What’s so embarrassing about a period?

What’s so embarrassing about a period?

You can't talk about it, you can't let people know you have one and they certainly won't show it on TV — but what's the big deal?
04 May, 2024

“Menstruation is a natural phenomenon. What’s all the ruckus about?”, “Let’s embrace #PeriodPride and celebrate our womanhood!” I have heard these statements countless times since the advent of social media, but today, when I needed a pad, I found myself looking for that infamous brown bag out of the same old fear — what if the world came to know I’m experiencing my umpteenth menstrual cycle, or have a superpower that places me in the extraordinary league of Wonder Woman, Cleopatra, Black Widow, and Bandit Queen? I need to hide my womanhood in an unmarked, substance-less crumpled bag.

After enduring a challenging five-minute ordeal in the washroom and engaging in 30 minutes of intricate mental machinations, I finally arrived at a realisation. We live in melting pots that simmer differently. Being brought up in diverse household environments, driven by distinct ideologies, and defined by varied personality quirks, we possess unique perspectives and experiences.

Therefore, no matter how passionately we try to convey the idea that menstruation is not an anomaly, it is unlikely to reach the indoctrinated ears of the common person. Even the shopkeepers who sell pads or the fathers, brothers, and husbands who buy sanitary napkins for the women in their families may not pay heed to this.

The silent struggle

While working on this story, I spoke to women from all walks of life about their experiences with periods. Through these conversations, it became evident that each woman bore the burden of societal expectations, leading them to cloak their menstrual cycles in secrecy.

Sara*, a 26-year-old journalist, has felt compelled to conceal her menstrual cycle after dealing with negativity when discussing or even mentioning anything about periods. “During my college days, I felt the need to conceal the fact that I was menstruating. This was mainly because of the attitudes of the college staff and a few peers. Menstruation was considered a significant taboo, and individuals were often targeted and bullied because of it,” she said.

“On another occasion, one of my colleagues began menstruating while at work, and it was earlier than expected. Given that we were working alongside about 30 male colleagues, it was necessary to keep this situation hidden from them.”

Sara experienced period shaming herself. “Like people saying, ‘she’s so outspoken, how can she talk about na-paki (impurity)?’ When my father passed away, my sister happened to be on her period. To our astonishment, a few people attempted to prevent her from seeing our father [for the last time].”

For Aisha*, a 24-year-old blogger and researcher, the negativity and judgement came from women as well. “When I started my foundation, aiming to provide not only free education but also awareness sessions educating women about menstrual hygiene, I encountered a challenging beginning,” she narrated.

“Initially, despite extending invitations, women hesitated to attend these sessions, and some even responded with offensive language. However, I was determined not to let these rejections and failures define my efforts. Instead, I chose to confront the obstacles. My goal has always been to bring about a positive transformation, and this commitment drove me to persist in the face of setbacks,” she said.

“During my menstrual cycle, I faced a range of restrictions — no sour foods, no playing, and strict prohibition from interacting with boys. These limitations were imposed upon me without exception,” shared Aamna*, a 35-year-old housewife.

“The societal taboo surrounding periods is fuelled by various cultural or religious beliefs, each with its own specificities. For instance, girls who are menstruating might be forbidden from entering the kitchen or even touching items like pickles. These practices are deeply ingrained in our society and culture, contributing to the overall stigma associated with menstruation.”

Somiayah Hafeez, a media fellow at the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law, and Development, 2023, offered a glimpse into her journey. “I remember there were times when I was reeling from severe menstrual cramps but I was told to not wail or cry out loud — my cramps can get very excruciating and last for hours at a stretch, making it impossible not to cry — so that no one hears it.

“I can not work on the first and last day because my cramps are unbearable. I haven’t sought medical help because everyone around me who faces a similar type of excruciating pain has been told by gynaecologists ‘it will get better when you have a kid’.”

Taboo who?

Psychophysiologist Syeda Farah Batool highlighted the pressing need for open dialogue and comprehensive education regarding menstrual hygiene.

“Women often encounter social stigma, discrimination, and misinformation, which hinders their ability to manage their menstrual health effectively,” she explained. “Additionally, the high cost of menstrual products further exacerbates the issue, forcing many women to resort to unhygienic alternatives, risking their health and well-being. Addressing these challenges necessitates comprehensive education, improved infrastructure, and open dialogue to normalise conversations around menstrual hygiene.”

Creating an environment where conversations about menstruation are normalised is essential. When open discussions about menstrual health become part of everyday conversations, it helps break down stigmas and dispel misinformation. That’s what grass-root movements like Mahwari Justice aim to achieve. Started off as a campaign to supply menstrual relief products to women affected by the floods in Pakistan, Mahwari Justice aims to challenge the silence and shame around menstruation.

“Our state is very patriarchal in nature. On one hand it glorifies bloodshed, wars and killings, but on the other, it stigmatises periods, and gives us this message that periods are impure and dirty,” said Bushra Mahnoor, the founder of Mahwari Justice. “It also tells us that acquiring period products is a luxury. Because the state imposes a luxury tax on period products. Mahwari Justice is actively working to fight the luxury tax that is imposed on period products.”

Mahnoor explained that in addition to addressing disasters and crises, they also employ unconventional methods such as creating rap songs and designing superhero comics to facilitate open discussions about menstruation. “Our comics are available in Urdu, English and Sindhi. Currently, we are working on mahwari games to promote period positivity.”

