Period. End of Sentence: How can we challenge White Supremacy and Saviourism in Menstrual Activism.
The documentary screening of Period. End of Sentence took place on the 23rd January 2021 at 5 PM. The essence of the discussion was to challenge the narrative of White Supremacy and Saviourism observed in the Menstrual Activism space. This event saw an attendance of fifteen people from across the world.
This Academy-winning short, directed by Rayka Zahtabchi, revolves around a group of women in Hapur, India, who learn how to operate a machine that makes low-cost, biodegradable menstrual pads, which are then sold to other local women at affordable prices.
The discussion post-screening was insightful, and some of the questions elicited responses that left us with more questions. Read on to know more -
1. What are there scenes or instances that have made you uncomfortable?
Some examples of scenes that were uncomfortable to watch included- a dog walking away with a sanitary napkin and the screening itself, which some of the participants said felt like an advertisement for disposable products.
One scene that was heart-wrenching was when the cameraman walked into a classroom, and the girls were asked if they could explain menstruation. The two girls who were publicly called upon to answer were nearly in tears, trying to explain what they knew through the embarrassment. In an interview, the director Rayka, with regard to the scene, has said, “ In real life, we got about three minutes of footage of her where it seemed like she was going to faint. It was so hard to watch and realize that the shame was so painful. In the edit, part of you wants to indulge in the drama of it and continue that shot for as long as you can…..” (Roy N (2019)
Would the west feel the same if someone barged into their children's classrooms, held a camera to their faces while they felt embarrassed and scared? There would definitely be a hue and cry. So why is it acceptable to do so here? Especially with the knowledge of stigma and shame that already exist about Menstruation?
It is interesting that they chose to keep such scenes. In this regard too, the film failed to be a very feminist representation of menstruation politics.
2. Do you think inadequate and ignorant western ideologies lead the narrative of menstruation in the global south?
There is actually an abundance of period poverty in the West. But why is the focus on ‘poor women from countries recovering from colonialism’? Is this because it is easier to show them as being helpless. The idea of poverty sells, and the documentary itself was not an accurate representation of how India supposedly ‘manages’ menstruation.
A participant said, “You can see this also in the west (from upper class in relation to working classes and period poverty, for example). But certainly western campaigns to “Save women in Poorer countries from menstruation shame’... I see the value of raising inequalities and do that in my own work in relation to incontinence, but at the moment, I’d rather learn how things are done rather than tell how they should be done”.
3. Whose gaze does the documentary cater to? Was it voyeuristic?
There is an idea of poverty that is being peddled to the audience through the way the women in the documentary speak and work. Although they are shown as empowered through the manufacturing and marketing process, how do we know how much wages they are earning from it? Women have been shown as walking around their local colonies selling the pads, but has it profited them in any way? The unethical process in filmmaking does make one wonder - WHO was the film made for?
4. Did this documentary use women and girls as mere props?
The documentary shows women and girls speaking of their menstrual experiences at home and the ways they have to ‘manage’ it. There is a sense of discomfort in how they are shown as having no hope other than to engage in the process of pad manufacturing introduced to them. The school scene where the girls were made to feel uncomfortable, the women speaking of the real issues they face with regard to sanitation and other WASH facilities are shown as everyday issues. However, there are no solutions offered for the same. Will using a biodegradable pad solve the inherent issues that exist in a rural setting like the one shown in the documentary? The women and girls are only props to showcase the pad-making machine and the idea of Arunachalam Muruganathan. Instead of offering a life cycle solution and addressing the issue in totality, and educating in a real sense, it was more about commercialization of pads.
Also, the idea that reproductive work at home would be about “sitting idly at home” is again reductive.
5. How did market norms and social norms collide with each other in menstrual activism?
A participant mentioned the ways in which “breaking taboo” is operationalized in the marketing of pads - but largely to sell the goods rather than actually breaking the taboo. The documentary propagates the idea of using pads but conveniently ignores the infrastructural issues that are glaringly evident throughout. With regard to the use of Menstrual cups as alternatives that are being suggested, part of the problem could be our individualization of menstruation as a problem - and then somehow the wider questions of infrastructure and urban planning and accessible toileting - and the gendering of all this is not even discussed.
The case is a bit different for marketing men’s and women’s products, but it is really about providing tools to hide the stigmatized issue. Not sure if this fully applies to menstrual politics of stigma, though.
Taboos are slippery - and reproduced by patriarchal capitalism. I am not sure how marketing, which is based on values of patriarchal capitalism - could ever break a taboo that is reproduced by the same order. The marketing claims to break the stigma by ‘normalizing’ the condition - but what they actually say is “use our product so you can discreetly hide your condition (rather than looking for a cure or have society accept it).
6. What role do zombie statistics play in menstrual activism?
Actually, a lot of people don’t use credible and representative data. And they have been used enough that people assume that they are credible enough to quote. These numbers only make for good headlines and act as clickbait, taking away from the actual cause. With a surge in social media use, there is an increase in the spread of misinformation. Many times we have come across this particular statistic - "Only 12% of India's 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins (SNs). Over 88% of women resort to shocking alternatives like unsanitized cloth, ashes, and husk sand. Incidents of Reproductive Tract Infection (RTI) is 70% more common among these women.”
But these statistics appear out of thin air without any source. It's also important to note that NFHS statistics aren't particularly representative as well. The sample only includes women and girls aged between 15 to 24 years. Additionally, the definition of hygienic and unhygienic menstrual products in the NFHS survey can be contested as “hygienic methods” of menstrual protection and was categorized as either locally prepared napkins or other sanitary napkins and tampons. However, menstrual cups and homemade or purchased cloth pads are also 'hygienic.'
We ended the session with a quote from Chris Bobel,“ Is menstrual blood hidden because it’s taboo or is it taboo because it is hidden.”
Roy N (2019). 'Period. End of Sentence': Transforming a taboo into a cause. https://www.documentary.org/online-feature/period-end-sentence-transforming-taboo-cause