40 OVER 40 Farah Ahamed

May 29, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

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#16

Farah Ahamed

Author of Period Matters and Cofounder of Panties with Purpose

 

Farah Ahamed by Jenny SmithFarah Ahamedby Jenny Smith

 

Voted one of the Financial Times' Women of 2022, Farah Ahamed is a former human rights lawyer and the author of Period Matters, a book about menstruation and how it is perceived across South Asia.  She was once stopped and asked if she was menstruating before entering a temple in India, and told to hide her sanitary pads in a brown paper bag when shopping in a supermarket in Pakistan.  It led her to investigate further the different experiences women have and the different viewpoints of menstruation across the region.

Farah and her sisters also set up a campaign called Panties with Purpose collecting new cotton underpants to send to schoolgirls in Kenya. They set out to collect 4000 pairs but to date has distributed over 70,000!

I spent a wonderful morning with Farah, getting to know her and taking some beautiful photographs. She was also very patient with me, standing in a chilly back ally as we attempted to get shots of her sari blowing in the wind! It was definitely worth it though.

Please read on to hear more from this incredible woman who is putting her time and talent into celebrating the power of femininity.

Thank you Farah for taking the time to answer these questions and for being part of my 40 OVER 40 project.

 

Farah Ahamed by Jenny SmithFarah Ahamedby Jenny Smith

 

Tell me about your book Period Matters - can you explain the topics you cover and what spurred you on to compile it.  

The idea for this anthology came to me in the summer of 2019 when it occurred to me that the diversity of the experience of menstruation could best be reflected in a book which included art, fiction and non-fiction. 

I decided the book would move away from the conventional to a deeper and more honest cultivation of stories about menstruation. I asked myself: How could the different perspectives be best presented? Who would be the writers and artists to capture the diversity of representations? The answer lay in complete creative liberty. There would be no brief on genre or format, only an invitation to contributors to share their individual stories in their own way.  The book includes poetry, fiction, art and a specially commissioned dance which interprets the menstrual cycle through classical dance moves, which can be viewed through a QR code. The cover is also unusual; it carries a detail from a visual made with the artist’s menstrual blood. 

The anthology highlights over forty different intersectional perspectives to make conversation more inclusive by providing a glimpse into the way menstruation is viewed by people from different genders, backgrounds, religions, cultures and classes. It carries the stories of factory workers in Bangladesh, nuns in Bhutan, students in Afghanistan, policy makers entrepreneurs in India, artists in Pakistan, refugees in Sri Lanka, and activists in Nepal. It highlights the debate around period leave and how digital tracking apps impact users. It also illustrates how menstruation can be a time of creativity, rest and rejuvenation. It tries to be inclusive in depicting how menstruation is experienced by people with disabilities, the trans gender community, those who are homeless and incarcerated.

My decision to focus on South Asia was motivated by two events. The first is when I was stopped and asked if I was menstruating as I was about to enter a Jain temple in India. The second is when I picked up a packet of sanitary pads while shopping at a supermarket in Pakistan and a male shop attendant rushed over and told me to hide them in a brown bag to avoid being humiliated at the checkout counter. I found both incidents disturbing – being questioned about intimate details of my body by a stranger and having my behaviour in a public space controlled because menstruation was associated with shame. I realized once again how much I had taken for granted.

 

Farah Ahamed by Jenny SmithFarah Ahamedby Jenny Smith

 

Tell us more about Panties with Purpose and how it all started.

In 2011, my two sisters and I started an informal campaign, Panties with Purpose. Our objective was to raise awareness and help 1000 schoolgirls with menstrual products. In those days, the phrase ‘period poverty,’ hadn’t been coined, no one was talking about periods openly. 

We kept our strategy simple: we would ask donors to give us new cotton underpants. We felt that if they had to go out and buy a pair of underpants instead of donating cash, they would be more likely to talk about the issue with friends. Also, as we were not a registered charity, this approach would make it easier for us to manage our operations.                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Our plan worked. Within less than two months we had strangers writing to us from over sixty  cities including Mumbai, Copenhagen, Hong Kong and Vancouver saying they were moved by the issue and wanted to support us. We also partnered with local Kenyan artists including Iddi Achieng, and hosted a ‘menstruation awareness’ concert where the entry ticket was a packet of pads or underpants. Our target had been to collect 4,000 pairs of underpants, but we ended up receiving over 40,000.  

Thanks to a donation from Virgin Atlantic and many friends, the underpants were then transported to Kenya. Later, in a school in Kibera, Google sponsored our first-ever event on International Women’s Day in 2011, which included a menstrual health workshop.

Since then, Panties with Purpose has distributed over 70,000 pairs of pants to more than 17,000 girls, and sponsored health education and skills-training workshops across 200 locations in Kenya. We have lobbied for period-friendly schools, workplaces and places of worship. Our advocacy work has extended to the distribution of free period products in schools, supported innovation around developing pads using local materials, as well as the removal of the tampon tax. 

 

Farah Ahamed by Jenny SmithFarah Ahamedby Jenny Smith

 

What cultural differences are there when it comes to women’s health in South Asia compared to where you live now?  How do you think things can improve?

While compiling Period Matters,  I was intrigued to find how diverse the experience was; in some places there were restrictions, in others it was a time of healing and rest, and in still others, a celebration. I saw how it depended the on context and the identity of the menstruator. While there were political, religious, social, and cultural factors impacting the experience, class, caste, gender and occupation also played a role. 

Some factors are common to all parts of the world: access to a choice of affordable menstrual products, and the continued shame and stigma around the experience. 

