The silence of the taboo: Why must I put my sanitary pads in a brown bag?
I was one of the most excited women in the newsroom when I heard Bollywood was making a movie tackling the taboo around menstruation called PadMan. As someone who detests censorship to the core, I thought perhaps now that the pad will be up on the silver screen, I will no longer be shamed for talking about periods openly, or for refusing to use the brown bag.
But excitement didn’t last very long. Lo and behold! The Central Board of Film Censors banned PadMan in Pakistan.
The details in the news were mind-blowing, a lot like how it feels when the uterus explodes and the periodic bleeding commences. Apparently, members of the Punjab Film Censor Board refused to even watch the film, saying the subject is “taboo”. The same hogwash was thrown around social media as well, that discussing menstruation is “not acceptable” in our society.
The comment sections reeked of regression, more disgusting than soiled pads.
The first time I bled, I was 11
The news of the ban took me back to the first time I learned about puberty.
I was 10-years-old. My body had started going through changes which got me worried as an unaware child. I thought I needed an operation. So I turned to my mother for help, who then had to disclose that I will start bleeding in the coming months.
“But why? Why do we get periods, Ami? Does Baji (my elder sister) have periods too? What about Bhai (my brother)?”
Questions. I had so many questions.
My mother, trying to hide her abashed smile, said,
“Yes, Baji has periods too. It happens to all girls, and no, boys don’t get periods, only women get periods because that’s just how God created us.”
And with that, the matter was put to rest. The 10-year-old me accepted that half-explanation, and a few months later, at the age of 11, I began bleeding.
It happened while I was in school (I went to an all-girls school). As I still did not have enough information, I was unprepared and ended up staining my steel-grey uniform, a lot.
I was walking in the corridor from the bathroom when some teenaged girls, the senior Bajis, surrounded me.
“What’s that on your back?” one of them asked; a question that left me dumbfounded.
How do they not know, I thought to myself. What else could the brown-coloured blotches on the back of any uniform be? Are they just pranking me?
As an anxious child experiencing puberty, I felt attacked for the way I was approached, confused for the way the questions were hurled, and ashamed because I had made my clothes dirty with blood. So many thoughts went abuzz in my head.
I wish I hadn’t dirtied my uniform. I wish nobody could see my dirty blood! How will I sit in the van and travel like this? What if there’s more of it coming? Oh God, I feel so naked. I just want to go home, were some of the thoughts rushing through my head, birthing anxiety.
The voices in my head grew louder as the girls awaited a response. I was trying but I just couldn’t get myself to say the “m” word. Just then, much to my relief, a girl stepped in from somewhere and said something that dissipated all the tension in the air.
“It’s Coke,” she said. “It got spilled.”
And with that, everything fizzled out (no pun intended).
What is this shame in our vaginas?
It’s been 18 years since the first time I bled but I remember all of it too vividly. The senior Bajis knew we were lying. We knew that they knew we were lying. But everyone felt this inexplicable need to lie, to cover the blood. Where was this pressure to lie coming from? What was so wrong and shameful about admitting to a natural process that all girls around the world go through?
It’s been 18 years and I’m still trying to figure that out.
Why do menstruating women in Muslim families wake up for Sehri when they aren’t going to fast? Why do the same women force their daughters to stuff anda paratha (egg with bread) down their throats and participate in this family drama at 4am? Every Muslim knows menstruating Muslim women are excused from offering prayers or fasting. So then what is up with these gimmicks? Who are we deceiving about the blood flowing through our vaginas?
And then there are these other, less pervasive forms of censorship, such as women using code words for menstruation. In my family, we refer to menstruation as ‘Aunty’ or chutti (holiday).
“Yusra, why aren’t you praying? Chutti hai (Is it your holiday)?”
“Yes,” I would say. “My ‘Aunty’ is visiting.”
Ugh, don’t ask.
I mean God-forbid if you need a pad and need to use it in a bathroom, which is across the living room where your father and male cousins are sitting. Obviously, nobody should see the pad in your hand. What if they find out? It would be apocalyptic, if you know what I mean.
So we wrap the pads in our dupattas. Or we try to cover it by spreading our palm over the square-shaped pack, placing the hand under the daaman (hem) of our shirts. And we speed through the living room at lightning speed because Abu na dekh lain (Father shouldn’t see it)!
Resisting the infamous brown bag
Over the years, I’ve grown into a raging, radical feminist. But coming from a traditionally conservative family, surrounded by women who promote the censorship surrounding menstruation, resisting hasn’t been that easy.
I remember the first time I refused the brown bag at a popular chain supermarket in Nazimabad. The aisle manager, a middle-aged woman, kicked up a storm, accusing me of breaking a rule – albeit unsaid – pushing for the brown bag.
“Is lifafay mai rakhye, allowed nahi hai!”
(Keep it in this brown bag, it’s not allowed!)
Her yelling left me in a bit of shock. I wasn’t expecting such a strong protest from a fellow woman. So I looked around in search of support but all I got were blank stares from niqaabs and hijabs wrapped with lawn dupattas. No woman stepped forward to speak up as my slut-shaming continued. The one who did step forward, though, was my aunt, but only to put the pack of pads in the brown bag.
“Bura lagta hai beta (It looks bad dear),” she muttered, siding with the moral police in-charge of the aisle.
Stunned and overpowered, I left the aisle.
But that was the last time I succumbed to the idiosyncratic pressure of using brown bags.
The next time I resisted the brown bag was at a high-end mini-mart at a gas station in Gulistan e Jauhar, an area where Karachi’s upwardly mobile, mostly conservative, middle class resides. I frequent that convenience store as it is nearby my house and has everything I need.
One day, I went to the store to pick up some things, including a pack of pads. While deciding which one to buy, the aisle manager came up to me, asking if I’m looking for a brown bag.
“I’m not, but thanks,” I said with a smile, continuing my hunt for the cheapest buy.
But I got interrupted again, this time by a different aisle manager.
“Ma’am, do you need a brown bag?” he asked
“For what?” I answered with a question, a little frustrated this time. “No, I don’t want a brown bag, but thanks.” I turned him away too.
Finding the right pads, I placed the pack in the basket with everything else. As I made my way to the cashier, I felt the public gaze in the store following me around. It felt like people were more interested in my shopping basket than in buying their Digestive biscuits.
My turn came. I began placing the items in my basket on the counter for the cashier to scan. When his eyes fell on the purple and pink pack, he called one of his subordinates, telling him to fetch… guess what… the haunting brown bag!
At this point, I was just trying to contain my laughter at the confusion I had caused among the staff, all men.
“I don’t need the brown bag. Everybody knows what’s inside the brown bag. What are we trying and failing to hide?”
He didn’t have an answer; my own mother wouldn’t have an answer.
He was smart, though.
“There’s no need,” he said to his subordinate who had made the run and brought us the brown bag.
The cashier and I then exchanged smiles. I picked up my shopping bags and left the store, thanking goodness for no moral policing, for the cashier’s common sense and courtesy, and the shopping trip to have ended on a rather uplifting note.
Plea to the censor board
I can only hope Mr Mobashir Hasan, chairperson of the Central Board of Film Censors, understands this concept too. He too was born because his mother menstruated, or well, because she missed that menstrual cycle; there is nothing immoral about talking about periods.
Films can spark important conversations and lead us to solutions for issues that have marred the masses for a long time, issues that aren’t discussed because someone thinks they’re too “taboo”. So the least we can do, as a state, is facilitate the conversation and address these “taboo” subjects as silence and unawareness is far more damaging.
The fault, then, I think isn’t in movies like PadMan, but in the conscious denial of people governing these bodies (no pun intended, again).
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