At school, I used to hide my tampons, because asking permission to go to the toilet and then taking my whole bag with me would have been an embarrassing giveaway.
The worst was when I stained my skirt and had to tie my school jumper around my waist.
The girls were usually just as shaming as the boys about this sort of thing. “Don’t you know how to deal with your period?” was a common refrain.
On average a woman will menstruate for 10 years of her life and shed around 6.5 liters of blood, which is . a staggering statistic when you consider the entire human body contains 5 liters of blood. Yet half the world has been conditioned to believe that the “proper” way to deal with menstruation is to show no evidence of this perfectly natural process. Out of sight, out of mind.
Going up in Bahrain in the 1990s, any available information was weakly supplemented by a guest speaker who explored the entirety of a woman’s complex biology in the time between break and the end of the school day. The expert would demonstrate blood loss, sanitary towel and tampon options and then hand out freebies. You were expected to navigate the ensuing physiological and emotional minefield on your own.
Menstruation is a biological function that comes not only with painful cramps but also a hefty price tag (the equivalent of Dh77 per month or Dh924 per year, according to a 2019 study commissioned by Intimina in the US ), so it’s time we moved the conversation away from diluted, shame-loaded metaphors.
The cultural taboo and stigma around periods is changing, however. The talk is now about giving women the language to express how they feel about their bodies and to communicate it. Social media is challenging the conditioned perception that periods are fundamentally problematic.
Iinfluencers like Dubai-based Danae Mercer, 34, who focuses primarily on body positivity and has a 2.1 million-strong following, has grabbed the mic and is passing it on to women who have something to say on the topic.
“On my platform, I want to normalize the conversation,” she said. “Why don’t women understand their cycles? Why don’t we know when we’re ovulating? What about when our testosterone and estrogen levels go up? We need to know how and why that impacts our cravings and mood… Studies have shown they can literally change the way we perceive the world in those moments, so why don’t we talk about it? It happens every month, for many years. I want to talk about sanitary products for convenience and safety [reasons], but also apps like Daisy or Flo, that track your periods and assist in our understanding of the body. They give great insight into what the body does and that knowledge is power.”
For Mercer, who is from the US, the notion that anything western is more progressive is wrong.
“I think there is a massive taboo around the world. In this region there is a taboo around certain types of feminine hygiene products because of their association with intimacy. But women in the US don’t talk about periods. Ads around the world don’t use red liquid to demonstrate blood. Instead, it’s gentle blue water that falls on to pristine white cotton. That is not the lived experience.”
Joining the fight to normalize not only this but all taboo-laden subjects, is Emirati-Syrian Sarah Alagroobi, 31, co-founder of The Letters Project, a letter-sharing platform on Instagram giving people the opportunity to express themselves anonymously. Among the comments about marriage woes, mixed-heritage discrimination and unpopular cultural opinions, a few period-related frustrations pop up too.
Alagroobi says the anonymity of The Letters Project takes away the guilt women may feel and allows them to expand on and share their experiences and have a universal discussion.
“I found a lot of these conversations were happening behind closed doors with friends and family members, but there was no universal learning outcome, because we weren’t able to express these feelings outside of closed sessions. I thought it was important to bring these types of conversations into the foreground because I wanted to create a dissociation from shame. Half of the reason for this taboo is because we have been socially conditioned to feel we don’t have the agency to create a space for these conversations to exist.”
Initially the platform received hostile backlash and was shut down several times due to fear-mongering comments which sought to shame all over again. Over time however, the discourse has taken on a more productive aspect, with doctors and lawyers weighing in.
When it comes to periods, Alagroobi sees a dissociation between women and their bodies, which begins in their parental home “and then gets handed off to their husbands later on.” The woman’s autonomy doesn’t exist and she is not part of the conversation that pertains to her own body. Her voice is lost not only because she can’t ask questions but because she may not know the right questions to ask. Living in a culture that is prone to shaming, women have to unlearn conventions that have been passed down the generations, she adds.
This resonates with Canadian-Lebanese Leah Manasseh, 39, a film-maker and founder of My Dubai, My City, a platform providing information and stories about the city she and her audience call home. Manasseh to her first period when she was 12, during a day out in the desert.
“I was often told it was inappropriate and I should not speak of it. My mother never mentioned periods growing up. I remember feeling a lot of emotions when I realized I had got it [my period]. I remember being scared to tell her but I decided to tell her in secret. She ended up telling everyone I got my period that day – but it was my secret and I felt betrayed. I don’t know why, but I had the feeling that something in me was going to be broken.”
The onset of her periods left Manasseh feeling traumatized and frustrated every month until she began to navigate her own body. One way she has found clarity and understanding is through making her documentary, Ibleed (to be released this year via Vimeo), which charts her personal experience of menstruation, fraught with cultural and biological challenges. It opens with a raw and real Manesseh in her study in Dubai, questioning her marriage and her ability to function.
“This is what PMS looks like,” she said. “Feeling like you’re going to explode.”
The documentary follows other women, from Canada to the US to Lebanon, along with several of Manesseh’s relatives. One woman says she felt “like I was going to be a second-class citizen once a month for the rest of my life.” Another described feeling dirty; other comments included, “I was told to simply not talk about it,” and, “I honestly thought I was dying.”
“The first experience a lot of women had was a path given to them by their mother without any dialogue,” said Manesseh. “And a lot of religious beliefs came into it as well.” Her documentary seeks to change the discussion by chronicling not only her own periods but her mother’s and those of other female relatives so that the experience will be different for her own daughter.
“I have explained to her that my cycle is beautiful and that it makes me connected to the earth and the moon,” says Manasseh. “I’ve balanced it so she isn’t traumatized by it.”
In addition to Manesseh’s documentary, the subject of periods is increasingly being written and talked about in the UAE. When Zomato in India announced last year it would give women 10 days of “period leave” on top of their sick days, the radio host Helen Farmer covered it on her call-in show, Afternoons with Helen Farmer on Dubai Eye 103.8, and on social media.
In an op-ed on Unicef’s work to normalize menstruation and provide education throughout the region, Rasha Abou Dargham argued: “Menstruation is not just a girl’s matter. You read that right. It’s everybody’s matter. It is a normal and healthy part of every girl and woman’s life.”
And then there is the slow but increasing availability of a variety of sustainable sanitary products right here in the UAE, from period cups to reusable period-proof underwear to plastic-free pads.
UK-based company PlastFree recently launched in the UAE, offering a variety of biodegradable products in lieu of the 5,000 to 15,000 sanitary pads and tampons each woman uses in her lifetime.
When Australian Natalie Hobbs stumbled across a Facebook ad for period-proof underwear, it led her to launch Modibodi in the UAE two years ago. After using pads and tampons for almost 30 years, she was intrigued by the idea of washable underwear that can be used instead of either.
Although they are often skeptical at first, Hobbs said “when women discover Modibodi they are so happy that a product like this exists.”
There is a new open-ness about periods and it is growing. For example, Manasseh attended a workshop in Dubai designed to help women reclaim their periods by painting their womb, writing poems and telling their first period stories. It all helps to validate the pain and promote healing.
“It’s important for women to surround themselves with others who had positive experiences and approach the idea of periods through the lens of love, empathy and sympathy,” say Alagroobi, “rather than a lens of shame and guilt.”
Georgie Bradley is a British/Greek editor and journalist based in Dubai after being bred in Bahrain. She's been published by The Guardian UK, The Telegraph UK, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post UK, Buro 24/7 and Harper's Bazaar Arabia. Most recently she was the deputy editor of Emirates Woman. You're most likely to find her in the aisle seat.