I have been thinking about how menstruators navigate different spaces. Do they maintain their menstrual practices when they leave home and move to another country? How does interacting with another context affect their understanding of menstruation? Does it help them shed their shame or heighten it? What is it like for them at home and how is it different at school or work? 

And what about boys and men? When and where do they learn about menstruation? How do they feel about it? How can they be helped to understand it better? How can men help to break the stigma around periods? I wrote an essay for LARB, ‘Men Explain Periods to Me,’ where I shared the different reactions to Period Matters, which I received from men which included: disgust, confusion, anger, fear and death threats. This tells you how limited their understanding is of menstruation, and how alien it feels to them.

 

Farah Ahamed by Jenny SmithFarah Ahamedby Jenny Smith

 

Through Panties with Purpose and compiling Period Matters, a common theme became apparent. At the core of every narrative about menstruation is a call for a greater dignity and freedom. This means the choice to speak openly or remain silent; to stay in a room or leave; to be admitted to a place of worship and family events. It means choice relating to education, marriage and what to eat. And symbolic of all basic human needs, the right to choice of menstrual products, instead of a soiled rag. 

I am optimistic the book will instigate more menstruation discussions. I hope the radical cover of Period Mattters and other art in the book will motivate other artists to use their creativity for menstrual activism. Environmentally sustainable solutions for menstrual products are much needed today and possibly the efforts made in South Asia, highlighted in Period Matters, will prompt young entrepreneurs. For those who do not menstruate, I hope they become more compassionate. 

 

Farah Ahamed by Jenny SmithFarah Ahamedby Jenny Smith

 

Are you aware of how women deal with menopause in South Asia?  Things are only really being talked about openly in this country in the last few years - what’s the situation there and do you see if changing? 

Since compiling Period Matters I’ve become more aware of the words and phrases used to describe menstruation and menopause in different languages. Often these are euphemisms, and if they exist at all are loaded with implications. 

For instance, in Bengali, menstruation is referred to as ‘shorir kharap,’ or being unwell. But in Jharkhand, the Santals call it ‘hormo baha,’ or flower of the body.  It is interesting to think about how language alters our experience and perception of menstruation. 

While growing up in Kenya, I don’t recall periods having a specific name. One time I heard my aunt telling my mother, in half-Kiswahili and half-Gujarati, ‘Mgeni aiva che,’ meaning; ‘The visitors are here.’ For many years, I never understood the phrase. It was a coded language shared by women in a world where the word ‘menstruation’ was not acceptable. Similarly, there is no word for menopause in Gujrati, or I haven’t come across it yet. These erasures and silences signal that the subject is still taboo or shameful and there is still widespread ignorance.

 

Farah Ahamed by Jenny SmithFarah Ahamedby Jenny Smith

 

In the digital world of period tracking apps, we find something sinister going on in relation to language. The words used there, including the persuasive marketing references to managing, controlling, cleanliness, hygiene, and health all point to there being a normative idea of a period, but in fact there is none, because each person has a different body. What eventually happens is that through continuous interactions and engagement with the app, users’ subjectivity is impacted. 

 

Farah Ahamed by Jenny SmithFarah Ahamedby Jenny Smith

cont.. The reactions to the art work in Period Matters have ranged from awe and confusion to shock and rage. Some have vowed never to touch the book – a book with a visual of artwork made of menstrual blood was a step too far. It is telling how the ‘ick’ factor around menstrual blood, even for those who consider themselves broad-minded, is generally a given. Menstrual blood is stigmatised, and this has been accepted as the rule. Women’s reproductive health is woefully understudied and underfunded.  One of the best sources of biological material for studying women’s reproductive health is menstrual blood, but because of its stigma, menstrual blood has rarely been studied in detail. 

The only way to take away the shame around menstruation and menstrual blood is to make the conversations around it commonplace, in the home, at schools, and at workplaces.

 

Farah Ahamed by Jenny SmithFarah AhamedBy Jenny Smith

 

This project celebrates women over 40 - how have you found this stage in your life so far?  

I suppose you could say it was only in my forties that I found the courage to experiment with new ideas and explore my creativity and decided to try and write full-time. I signed up for courses, joined a writing group and was lucky enough to find a mentor. Since then, I’ve been on a journey with many highs and lows. But the best part is I’m continually learning, and always challenging myself. 

I think if I had not made that shift in my early forties, during my menopause I would have been really, really miserable. With the brain fog and sleeplessness, the thing that kept me going was writing- on many days the blank page was where I felt I had some sort of space and freedom, even though on others, it was torture.

In your fifties, sometimes you imagine you have a slightly better sense of who you are, your place in the world, and what you want to do. On other days, it feels like nothing is clear. But I suppose, hopefully, that means one is evolving, and searching for ways to experience oneself more fully.   

 

Farah Ahamed by Jenny SmithFarah Ahamedby Jenny Smith

 

If you could go back and give you teenage self some advice what would you say?

My mother died when she was 54, which is how old I will be this year, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about her, and what it must have been like for her to die so young, and how it affected me and the decisions I made because of that. She had a deep faith in a God who was compassionate, and she constantly reminded me of this.  

So, to my younger self, I would give the same reminders, but add, have as much fun as you can, be more daring. Throw caution to the wind. Don’t worry about perfection or failure, because they are meaningless. And be as kind as you can to yourself and others. Because at fifty, it feels like that’s really the only thing that matters.

 

Farah Ahamed by Jenny SmithFarah Ahamedby Jenny Smith

I think it's fair to say that our hormones have affected us all at some time in our lives be it puberty, PMT, pregnancy or the menopause.  If that's you then check out my podcast, Dear Hormones, hopefully it'll make you smile. You can listen to it here.
 


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