Menstruation has remained a stigmatised process, which despite its “natural-ness”, has been conceptualised as an unnatural taboo, a “curse”, a notion that various cultures have further enforced. Exploring the regional variations in the narratives is particularly interesting, as a uniform tying thread becomes explicitly visible, rooted in patriarchy, and expressed through discriminatory forms. From restrictions on entry into temples to even private spaces in one’s household, menstrual laws are imposed socio-culturally, often clashing with legal guarantees of equality mandated in modern democracies.
Edited by FarahAhamed, “Period Matters”(2022) delves into menstruation in South Asia through forms including essays, stories, interviews, poetry, as well as art. The South Asian experience of menstruation is rooted in cultural practices, traditions, and its representation and portrayal in different forms of media, be it through fiction or non-fiction. Spanning a vast geographical area from Sri Lanka to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and India, covering people from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, ‘Period Matters’ is a collection of narratives highlighting the universality as well as the variances of menstruators.
Rooted in Patriarchy
Menstruation in South Asia finds its roots not only in patriarchal norms but also in the influence of Vedic practices as a dominance of Brahmanical patriarchy. Caste plays an essential role in determining menstrual practices since it lies at the core of the purity-pollution debate, also sexualising menstrual blood. From the discussion surrounding paid menstrual leaves to the hidden connotations of celebrating one’s first menstrual cycle, “Period Matters” captures the dichotomy of menstruation. The reductionist narrative that menstruation is “proof” that a woman’s primary purpose is reproduction not only takes away agency but excludes a large section of menstruators.
Voices of Menstruators
Menstruation as a bodily process has been predominantly attributed to women, leading to their gendered oppression. Unlearning cis-normativity and patriarchy accompanied with ungendering menstruation is necessary since not all women menstruate, and "menstruators" are not always women. In Period Matters, we find voices that have been historically oppressed and neglected, be it in the social sphere or the academic or popular discourse around menstruation.
Ahamed recounts the stories of Farzana and Chandan, two transwomen in Lahore who strive to feel like “complete” women. To feel more feminine, they imitate the experiences of menstruation by wearing a sanitary pad once a month for a week. As it is commonly followed by women locally in Lahore during their menstruation, they also follow dietary and social restrictions. Some also use red dye to give the impression of blood on their pads. Additionally, they speak of how the pads protect them against harassment and groping. Farzana and Chandan also talk about how difficult it is to access doctors and seek medical help.
Ahamed also recounts the experience of Javed(name changed), who identifies as a Mutajanus, which he says is the correct word for a trans person. In the telephonic interview, Javed spoke about his experience with menstruation, which contributed to immense dysphoria. He also speaks of beginning hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and how it changed his life. While masculinity is celebrated and brings forth new privileges, rights and freedoms, discrimination against trans persons is unavoidable. And, in that juncture, Javed muses on the irony of how gender fluidity in South Asian culture had thrived before the intervention of the rigid and “prudish” Victorian aesthetic that curbed and sought to “civilise” South Asians. Digitising Menstruation and Initiatives Femtech applications, including period trackers, have been on the rise, especially for urban and semi-urban, middle to upper-class South Asians. Alnoor Bhimani’s essay in the book covers the dual aspect of menstruators gaining greater awareness regarding their menstrual cycles, hygiene, and the monetising of blood through tracking of menstruators' cycles. These applications work better with greater data input, from the heaviness of the flow to moods and feelings. The data, at the same time, is also sold to various third parties, which redirects targeted advertisements toward every user. Consent is a distant reality taken away from menstruators, who then produce this knowledge which they also consume.
Initiatives leading to reforms and awareness related to menstruation came to the fore, Goonj being one of the leading names. While interviewing members of the organisation, Ahamedbrings the readers a positive and hopeful image of advancements leading to a brighter future. In a separate essay, Sashi Tharoor discusses his proposed menstrual rights bill, which the Lok Sabha tabled. Demanding menstrual equity and criminalising marital rape, the bill, if passed, would have been a devastating blow to the patriarchal roots. Alas, the State and the legal body remain patriarchal institutions.
The importance of discourse around menstruation
While discussing the tabled bill on menstrual rights, Tharoor writes how important it is for a changed mindset to be brought in to counter menstrual myths and enforce proper implementation of policies, especially at the rural level. Menstrual rights are human rights. However, despite being in the 21st century, living in newer realities post-pandemic, menstruation remains heavily censored on every media platform. Edited by Farah Ahamed, 'Period Matters' captures the essence of a diverse community. It is particularly interesting because in no way are South Asians a homogeneous community.
Similarly, menstruators aren't a homogeneous category of people either. The stories that need to be brought to the fore aren't restricted to the privileged but belong to everyone. Capturing experiences of menstruation in prison, to the cultural practices of different communities, from essays dealing with the initiation of menstruation to the beginning of menopause, the more we talk about menstrual experiences, the more it is normalised, leading to a gender-sensitive environment. An essential read, 'Period Matters' brings to readers globally an inclusive and intersectional perspective on an intervention demanding greater discussions and discourse around menstruation, menstruators, and menstrual health, representing one of the largest diasporas.
Period Matters: Menstruation in South Asia. (2022). Edited by Farah Ahamed. Published by Pan Macmillan India.