BEIRUT: Mar Mikhael was painted red Thursday night with the premiere of a new documentary and festival tackling period poverty, shining a spotlight on the problem facing women in Lebanon that for years has been regarded as a taboo.
Titled "Jeyetna" (the word itself taboo), the documentary tells the story of 10 diverse women across Lebanon and exposes the different ways period poverty impacts women in the region. It aims to open up conversation and understanding around menstruation and shake off societal stigma.
Moreover, the documentary comes at a critical time for women in Lebanon who have been at the forefront of the country’s debilitating economic crisis. An estimated 77 percent of women in Lebanon are now struggling to access menstrual items as a result of rampant inflation; causing a 500 percent increase in the prices of sanitary products, like pads and tampons, according to study published earlier this month by Lebanese NGO Fe-Male and Plan International.
The government’s failure to include period products on the list of essential subsidies has pushed the problem to become a public health emergency. More and more women have been forced to find alternatives like baby nappies, old rags or even newspapers, exposing them to a heightened risk of health problems like infections, anxiety or stress.
Around 130 attendees gathered at the old train station off Armenia Street, which was adorned with washing lines hanging red-stained pants, alongside a market place handing out and presenting products such as reusable pads and menstrual cups and a safe place to learn more about menstruation.
The 109-minute documentary by British-French director Evelina Llewellyn was filmed at the end of last year and has been developed with an artistic Arab identity. It aims to give not just a Lebanese, but a universal portrait of menstruation, as well as depicting the precarity and beauty of periods for women.
“This event was created on the fundamental belief that periods should be a public health issue; they’re a collective issue and every woman and every person should have the right to education about their period, the right to access products, [and] for all period products to be accessible all over Lebanon,” Llewellyn said, addressing the audience at the start of the festival.
Twenty-five year old Llewellyn, who is leading the all-female, 90-percent Lebanese team alongside co-director Assil Khalife, said she was inspired to the make the documentary after reading last year that 60 percent of women in Lebanon were unable to afford period products.
Llewellyn who has spent the last three years living in Lebanon and working in the field, emphasized how period poverty is not just about being financially at a loss, but also an educational loss: “Period poverty is also the lack of knowledge,” she told The Daily Star.
The cause does not stop with the documentary, and the team has partnered up with local NGOs and health experts to bring ‘Jeyetna’ to 25 urban and rural locations on a countrywide tour throughout July and August, reaching one thousand women and girls.
At locations as far north as Qaa, to Tyre in the south, the festival aims to normalize periods by creating a safe space for women to talk, while they can receive products for free and health advice from experts.
Women’s health and sexuality are sensitive issues to combat in Arab culture and have historically been dictated by religion and patriarchal societies. It has forged a culture of misunderstanding and shame on both men and women’s part.
Amira, one of 10 women featured in the film, spoke to The Daily Star at the premiere about how it felt to be included: “At first, I was nervous and embarrassed, I felt like it was a tough subject to talk about,” she said.
Amira, who fled Syria’s civil war four years ago and now lives in a camp outside Sidon, said the project has made her realize the subject is normal. Before, it was rarely talked about even among female friends and relations. “We wouldn’t tell anyone we had our period.”
When she told her husband about her inclusion in the film, his first reaction was that it was shameful or "ayb," highlighting a common misconception regarding periods in conservative Arab communities. But he was convinced after understanding that “it was natural and there was no need to be embarrassed regarding a subject like this,” Amira said.
Co-director Khalife said broaching the topic in Lebanon was a challenge and even just telling people the name of the festival, "Jeyetna," was enough to cause a cringed reaction.
“Literally it means ‘we got it’ [a period]. Honestly, it’s the typical word that anyone uses in Lebanon but usually we don’t use ‘Jeyetna’ in front of men, or in public.”
Khalife added that women “are always finding a way not to say the actual word.” But since working on the project over the last five months, it has for her too, dispelled past embarrassment.
“I used to be very ashamed about it, but now whenever I am on my period I say, ‘jeyetna.'"