Mahwari Justice isn’t the only organisation working to challenge period taboos — a group of students from Habib University have created a chatbot initiative called MAI to promote factual information about menstrual health.

However, despite all these initiatives, I think major change can only come from openly addressing the topic in the mainstream media.

Let’s talk about it

We must strive to bring the topic of menstruation to the forefront of our mainstream media. That doesn’t mean simply rolling out the occasional ad featuring sad, downtrodden women gazing out of windows, as if longing to be part of an unreachable universe, and then implying that using any particular period product will transport them to a galaxy beyond the Milky Way.

We need to create films and TV shows that openly and thoughtfully address the topic of menstruation. By doing so, we can contribute to normalising conversations about menstruation and breaking the stigma surrounding it. Our production houses should aim to educate, raise awareness, and foster empathy by portraying realistic and relatable experiences related to menstruation.

While there is always a place for stories that feature the Murtasims, Ashers, and Hamzas of the world, it is also important to occasionally delve into the subject of menstruation directly. This approach will not only be beneficial but can also contribute to the ratings of these productions. Because this type of content hasn’t been explored previously in our cinematic landscape, some novelty in storytelling will engage audiences in a unique and meaningful way.

Drawing inspiration from successful shows like Udaari (sexual abuse), Rehaai (child marriage), Mor Moharaan (climate change) and Dur Si Jati Hai Sila (victim blaming), which have tackled important social issues in the past, we can build upon their success and create narratives that delve into menstruation directly. These shows have proven their ability to captivate audiences, spark conversations, and address societal taboos. By extending this approach to menstrual health, we can educate, empower, and normalise conversations around this natural aspect of life.

We don’t need to look too far for examples for content related to menstruation. We can find numerous instances across the border, where one of Bollywood’s leading actors, Akshay Kumar, not only starred in a film like Pad-Man but also actively worked to spread awareness about menstruation. This is particularly significant in countries like India and Pakistan, because we are a nation that keenly follows our actors. Whether it’s emulating their hairstyles or supporting causes endorsed by them, their influence holds substantial weight.

If popular Pakistani stars like Fawad Khan, Fahad Mustafa, or Humayun Saeed were to work in a drama that spreads awareness about menstruation, it would greatly enhance its reach and impact.

Production houses should consider shifting their focus towards creating content that addresses important social issues like menstruation, rather than solely producing saas-bahu sagas or fairytale romances. By delving into topics that are relevant to real-life experiences and have a social impact, they can contribute to positive change and promote awareness.

Such content can also help break down taboos, challenge misconceptions, and foster a more inclusive and progressive society. It can provide a platform to explore the experiences of women and empower them by giving voice to their stories.

It is crucial for production houses to recognise the potential impact of creating content that addresses social issues and actively embrace the opportunity to educate, empower, and inspire positive change through their storytelling.

*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the women interviewed.


Khadija alvi May 04, 2024 12:00pm
You have done a commendable job about highlighting and underscoring the importance of menstrual hygiene. I am so inspired by you as you have told the bitter realities of our society for instance not discussing this issue on mainstream media and keeping periods in secrecy etc. Women are ready to embrace womanhood if society helps her doing so.
Ehsan May 04, 2024 07:39pm
We find every way possible to suppress isolate women
Syeda Mishel Ali Shah May 04, 2024 08:15pm
Vefy informative
Waheed Noor May 05, 2024 12:49am
Indian biopic film Padman deals with this topic. This film is BANNED in Pakistan. Perhaps even if production houses in Pakistan can not make films like this, at least the ban on this film lifted?
Matt Jane May 05, 2024 01:05am
If you have to hide the names even for this column, how do you expect to bring about the change you are pleading for in this write up? Even if you change them, why say so? It just dilutes your message.
Igloo May 05, 2024 02:06am
There should be no shame in this, but periods are a challenge all over the world regardless of liberal or conservative society. On a practical level if a man has poor bladder control for medical reasons, he has nothing to be ashamed about but he's not going to advertise it and he will be embarrassed when 'accidents' happen at work.
Rumi May 05, 2024 03:06am
Seems like the sisters in this article has experienced trauma because of their specific experiences. Sound little extreme to me. These sisters have had an extreme childhood and negative experiences. I dont recognize these extreme examples in my surroundings where there are both upper and middle class. Never heard about not to touch pickles or meeting relatives when having periods. And we also don't need to tell whole world about it. It's a monthly period and that's it. Seems this article and these sisters have exaggerated it a little bit and then generalized it all over the nation.
Guru May 05, 2024 09:13am
While publishing this article in English newspaper has advantages, it should also be published in leading Urdu papers. Imagine most of our population is reading Urdu and they should also read it.
Zabih Ullah May 05, 2024 11:28am
We shall not ignore the urgency to provide women essentials facilities and back them. But a thing which seems surpassed in this story is the writer exaggerated the story and presented it narrowly. Moreover, she could add some facts about the privacy which is based to hide menstruation. Similarly, men have secret issues but they don't scream. Let go hand-in-hand and discuss universally accepted facts.
Gaon ki May 05, 2024 12:56pm
I think the article provides a lot of education but my point is why to publicise such thing. Every one faces it but it's not a thing to show off. Haya is also a significant thing which should prevail. Tabooing periods is stupidity though.
Furqan Ali May 08, 2024 10:53pm
A good read