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Empowering Women: Period. End of Sentence.

Volume 16, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/06/2019
  |

Pix of Dr Asma Sayed

By-line:

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.

The film follows women who receive the machine and are at first unconvinced it will be useful. After some hesitation a few of the village women get together to make pads. In doing so, they move toward financial independence and form a community of strong and like-minded women who are able to talk about their own bodies without shame. Initially though, too embarrassed about their venture, they tell the men in their families that they are making diapers for babies. Eventually, they gain confidence. They name their brand ‘Fly’ as they believe that this small business is going to allow them to fly toward liberation, both financial and socio-cultural. However, once they have made the pads, selling them is a challenge. They go from house to house and make progress selling one box at a time, and dream of developing their small entrepreneurial operation into a big company. Before they started making pads, some of these women had never worked outside of home or earned their own living. Nonetheless, they have dreams of making it big in the world, of earning money, of becoming police officers, and of being self-dependent. The initial success of their business, no matter how small, makes them feel happy, confident, and hopeful about their futures.

In patriarchal societies, women’s bodies have been, and continue to be, sites of control. Menstruation is a taboo in many cultures around the world. In India, especially in rural areas, even today, isolation for menstruating girls and women is a common practice. Menstruating women are not allowed to enter the kitchen, because the kitchen is considered an auspicious space. The same is true for places of worship such as temples and mosques. One is reminded of the recent Sabrimala temple controversy in India, where women are not allowed to enter this ancient temple despite orders from the Supreme Court of India, because of the fear that ‘dirty’ women may compromise the sanctity of the temple. In many South Asian societies, girls and women talk about periods using coded language; that is if they talk about it at all. The film focuses on such discriminatory socio-cultural practices in subtle ways. Before the pads became available in Hapur, women were using rags, which were thrown out in the secret corners of the village. In one of the scenes in the film, women talk about the embarrassment they experience when stray dogs dig out the used rags and bring them back into the village. The shame that young girls and women feel about their menstruating bodies shows how women are held hostage by derogatory and misogynistic social attitudes about their bodies. Repressive practices have real material consequences for women: limiting their education, their mobility, and their sense of self in the world.

Thinking with the feminist adage that the personal is political, this film highlights remarkably well how intensely political the very private issue of menstruation really is. Access to menstrual pads and feminine hygiene is, of course, just one of the problems women and girls face. Unless cultural attitudes about women’s health and hygiene basics change, pads can only go so far in combating the socio-cultural stigma attached to menstruation and female bodies. Ultimately, the film is about women’s resilience as they march forward one issue at a time and about the fact that if women can take political control of their own bodies, other types of political organizing and autonomy may also become possible.

Last modified on Tuesday, 11 June 2019 10:40
Dr Asma Sayed

An academic living in Canada; she researches and writes about South Asian literature and cinema

Website: awaazmagazine.com/