Creative euphemisms for it notwithstanding, menstruation as a topic does not really need to be smoothened obliquely to attract readers. It is inherently interesting for roughly half of the population, even when—and also because—it is laced with taboo and shame. Conversations about and around menstruation, particularly about menstrual health, hygiene, management, and its politics in a capitalist society, are immanent—they are only helped along by recent events, right from the issue of women’s access to Sabarimala, to India’s emergent femtech sector and a win at the Oscars for the documentary Period. End Of Sentence.
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So, when a book such as Period Matters: Menstruation In South Asia is published, one wonders why it took so long. An anthology edited by London- and Pakistan-based writer Farah Ahamed, it presents “the variances and commonalities of the experience” of menstruation. Various menstruators and other stakeholders look at their experience of it through a variety of genres and forms, including art, essays, short stories, academic writing, poems, even dance.
Some of these are quite illuminating. The essay Red Nectar Of The Sacred Lotus by Tashi Zangmo focuses on Zangmo’s work with the Bhutan Nuns Foundation to train and educate nunneries on reproductive health. Zangmo writes that Bhutan has a strong spiritual tradition, such that when people, especially women, are sick, they reach out first to monasteries. When viewed in this context, it becomes imperative that nuns be trained in menstrual health.
In several Buddhist texts, the pema, or lotus, refers to a woman’s private parts, and the drip of menstrual blood from it is visualised as nectar. But even as menstruation is taken to be a natural occurrence in Bhutanese culture, something to be dealt with according to common sense, there is still a reticence in talking about it openly. What comes across is a curious mix of mysticism and practicality in Buddhist Bhutan’s approach to menstruation.
Amna Mawaz Khan’s Raqs-e-Mahvaari, a menstrual dance you can access through a QR code that has been provided, explores the “duality of the public and private nature of menstruation: indignity and creativity”, as she writes in her short chapter. The dance, in the Indian classical tradition form, is an expression of how she views, thinks about and experiences her monthly cycle, and the relationship she has developed with it over the years.
Nobody can question the “breadth of perspectives” Ahamed compiles, bringing together varied experiences in a laudable and much needed endeavour. And it helps that the focus is narrowed to South Asia—the book works within a given framework the reader is made aware of. But in what one could consider a compendium cliché, the result is a tepid kind of mixed bag. The perspectives are diverse and genres distinct, but they aren’t delivered in the most engaging or curious ways.
Interspersed in the book are chapters that need little editorial intervention because the subject itself is unique and fascinating. In Homa Istrizia Azan Asan, Ahamed herself acquaints us with the Kalasha community in north-west Pakistan through her visit to the Bashali in Bumburet, a valley in the Chitral district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. It’s a communal home meant exclusively for menstruating women and women about to give birth.
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When Kalasha women menstruate, it is normal practice for them to stay at a Bashali. Nobody is allowed to disturb them there. “Men were never allowed to enter, nor touch the walls or the doors of Bashali,” writes Ahamed. “This was a private space created and curated by Kalasha women for themselves.”
This also implies that in the Kalasha community, men are aware of menstruation and what it entails, and are accustomed to having the women in their lives take monthly time off from domestic obligations. The Bashali practice offers a glimpse of what a society that treats menstruation as an entirely normal and natural phenomenon would look like, and what happens when women take control of the “menstruation conversation”.
In contrast to the Bashali piece, the narratives of homeless and incarcerated women about how they experience menstruation come across as blanched renditions of conversation transcripts, accompanied with bare reportage and peppered with statistics. These stories could have benefited from equally evocative telling.
Certain other, otherwise fascinating and urgent subjects around menstruation are reported in a similarly dry and officious way. The chapters on the NGOs Goonj, Anandi, and the illustrated period-guide project Menstrupedia, seem to have fallen prey to the quintessential textbook Q&A format.
While Period Matters promises the voices of the marginalised, they are inevitably and very evidently framed by researchers and writers of a certain class. The book is also supposed to highlight the “commonality” of the phenomenon but the unchecked inclusion of the themes of shame, taboo and stigma, including the repetition of some statistics across several chapters, has reduced them to a banality.
Also Read: Let’s talk about menstruation
In the grand scheme of things though, it is evident that Period Matters is an important book with its heart in the right place. Viewed holistically, its multifaceted approach shows how life conditions and contexts could lead to the very specific practices around menstruation.
In writing about her work with the Santal community in Jharkhand, Srilekha Chakraborty says tribal girls would discuss menstruation freely with their peers; there were few stigmas around it. They would even work through it, unable to forego the daily wage. In contrast, more “privileged” communities in countries like Sri Lanka were steeped in stigma around menstruation but practised Kotahalu Mangalya, a celebration to mark a girl’s menarche—a celebration that hinged upon financial strength, as Zinthiya Ganeshpanchan talks about in another essay.
Then, there are accounts of two trans women mimicking the rituals of menstruation in Red Dye On A Pad, thrown in relief by The Worst Day Of My Life, 32-year-old Javed’s account of how “abnormal” periods feel to a trans man.
In some ways, Period Matters’ wide spectrum of viewpoints is its undoing. There are as many as 35 contributions overall, packed in a book of just 300-odd pages, not counting the artwork that remains, for some reason, without the artist’s note. In wanting to be everything, the book doesn’t know what it really is, or who it is meant for. The silver lining perhaps is that there will likely be at least something in the collection that resonates with everyone.
Regardless of its drawbacks, the collection achieves what it sets out to: It does indeed provide “a glimpse into the way menstruation is viewed by people from different backgrounds, religions and classes”, even as it falters in its delivery at times. It takes forward an ongoing conversation simply by deciding to participate.
Mumbai-based Tasneem Pocketwala writes on culture, identity, gender, cities and books.