‘Politics of care’: How Bushra Mahnoor is fighting for menstruators across Pakistan

Despite her own negative experience with periods, Mahnoor provided period relief to flood victims and continues advocating for menstruation health.
08 Mar, 2024

Let me paint you a tale of two periods.

Shanzay lives in Johar Town, Lahore and today is the day she got her first period. Worry not, she is well equipped with information provided by her school and her mother. Shanzay has access to a private bathroom, one she shares with only her elder sister, a pack of disposable pads and a trash can where she can easily dispose of her used pads. Her sister celebrates her journey into womanhood with chocolates for both of them.

Ayesha lives in Lasbela, Balochistan and today is the day she also got her first period. However, Ayesha was never informed what a period was. More importantly, monsoon rains have been pouring down nonstop for four days. Her house has ceased to be and the relief camp she’s been relocated to allows her no privacy. Her mother is far too busy with her two younger siblings to help Ayesha manage her first period. So instead, the young girl wanders around the camp, the red stain on her shalwar an afterthought.

Shanzay and Ayesha might not exist, but stories like their’s are very real. Women struck by disasters are left to fend for their period hygiene with virtually no resources or support.

Bushra Mahnoor told me that the most traumatising thing she saw whilst doing relief work after the 2022 floods was women using the same stained cloth repeatedly during their period. What’s worse, she said, women would try to wash the cloth with floodwater and, because they could not hang it openly to dry due to fear of shame, they would reuse the same wet cloth immediately. Some women would be bleeding postpartum and had no supplies save for a few scraps of cloth and a plastic bag they were forced to reuse.

Women in Balochistan told her that they couldn’t possibly rip up their dupatta to use the fabric as period cloth because then they would not have anything to cover themselves with and maintain pardah.

This situation is unfathomable for those of us who are blessed to be in a situation where we have access to clean bathrooms and period products. Imagine being struck by disaster, having no shelter, taking care of your family and then worrying about how to manage a period — all at once.

Mahnoor was 10 years old when her parents took her to flood relief camps during the 2010 floods. She said that both her mother and father’s ancestral villages were affected, thus they would package food and take it to the flood victims.

“I entered a relief camp and there was a girl, she was almost my age at the time, and this little girl had blood stains on her shirt, which was startling because it was very difficult for me to comprehend what was wrong. I wondered if she was injured,” Mahnoor said, adding that her mother, however, immediately knew what was wrong and handed the young girl a chadar to cover herself with.

“That really, really stuck with me, and growing up I would always think about what people [who menstruate] would do during disasters”.

Mahnoor reflected that the incident had a great impact on her, “[getting your first period] compounded with the fact that you’re currently in a disaster situation, you don’t know where your family is, you don’t have a roof on your head, you don’t have anything to manage your period with, it is horrible, it is unimaginable. That’s something that really bothered me”.

It was that experience that spurred Mahnoor to start Mahwari Justice [Period Justice] after the 2022 floods that wreaked havoc across Balochistan and Sindh.

“Along with some friends, I decided that maybe we can start fundraising for period relief, and send some supplies. We didn’t know a lot and we were students, but we started fundraising,” she said. Afterwards, Mahnoor put out a call on Twitter asking for help, and when Anum Khalid responded the duo kickstarted Mahwari Justice together.

However, Mahnoor’s mother who “was the person who shaped that experience was not okay” with Mahwari Justice. Mahnoor’s work and personal ethos stand in stark contrast with her family’s beliefs and attitudes towards periods.

“I come from a very conventional household and she [Mahnoor’s mother] thought that I was bringing shame to the family by talking about periods openly. She was very worried that my sisters would not get good rishtas for marriage because of my work,” she continued.

Her first period was unfortunately very similar to what other South Asian women go through — despite growing up with four sisters, menstruation was an unfathomable topic of conversation, even covertly.

She got her first period at the same time as her sister who was four years older than her, causing her mother to have a “very strong reaction”, bordering on anger. Mahnoor understood that her mother was raised in an environment where “these things” were never spoken about and now she was faced with the uncertainty of not one but two daughters growing older, unaware of how to cope with it. Despite her empathy towards her mother, Mahnoor remembers her first period as a very “isolating experience”, and due to a lack of communication with the women in her family, she didn’t even know that periods happen every month.

“When it happened again the next month, I was not prepared for it and I didn’t know what to do,” she said.

While her first period was no Always advertisement, Mahnoor is cognisant that the women she has worked for have had significantly worse experiences. She narrated incidents of girls as young as 11 years old being pulled out of school and forced into child marriages especially by the men of their families because ‘mahwari agai hai’ [their periods have begun].

