The 2019 Oscars marked a first time for many things. Ruth E. Carter was the first black person to win the Award for Best Costume Design and Hannah Bleacher became the first black person to win the Award for best Production Design. From dressings and gender to the oscar nominations down to the lack of a host, there were many points of difference from past awards.
One of the most outstanding wins of the night was in the category of “Best Documentary Short Film” and out of five nominations, Melissa Berton and Rayka Zehtabchi went home with the statuette. While not the first time women had won the award, it was a unique win because of the epic subject of their documentary. Theirs was a 25-minute documentary on menstruation titled “Period. End of Sentence”.
The documentary highlights the issue of attitudes to menstruation in rural India. Of particular focus was a village outside of Delhi where the rate of menstrual stigmatization still ranks very high. Due to limited access to sanitary pads, girls often have to miss school or sometimes stop school all together when they get their periods. The message of their detailed documentary is therefore gleaned from the title, “Period. End of Sentence” which essentially states that the only thing a period should end is a sentence, not a girl’s education or ambitions.
In recent years, the issue of menstruation and the social issues and biases surrounding it has increasingly come into the spotlight. Activists (mostly women) have called for the dismantling of the biases that society has built around menstruation. So that the nomination of this documentary and its eventual victory is a sign that the movement is well on its way.
With “Period. End of a Sentence”, producer Melissa Berton, co-producer Guneet Monga and director Rayka Zehtabchi have brought a conversation otherwise held in whispers to the world stage. I have never menstruated, or had cramps or menstrual diarrhea so I acknowledge that I am least qualified to talk about this. But that is precisely the point. For too long, periods have only ever been spoken about either in hushed whispers or in academic terms by antiseptic sounding “professionals”. Not in everyday discussions or conversations, and certainly not as something that happens to practically everyone around us. Berton and Zehtabchi have given us a way out, and it is in that spirit that I write this piece; a way to kick-start the conversation without having to participate in a “gender equality panel”.
As with all things I seek to understand better when it comes to women, I sought the collective wisdom of my girlfriend and my mother; two women, close to my heart and generations apart. My mother told me of the time before tampons and sanitary pads; as you may have guessed, it was an enlightening but most awkward conversation to have. In my conversation with my girlfriend, I expressed my surprise at the many regions of the world where such stigma existed around menstruation and she shared some personal stories right here in Nigeria. She talked about the awkwardness of buying sanitary pads in shops and the hushed silences and awkward stares of others.
I went on to have more conversations with a couple of friends both male and female; I even had one with a shopkeeper. From these discussions, I reached a somewhat surprising conclusion; there was really neither a conspiracy around menstruation nor a deliberate decision to put women down for menstruating. Not in enlightened circles at least.
What exists though is an immense assembly of misconceptions, misinformation and consequential ignorance about menstruation. I realized that this was not limited to men only. It seemed that the most common form of discussion on menstruation between girls and their mothers revolves around falling pregnant; and the need to stay away from boys so as not to get pregnant. I have heard cases where girls were told by their mothers that the mere touch of a boy could get them pregnant; young girls are often left to untangle this web of changes alone, alongside all the physical and emotional apprehension that accompany it.
Where women get this little information to “work with”, the young boys get absolute zilch. What little they manage to get are snatches of conversation between their parents. Snatches of this conversation will involve the repeated mention of “blood” and “it has started”. For all young boys know; puberty and the start of menstruation for girls could as well be some vampire transition phase. If you think this is far-fetched, think about the fact that ads for sanitary pads don’t even use red liquid.
This can be compared to the subject of sex education; a topic in which parents have failed abysmally since the beginning of time. The difference however, is that when we grow, we all have the opportunity to find out and experience the very many rudiments of sex ourselves. With menstruation though, the opposite is the case.
By the time we grow, males really do not want to hear about periods especially as the subject somehow signals an end to any thoughts of sex; largely because of the general assumption that at the sight of blood, pregnancy becomes a real possibility. This is of course not true. The pregnancy window is actually during ovulation which is the production of the egg, while menstruation signals that the eggs produced during ovulation have not been fertilised and are therefore flushed out of the female body as blood in the form of period. I am giving this brief biology lesson because I came to realise through conversations that some males do not know this and, secondly because I hope that you understand just how ignorant our societies (read: some men) are.
This means one-half of the world’s population walks around without the most basic understanding of something so significant to our existence. Meanwhile, the other half knows and “can’t” talk about it. Even females who are finally getting a grip of the matter enforce a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and I suspect this is because it seems socially unacceptable to discuss changes in their bodies out loud. With this information vacuum comes the smearing of menstruation and the loop goes round and round.
A school of thought I know bases its arguement in favour of this misinformation on the sacredness of a woman’s menstrual period. They argue that by its mere occurence, menstruation is a miracle and that the “blood” shed is the origin of man’s existence. I think ovulation is easily interchanged with menstruation in these cases but the point is that they posit that the ritual of mensuration should remain intensely private and should be exempt from public discussion and scrutiny.
This school of thought derives its basis from a slew of cultural philosophies and religious norms that have existed for a very long time. This has in turn spawned practices ranging from the “cleansing” of women during menstruation to their outright isolation from gatherings; a social practice that occurs even to this day.
I will not try to explain the cultures and traditions of people; not in one article or ten. However, I will point out that many of these beliefs seem to stem from the fact that little is known of the actual nature of the menstrual cycle. I agree that there are certain things in society such as sex, and mensuration that should be given a measure of privacy, but I also believe that they should be discussed nonetheless.
There is a thin line between privacy and taboo. Society has somehow turned her desire for privacy when it comes to the subject of periods into a taboo. In addition, I have yet to meet a woman who desires to make public her monthly period experience, so the issue of reducing “menstruation to nothing” does not fly.
The issue reminds me of the case of the chicken and the egg; people don’t talk because they don’t know shit and people don’t know shit because no one talks. In my “outsider” opinion, the best way to change this is to short-circuit this vicious cycle, and the best way to do this is to overload society’s pathways with information. I have noticed the change in perception in men who have daughters or males who live with their female partners. I know here you might say that you don’t need a wife or daughter to make you better understand the menstrual period but you see, it’s extremely difficult to relate or empathize with something you know nothing about.
And for something that happens so frequently, society knows far too little; a situation that we must change for the better.
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