On Thursday, April 14, Mac Activists for Reproductive Justice (Mactivists) hosted their fourth annual Menstrual Health Panel, aiming this year to highlight differences in the discussions of female bodies’ menstrual cycles around the globe. It featured four panelists: Lutfe-E-Noor Rahman ’18, Andrea Grimaldi ’16, Nafeesa Dawoodbhoy and Alia Baitie ’18, who works at the sex toy store The Smitten Kitten and is an abortion doula.
In an email after the event, Mactivist co-chairs and panel organizers Sophie Navarro ’16, Kate Gallagher ’16 and Delanee Hawkins ’18 said they wanted to step outside of the cisgender, American perspective that had been featured in past years. This year they said they wanted to recognize the differences worldwide in how people talk about menstruation.
The panelists were chosen because they fit the narrative of the international experience. Nafeesa was interested in participating before the theme was decided and, luckily, “it worked out that her experiences fit perfectly with our theme,” wrote Hawkins in an email.
The first part of the panel was a Q&A session, with questions asked by Gallagher, who served as panel moderator. The questions focused largely on the personal experiences of the panelists and how those experiences fit within the broader culture surrounding menstruation in the their home countries.
Several panelists commented on the publicity of their first periods, which often featured celebrations and phone calls to tell extended family that they had reached “womanhood.”
“I was very uncomfortable with [my mom] telling the whole extended family,” Grimaldi said.
Another point of discussion was cultural taboos regarding tampons and insertion, which in some countries results in greater popularity of sanitary pads. In Sri Lanka, for example, “there are no tampons … there’s taboo with insertion, which has to do with virginity,” Dawoodbhoy said.
In Bangladesh, menstruation brings a break from the routine as a result of the Islamic culture.
“I build an alternative narrative for myself… it’s okay if I don’t pray when I’m on my period,” Rahman said. “Young women are seen as unclean when menstruating, and so can’t touch the Koran.”
Rahman added that “impurity and poverty tie in really dangerously. It leads to people literally staying [in] their home for seven days.” Those seven days are a significant economic cost to families living day to day. Additionally, Rahman pointed out the cost of environmentally friendly alternatives to tampons and sanitary pads, saying, “if you are living day to day or month to month, you don’t have the luxury of buying in bulk” or spending 30 U.S. dollars on a menstrual cup.
Overall, there was agreement that when a female body starts menstruating, it suffers cultural consequences related to “womanhood.”
After starting her period, “there was a lot of emphasis on protecting me from sexual advances,” Dawoodbhoy said, a sentiment echoed by the other panelists.
They also discussed the idea that getting one’s first period put one “in the group,” a mentality shared by friends when they were younger. “[After I started my period] I was one of the other group,” Grimaldi said.
Organizers were pleased with the turnout of the panel.
Navarro wrote in an email, “Thursday night events can be kind of rough because it’s toward the end of the week and folks are tired or busy—there also happened to be a lot of campus events that night. Regardless, we had a great turn out, saw a lot of new folks who will hopefully attend our future events, and bring their friends too!”
“I thought it was really cool to see different perspectives on menstruation from people other than my close friends,” Heather MacDougall ’19, who attended the event, said.
The event coordinators also liked the setup of this year’s panel in contrast with previous years.
“I hope to continue with the themed panels and continue broadening the narrative from cis, White women who feel connected to their bodies when they get their periods. I think we could definitely do another year of international experiences, and I’d love to see a panel focusing on different faiths, different socioeconomic backgrounds and different genders as well,” Hawkins wrote.