The stigma of menstruation is as universal as it is ludicrous. The notion that a woman should be ostracized or made to feel shame because of her period is inexcusably offensive. Yet, patriarchal queasiness over this natural, necessary biological function is another shameful example of the deep-rooted misogyny that exists across cultures.
But, while we here in the West are complicit in our own forms of period shaming — if you don’t believe me, talk to a woman in your life; she’s likely got a few stories — it pales in comparison to parts of the world where knowledge about menstruation and access to sanitary pads is scarce to nonexistent.
Director Rayka Zehtabchi provides an enlightening and uplifting glimpse into one such place in her new documentary “Period. End of Sentence.,” which recently won an Academy Award for best short subject doc.
Zehtabchi travels to a rural village outside Delhi, India, to tell the story of a group of women who are working to bring affordable, eco-friendly sanitary pads to their community. In India, menstruation is such a taboo subject that mothers lack the adequate vocabulary and knowledge to even explain it to their daughters. The shame is evident in scenes where women giggle uncomfortably and cover their faces when discussing it in front of the camera.
That shame can be so intense that young women may miss long stretches of school or drop out entirely when they first get their period. The lack of basic knowledge also creates poor hygienic practices such as using dirty rags, which can lead to infection.
The efforts of these women have been facilitated by Arunachalam Muruganatham, an entrepreneur who has developed a low-cost, easy-to-use machine that makes pads. Equipped with the machine, the women of the village start a small business manufacturing and selling pads.
From our perspective in the developed West, it can be difficult to understand how something as simple as a sanitary pad can be so revolutionary. We take such comforts for granted. Indeed, some male viewers may have never considered how menstruation affects women at large, let alone those in the developing world. However, the film effectively shows us the independence having access to pads affords these women, allowing them to continue their education, advance their careers and live with dignity free from the stigma unfairly associated with menstruation.
That independence is mirrored in the women who started the pad business. They proudly speak of how the experience of running a successful business and earning money has given them a sense of purpose and worth, and how it has earned them the respect of their husbands.
On a technical note, the film’s choice to eschew subtitles for English overdubbing is an unfortunate distraction. The tone and inflection of the English voices often feel overly rehearsed and unnatural. That said, it’s not enough to keep the film’s important message from shining through.
“Period. End of Sentence.” offers an inspirational example of female empowerment in a country that has often treated women as second-class citizens. It captures a quiet type of feminism that makes its case through seemingly small but tangible actions that are no less revolutionary.