“A 10-year-old student got her period and was pulled out of school and married to a man twice her age, even though the mother did not want that.” This happened in Korangi in Karachi, not some remote village.

Mahnoor noticed that there was a toxic concoction of guilt, shame and anger from mothers, however, it was almost always the patriarchs of the family who forced them out of school and into marriage.

In fact, she discovered that men are often a significant hindrance in her efforts towards period justice. Her initial experience with men in villages affected by floods was “really, really bad” as they would completely ignore Mahnoor and her team’s existence. The men believed that Mahwari Justice was there to ruin ‘their women’. The “stigma from the non-menstruators erased conversations on something very common” and their disgust determined what was and wasn’t acceptable.

“Eventually we realised that we have to change our strategy and start networking with women who are grassroots activists even though it was difficult to build networks in an emergency situation and we had to act fast,” she recalled.

In the battle of men versus menstruators, it was the women who shone the brightest. After active flood relief work was over, Mahnoor contacted the women she was in touch with during the disasters to make sure they created long-term relations.

Instead of relying on local men to be okay with the very natural phenomenon of periods, Mahwari Justice waged ahead with the help of small women-based organisations, including the Thari Feminist Hub, run by two sisters, one of whom rides a motorbike through the deserts of Tharparkar, and Madad Community, run by a mother and daughter duo in Lasbela, Balochistan.

“These are trailblazers. These are women who are making huge changes in their community at a small, very localised level, and their work is often negated.” Mahnoor took her networking to the ground level, knowing that to work with a community they needed trusted, well-respected members from within the community to carry Mahwari Justice’s efforts forward.

During winters in Sindh, men often gather around a bonfire to discuss important issues in a much kachehri. Mahnoor did them one better and gathered women from Tharparkar to hold the first-ever much kachehri for women, creating a safe space for Thari women to discuss periods and reproductive health while snacking on peanuts and tea.

However, she isn’t unaware of the importance of including men in the equation to “sensitise them with regards to these issues”. For now, Mahwari Justice continues to work with women on a smaller scale to solidify their foundations.

One could pardon the ignorance of local village men, pinning it on lack of ‘exposure’ or ‘education’. Government officials, on the other hand, you would expect to be fully versed in the nuances of matters as sensitive as this. Well, guess again. Most men working for the bureaucracy remained indifferent to Mahnoor’s cause because they themselves were men who would never talk to their own women relatives about periods.

“Engaging them in a conversation is very difficult as they don’t want to repeat the word period and instead opt for ‘women’s health’, causing us to repeat the word ourselves,” she said, adding that the name of her organisation was quietly changed to something about ‘women’s health’ by state television channel PTV because they were shocked at the prospect of having the word “mahwari” splashed across their channel. Using the word mahwari in the name of their campaign helps “normalise” periods.

“It’s 2024, we have to have these conversations. We have to make sure it’s considered a routine thing. It’s high time to get rid of the shame, guilt and taboo associated with periods.”

Mahnoor’s decision to name her organisation Mahwari Justice really struck me, because, until the 2022 floods, I did not know what the word mahwari meant. I did not know that there was a word for periods in Urdu at all until I found out about the work Mahwari Justice was doing and I had to Google what the word meant. During our conversation, she also highlighted how most Pakistani women dub periods na-pak [impure] or namaz choot gayi [they were missing their prayers], and emphasised that the concept of ‘impurity’ was the first thing that need to change.

She pointed out — rightfully so — that the word na-pak severely impacted menstruators’ self-worth, so to share the idea that periods are not impure, she decided to use the local vernacular: mahwari.

When stigmas and shame related to periods run so high, the least we can do is use proper terminology that doesn’t shame an already marginalised group of people. Mahnoor detailed how stigma persists in both urban and rural settings, even though it takes different shapes — including myths such as women can’t cook on their periods or sleep next to their husbands. The idea that periods are an “isolating experience” somehow becomes true for all menstruators.

“We face a lot of resistance to our ideas, especially from the older generation, who believe their methods are ‘correct’. This happens with girls’ mothers and even their educators who remain steadfast in their ways. Therefore, it’s very important to discuss these matters again and again,” she said.

However, there is no single universal period stigma — everyone’s experiences vary, just as “women in rural areas are not a monolith” who face the same issues. Perhaps what alienates menstruators even more is the lack of understanding about their issues, which culminates in problematic outcomes such as the imposition of luxury tax on period products.

Mahnoor, despite her anger towards the idea of period products being considered a luxury, extended her grace to the perpetrators. “We have to understand where it’s stemming from. If the state imposes a luxury tax on period products, people will automatically assume that it is a luxury product.”

Those who support the luxury tax are typically individuals who have never “experienced the fear of staining a white uniform”, making it difficult for them to understand how essential these products are.

