Paper Bags and Pakistan's Fear of Periods


The first time I met ‘Aunt Flo’, I was 11 and excused from my Quran class. Ashamed and embarrassed, I never met eyes with my Islamiyat teacher. I started taking sick weeks once a month, and of course, my teacher knew. Just like most Asian men, he looked at me with disgust when I would tell him I couldn’t pray today.

After I reached puberty, I became more conscious of men. I was more conscious of eyes on me, knowing of my ‘dirty little secret’. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, asking friends to check my back, and never wearing white trousers because that would be blasphemy in it's highest regards. 

As soon as girls become women, there is the start of shaming, guilt and degrading - but why are men so disgusted by blood? Why must women be ashamed of their bodies for something they can simply not control?

Its just blood, isn’t it?

Every shop in Pakistan has a separate aisle for ‘female products’ with colourful packaging and words such as “odor-less” “discreet” “ultra-thin”, as if every aspect of being a woman in Pakistan is something to only be proud of in hushed words, dark alleys and in the safety of the kitchen. 

Alongside the products is always a brown paper bag. A bag that holds sanitary napkins so that cashiers, and the men in the stores are not offended by my purchases. Underlining the squeamishness in shops that sell sanitary products is the debilitating inability to talk openly about menstruation without eliciting cringes and groans from men.

The problem with menstruation isn’t the fact that we bleed, but it is the fact that bleeding ‘holds women back’. I’ve heard countless stories about how young girls are pulled out of school, as soon as she starts her period, they are made to stay home, cook, clean and are deprived of an education because of lack of sanitary methods. The underprivileged use dirty rag cloths, that they clean constantly because they cannot afford proper pads or tampons.  They stay locked up in their homes for a week every month so that people in their villages and people in their homes don’t see that a child has grown up.

People discuss women’s bodies for all the wrong reasons.  So, friends of mine, well-educated girls from good backgrounds and homes, have no idea what to do when they eventually bleed. If the educated are lost, can you imagine how lost the uneducated are. The brown bag symbolises brown women. Its contents are always hidden, never really talked about and put in narrow corners of stores. 

Students in Lahore, Pakistan understood the social stigma periods have on us. The students from BNU covered walls in pads trying to erase the social stigma of shaaram.

“This is not a campaign; this was merely an aesthetically-based protest as a class project. We chose this because Eman and I feel women face a lot of stigmatisation and ridicule for menstruation, something they have no control over,”

one of the students told the Tribune.

This is not a plea for different bags, nor is a way of communicating to women that they should openly buy menstrual items. It’s directed towards the men that run this nation. Its directed to them to not be afraid of women in power, to not shame women for something they can't control, and to not to be ashamed of their bodies.

We don't need to cower, be afraid and constantly be checking over our shoulder constantly thinking "kohi dekh ley ga". (Someone will see me).

Because if they do, they do.

Its just blood, isn’t it?