The cultural stigma surrounding periods and the infamous ‘brown bagging’ of sanitary products in Pakistan has been a topic of hot debate for a while now. However, the real focus should be on the ideas the brown bag perpetuates and the communities most impacted by this subtle ideological promotion.
There has been much discourse on the indirect way in which the brown bag perpetuates the belief that periods are ‘impure’ and as such need to be concealed. These ideas are subtly reinforced through the lens of religion and culture in Pakistan. Ask any women and it’s likely that you’ll find a host of period restriction stories; hiding symptoms from teachers, family and colleagues under the guise of ‘being sick’ or the usage of code names to describe a period. I’m not entirely opposed to this though. It’s understandable for women to not want to go into detail about the going-ons of their private areas and I’m certain that it’s not uncommon to feel ‘gross’ while on your period. The problem arises when you attach this idea of shame to a naturally occurring process and by extension, to the female body.
Women from all walks of life, particularly those from restrictive and conservative societies like that of Pakistan’s, have probably felt a sense of shame and embarrassment surrounding their bodies while growing up. However, most Pakistani women from educated and elite backgrounds typically break out of this as stigma as they become more educated. What’s more concerning is how this continues to affect the 60 per cent of the population living in poverty, who will most likely not receive any form of sex education that can help them better understand and manage this cycle in a safe and healthy way.
This becomes more alarming when we realise the serious implications associated with getting your period for lower socio-economic communities. A major factor preventing women from attending schools is getting their periods, mostly for fear of being mocks by faculty and students and an inability of knowing how to handle the process while in a work or academic environment.
Moreover, due to lack of understanding about menstrual cycles and the taboo attached to it, girls and women from impoverished communities are oftentimes shunned for the natural process. Stories of them being locked in rooms for the duration of their menstrual cycle and sometimes even physically abused for it are rampant within these communities.
Additionally, there is a serious issue with access to sanity products in Pakistan. According to a UNICEF report, only 20 per cent of women have access to sanitary products. In many rural communities, women are forced to use rags and pieces of cloth to compensate, even sometimes spending the duration of their menstruating days without any products at all. This has major impacts on the health and hygiene of communities that already have difficulties maintaining good health.
The issue is less so with the brown bag itself, but what it symbolises. If the brown bag gives young girls the confidence to buy sanitary products or helps men buy these products for women in their homes, then I’ll accept it (albeit reluctantly). The problem arises when it reinforces cultural and religious restrictions that prevent women from getting access to sanitary products. It is important to facilitate the conversation and address this taboo because silence and unawareness is doing far more damage.