of women, (street vendors, cleaners, sex workers, security officers, tour guides, and others) who after an initial hesitation, when I explained I was writing a book, let down their guard and shared their most personal and intimate stories. At times it was painful having to witness their anguish caused by the reliving of their memories of menstruation. I’m very grateful to them for trusting me, a complete stranger. Every story, in one way or another, has helped shaped the book.
What do you hope the readers take away from this book?
I want to make a mention of the art on the cover of Period Mattters which is a sea of menstrual blood with floating lotuses. The medium is menstrual blood which the artist Lyla FreeChild harvested for years and used to paint. She believed that sharing of her menstrual blood through art would help heal the ruptures which humanity is currently experiencing. When a reader holds Period Matters in their hands, they will know it is a book about menstrual blood, made from menstrual blood. When readers click the QR code in the book and watch Amna Mawaz Khan’s menstrual dance, they will view the power and beauty of the menstrual cycle, as interpreted by a classical dancer. Similarly, each chapter and visual offers a novel insight into menstruation.
Period Matters opens up the conversation around menstruation to make it more inclusive. It provides a glimpse into the way menstruation is viewed by people from different genders, backgrounds, religions, cultures and classes. Alongside the well-known artistic and academic contributors are those who are usually missing from the mainstream discussion. No one book can include every perspective, but Period Matters tries to illustrate the many different aspects of menstruation in South Asia.
Lastly, what are you working on next?
Over the past few months I’ve been editing my novel about friendship and survival, Days Without Sun, set in a sweet shop in the backstreets of Lahore. I’ve also been working on a collection of short stories.
You can read more about the contributors, how the book came together and see more photographs at: www.periodmattersbook.com
Text Nidhi Verma