While she continues to make a positive change, Mahnoor sometimes feels despair at not doing enough. “There is a sense of guilt because it is second-hand trauma and you start questioning yourself because you’re not the one suffering,” she outlined, however, it was the women around her, especially feminist organisations such as Aurat March Lahore, who told her that the work she did was important, blossomed from “the politics of care” and had to be “feminist at its core”.

“There were days when I would panic, especially after loss of contact with some areas when bridges collapsed. At the same time, I had to sit with myself and tell myself that what are we doing is a stepping stone, but it wasn’t okay to pressure ourselves into doing everything,” she continued.

She remains aware that at the end of the day, it is “the responsibility of the state to ensure period justice prevails” and that activists cannot bring about large-scale, systemic changes without the help of the government.

While the journey has been long and perilous, the payoff has been every bit of a reward for Mahnoor. She told me of two separate instances where she felt like her purpose had been achieved.

The first was when an old lady from Hyderabad got her phone number and called her to voice her appreciation. She had no way of financially helping Mahwari Justice but was insistent on doing her part somehow and ended up sending Mahnoor mobile credit for Rs500, “boosting her energy”.

“That is something I would go back to especially on difficult days. The woman had this sense of motherly affection in her voice and kept calling me beti, which meant a lot especially because I would not get any recognition from my family — who were very disappointed with my work,” she recounted.

Her second story was when Mahwari Justice was gathering supplies for flood victims and a man arrived with his daughter to volunteer to pack the period kits, which was a “huge surprise”. Mahnoor was shocked to see a middle-aged man with period positive beliefs and considered it a “big deal” for even one man to come forth and have these conversations with his daughter.

Two years after the floods, with active relief work coming to a gradual halt, Mahwari Justice continues to rise upwards and move onwards. They recently worked in Tharparkar to help local women sew and distribute safe pads, with Dar-ul-Amaan and women’s shelters in Lahore to advocate conversations about safe periods. They worked in Karachi with schools in Korangi to again encourage conversations and education on periods. The organisation didn’t stop there, they launched a comic book in Urdu and Sindhi, created a rap song in Urdu and Sindhi — which will soon have a Balochi version as well — and developed mahwari games to better engage with students and make period education fun.

“We want them [teenagers] to know that periods are nothing to be ashamed of.”

This March, Images is profiling trailblazing women who are, in their own ways big or small, stirring change in our society. Women who inspire us and women who make us proud. You can read all our stories on inspiring Pakistani women here.

Trailblazers and change makers


M. Emad Mar 08, 2024 12:08pm
Menstrual hygiene management is a significant problem in Pakistan ---- near 50% of the girls do not have access to basic menstrual hygiene facilities at home, their workplace or school.
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NYS Mar 08, 2024 01:21pm
Women who have empathy towards womenhood have earnest feelings that grace Mahnoor, who strives in disaster far-flung areas and felt what urban thought were regarding menstrual cycle.... and so on Real Trailblazer !
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Taj Ahmad Mar 08, 2024 03:16pm
In Pakistan, and around the world, women should have 50/50 percentage rights in jobs and all other daily lives requirements as compared to men’s.
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Syed Hasni Mar 08, 2024 04:37pm
Menstruation is a small price you pay for being blessed with the grandest gift you can ever wish for, and that is the privilege to give birth- The whole Humanity should celebrate Menstrual day i.e., Tue, May 28, 2024
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Ehsan Mar 08, 2024 07:49pm
Mahnoor type of people are special, a nation is lucky to have them, and should be wholeheartedly supported
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HUSSEINALLY j hASHAM Mar 08, 2024 08:14pm
we should hang our heads in shame
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Arvind Kumar Mar 08, 2024 08:48pm
Great work by Ms. Bushra Manhoor ji as well as the writer of this post, Women are the cradle of Life. They should be respected and cared for. Education of hygiene and bodily changes, irrespective of religious boundaries is must and State as well as society should do their best.
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FARJAD ZAIDI Mar 09, 2024 12:56am
Well thought out and to the point article. Bravo
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Ramachander nanduri Mar 09, 2024 01:49am
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shahzad Mar 09, 2024 06:00am
I salute such women who are helping are sisters and is the time for the men too, to come forward and play their role. Welldone Mahnoor and others....
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Ashok Mar 09, 2024 06:37am
I would request the people of Pakistan to watch Akshay Kumar movie Padman , which talks about mahwaari in a positive way.... unfortunately this movie was banned in Pakistan from showing in cinemas...but you can watch it on YouTube
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Asma Ashfaq Mar 09, 2024 02:49pm
Kindly do not impose luxury tax on these sanitary pads as they are an essential product for women.
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