I have often wondered how the first woman reacted to the discovery of blood between her legs. The whys and hows of it, of course, came much later nonetheless, to understand a bodily phenomenon that occurs somewhat regularly must have been equal parts confounding and daunting.

This leads me to remember a quote from historian Deborah Jaffe’s book Ingenious Women, where she writes, “Necessity is the mother of invention. This may be true, but it leaves out the fact that the inventor may also be somebody’s mother. Years ago, when I was studying anthropology at university, one of my female professors held up a photograph of an antler bone with 28 markings on it. This, she said, is alleged to be man’s first attempt at a calendar. We all looked at the bone in admiration. Tell me, she continued, what man needs to know when 28 days have passed? I suspect that this is a woman’s first attempt at a calendar.”

The very first period tracker, if you will! Despite the lack of technology and convenience of period products, women had found a way to keep track of their cycles and must have even devised absorbents using ash or cotton rags. The conclusion: Women have always been ingenious in managing their period.

Menstruation and menstruators

One would think such primeval ways are a thing of the past. Unfortunately, that is not entirely true. Period tracking apps are new and niche but women have figured out that it is usually a 28-day cycle. Period products, though not new, continue to be a privilege. Even if you are in the dark about statistics, the display section at the chemist’s can be telling – pads are sold anywhere between Re 1 a piece to Rs 300 a pack.

The availability of good, economical, and toxin-free pads are not enough – menstrual hygiene also requires clean washrooms, regular and clean water supply, medical help at hand when and if necessary, and above all, the dignity and privacy to menstruate. While to urban readers like us these may sound like trivial wants, Period Matters reminds us of the glaring period poverty that menstruators face in South Asia.

Ahamed’s Period Matters is an objective study of menstruation and menstruators in South Asia. The essays, interviews, and stories in the book take a look at how menstruators of different cultural backgrounds experience menstruation. Meanwhile, the poetry, art, and dance (a QR code on page 44 can be scanned to watch the performance) is a cultural exploration of menstruation and the creative expressions that are born out of it.

Raqa-e-Mahavaari: A Menstrual Dance, performed by Amna Mawaz Khan, also available in the book to scan and watch

Though the book’s geographical setting is South Asia, it does a commendable job of bringing a range of experience to the front. From the rugged terrains of Balochistan in Pakistan and nunneries in Bhutan to periods under the Taliban rule in Afghanistan and corporate offices in Bangladesh, no period experience is too inconsequential for Ahamed. Every perspective is told with empathy and kinship that menstruators feel among themselves.

Menstruating is as involuntary as excreting or breathing, still it carries the tags of shame and secrecy. Menstruators are quick in recalling “embarrassing” period stories and conforming to traditional norms of untouchability or restricted movements – these have little to no scientific basis yet enforced with utmost seriousness in many cultures.

Class and caste disadvantages might make the experience worse for these menstruators, especially young girls going through menarche. Such a glaring discrimination is illustrated in the chapter “Kotahalu Mangalya: Menstruation Traditions and Practices in Sri Lanka”, where Zinthiya Ganeshpanchan writes, “Asking a menstruating girl to wear a washerwoman’s clothes is to tell her and the family that she is symbolically impure and unclean.”

Artist and contributor Lyla Freechild with her artwork, "Adya Shakti"

An inclusive study of menstruation

Ahamed’s lens is wide and inclusive. She expands the definition of menstruators to include transmen and transwomen along with menstruators with disabilities. In the chapters “Red Dye on a Pad” and “The Worst Day of my Life”, Ahamed interviews transwomen and a transman on their relationship with menstruation. While for one menstruation is a cause of deep discomfort and body dysmorphia, for the other it is a phenomenon that is intrinsic to womanhood. In “A Caregiver’s Perspective on Managing Menstrual Hygiene”, we learn of menstruators with physical and mental disabilities and their health and hygiene needs while on their periods.

When it comes to restrictions on privacy and safety, Ahamed ventures into jails and streets to speak to incarcerated and homeless women. Interestingly, her gaze is never of the outsider – Ahamed’s work at grassroots levels on period poverty equips her with the sensitivity to speak with the marginalised. In these chapters, she also examines the importance of public toilets and fairly priced period products in community health.

But the picture is not all grim, there are organisations and activists who are committed to the cause of ending period poverty. Ahamad’s campaign Panties with Purpose is one such amongst many. She interviews activists who are involved in manufacturing economical and safe pads, advocating for menstrual dignity, and starting conversations with young children about menstrual and sexual health. It is heartening to read about these relentless efforts to bring about a change.

For a menstruator, menopause is also as much a part of the menstrual cycle as the bloody, murky phases of it. If there was menarche, there will be menopause it is inevitable. Though most menstruators are likely to stop bleeding in their late 40s or slightly later, some might experience it sooner due to health or nutrition issues.

In “Hothousing: Embracing Menopause at Thirty-Seven”, actor and activist Lisa Ray writes about her early menopause as a consequence of multiple myeloma and its rigorous treatments. The complicated relationship with femininity and menstruation continues long after one stops bleeding.

Period Matters is a well-planned and a well-thought out book. Ahamed leaves no gaps. If there’s anything that you are curious about menstruation experiences in South Asia, rest assured, the book has an answer to it. Period Matters an inclusive representation of menstruators in the truest sense of the word.

Period Matters

Period Matters, Edited by Farah Ahamed, Pan Macmillan.