Pix of Dr Asma Sayed
Dr Asma Sayed is a professor of English at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Canada. She researches and writes about South Asian literature and cinema.
Giggles, lowered gaze, silence, embarrassment, shame. These are some of the reactions of young girls and women in a village in India when they are asked ‘What is a period?’. Period, or menstruation, is the subject of one of the latest Netflix documentaries. Period. End of Sentence., a 26-minute film directed by Rayka Zehtabachi, and produced by India’s Guneet Monga, just won the Best Documentary Short award at the 91st Academy Awards this past February 2019. Menstruation and access to feminine hygiene products may seem an unlikely subject for an Oscar-winning film. However, even in the twenty-first century, many women around the world still struggle to not only find proper sanitary products but also with the cultural stigma attached to the natural functioning of their bodies. This film breaks barriers and opens the topic of women’s rights for discussion; the reception and recognition of the film, after having won an Oscar, further creates the possibility to talk about and mobilize for greater access to menstrual health.
The film focuses on women in a small town, Hapur, in rural India where access to hygiene products is at times extremely limited. The story, however, begins in Los Angeles. In 2016, students at Oakwood School in Los Angeles started a non-profit, The Pad Project, to help women across the world gain access to affordable sanitary products: ‘When so much of the world’s narrative around the period revolves around shame and secrecy, this project transforms it into a source of enlightenment and pride’ (thepadproject.org).’ The documentary showcases the work of the Project. As the film presents, some women in Hapur are provided with a machine and training for making pads. This machine was originally created by Arunachalam Muruganantham, who has been known to have started the Indian sanitary pad revolution (he is also the subject of Akshay Kumar starrer Bollywood biopic, Padman). It allows women to make affordable and biodegradable pads. For many women and young girls in the town, access to sanitary pads is a luxury, when it should be part of their right to healthy living. Rather, some have never even heard the word ‘pad’ and do not know what it is. For this reason and others, many young girls stop going to school when they reach puberty as they find it difficult to be in school when they are menstruating. The lack of proper feminine hygiene products, as well as appropriate washroom facilities where they can change or clean themselves discreetly, is a huge impediment to getting an education.