Oscars 2019: Will Films Like Period. End of Sentence. Rid Us of Taboos Around Menstruation?

Gender

Oscars 2019: Will Films Like Period. End of Sentence. Rid Us of Taboos Around Menstruation?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

“Period. End Of Sentence. It’s well done, but it’s about women getting their period, and I don’t think any man is voting for this film because it’s just icky for men.”

If you thought this was your cranky, old great-grandfather’s opinion on the Oscar-winning documentary, Period. End Of Sentence., you would be sorely mistaken. These pearls of wisdom were belched out — anonymously, of course — by a male member of the 519-people-strong director’s branch of the Academy Awards. Oh, the delicious irony of a movie deemed “icky” by a man of substantial privilege and clout simply because it speaks of a severely stigmatised biological reality ultimately winning the Oscar. Tragically, the opinion isn’t isolated or even all that surprising. It just goes to show how deep the prejudice against this cyclical bodily function runs in even modern, educated, and progressive parts of the world.  

Period. End Of Sentence. was shot in a Hapur district in Uttar Pradesh, roughly 60 kilometres away from the national capital. It starts with girls giggling, looking troubled, hiding their faces, and generally looking like they wished the earth would open up and swallow them whole because anything would be better than the mortification of being quizzed about menstruation. Some don’t know why their bodies bleed every month, but are convinced that said blood is impure. The men venture, awkwardly, that it is some kind of womanly ailment. The women — those who are able to overcome their self-consciousness — lament, irritatedly, about the restrictions forced on them when they menstruate, and the hassles they have to endure simply to change their blood-soaked cloths and hide any evidence of periods, mostly because how uncomfortable it makes the men around them.

And all of it made me wonder, why trek all the way to a village, when you can see the exact same scenarios play out in large portions of urban India even today?

Some don’t know why their bodies bleed every month, but are convinced that said blood is impure.

Growing up, my grandmother staunchly refused to let any woman on her period so much as venture near the kitchen or the little temple in her room. Any bed that a menstruating woman planted her bottom on was stripped of its covers, and every sheet was packed off to the dry cleaners. A cousin still follows the exhausting tradition. To this day, my own mother flinches at our new-fangled ways of living — particularly those that involve traipsing around any corner of our homes, whenever we want, shedding uterine lining be damned. I have several friends who are terrified of tampons and menstrual cups, convinced that they are little time bombs that will detonate inside their bodies and blast away their hymens. One is still forced to sleep on a separate mat in a tiny designated room in the house and eat from a specific set of utensils that are to be touched only during “those days of the month”. This friend has a doctor for a father.

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Netflix

I’ve watched male friends recoil with horror as if they have been stung by a bullet ant, if they so much as hear the words period or menstruation. I’ve watched, unimpressed, as a male ex-boss once left the room in a fit of rage because a woman colleague couldn’t be bothered to whisper while asking me if I had an extra pad on me. The woman who works as a domestic worker in our home insisted on using cloth instead of sanitary napkins for the longest time — not because she couldn’t afford them, but because infections are easier to deal with than men who lurk around pharmacies just so they can snigger at the discomfort of women trying to buy pads. It is an unspoken social contract between pharmacists and women that any procurement of pads will be carried out in hushed tones, and all purchases must be wrapped in layers of newspapers to shield men from their radioactive rays.  

Periods are used in patriarchal societies as convenient and powerful tools to dismiss and overpower women.

The statistics on how many women in India use sanitary napkins to practice safe menstrual hygiene are wide-ranging — while one widely quoted 2011 survey by AC Nielsen pegs it at 12 per cent, the 2015-16 National Family Health Survey – 4 claims that the number is much higher, at 57 per cent, and yet another study by WaterAid claims only seven per cent women in India use sanitary towels.

The numbers might paint a convoluted picture, but the experience that defines most Indian women’s common reality is this: Periods are used in patriarchal societies as convenient and powerful tools to dismiss and overpower women. By linking menstruation with impurity and unholiness, women become inextricably linked to these notions that must be rejected. Worse, this experience is so common to patriarchal societies that frankly, I was baffled that a documentary as simplistic as Period. End Of Sentence. was considered insightful enough to earn an Oscar. Perhaps that’s what makes it relevant.

Personally, I loved the film. for being a hopeful, heartwarming real-life presentation of women helping women improve their lot in life. While the documentary starts with shy, unsure women and girls, it ends with all its subjects talking about their career ambitions, dreams of financial independence, and hopes for a better future. Where the men were once being told by the women of the house that diaper production was underway to eliminate the hassle of giving them uneasy explanations about what the pad-production machines were, by the end of the documentary, they were trimming and packing pads themselves. To have menstruation and the shame that is still associated with it reach an international stage through an uplifting story like this one can only mean good things in a world where witless old men hide behind anonymity to keep these stories from being recognised.

Menstruation is not icky. Period. End of Sentence.

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