Periods are trendy right now. Women are live-tweeting and instagramming them. Apple built an app to help us track them. In Myanmar, where menstruation remains taboo, a feminist artist has turned hers into a piece of performance art.
On Saturday afternoon, in Yangon’s Gallery 65, 37-year-old Ma Ei silently handed out sanitary pads to members of the crowd that had gathered for the opening of the show.
Then, clad in a nightgown, she crawled up in a fetal position in the corner of the room.
“Better leave her to sleep,” one male audience member said sheepishly.
Over three days, the artist will live and perform in this room, sparsely furnished with a desk, bed, chair and mirror. Bright red light illuminates everything. Wall posters are inscribed with phrases like: “Almost every woman experiences painful menstruation.”
The show, titled Period, is an attempt to break the silence about female physiology – and sexuality – in Myanmar. For many women in Myanmar, menstruation is unmentionable, even within families.
“Normally women don’t say,” Ma Ei told The Diplomat a few days before the show. “They just say, ‘I have a stomach ache’ or ‘I’m sick.’”
There’s a popular belief that menstrual blood is unclean.
“If you don’t bleed, the blood becomes rotten and comes upwards and anything can happen,” one woman was quoted as saying in Menstrual Madness: Women’s, Health and Wellbeing in Urban Burma. A firm selling traditional herbal medicine meant to help women expel all their blood is apparently doing good business.
The morning Ma Ei got her first period, as a child living in Dawei, a port-city on Myanmar’s southern coast, she was too shy to tell anyone. She simply went to school – where nothing about menstruation was taught.
“Mostly, we learn from friends,” she said.
Period was inspired by an argument she had with a male friend while at the lowest ebb of her menstrual cycle.
“I told him I felt tired and he didn’t stop [criticizing] – it really oppressed me,” she said.
So she scrapped existing plans to run a photo exhibit in favor of the sit-in, which lasts three days to reflect the average length of a woman’s period.
“I want men to know about this – how we feel,” she said.
Ma Ei is known for performance art that directly confronts audience members – especially men. In 2011, she put on a man’s longyi and started cooking noodles. As part of another piece, she painted the nails of a man in the audience.
It was witnessing women beaten on the streets of her hometown that got Ma Ei thinking about gender relations.
“I saw some guys hit their wives in public – even though she works, she makes money for the family,” she said.
She started reading novels by Myanmar author Ju, known for writing strong female characters. After moving to Yangon, she discovered a new favorite artist, Yoko Ono. “I like the dark piece,” she said, referring to a performance that forces audience members to touch each other with the lights off.
There was a similar feeling of barriers broken down at the show on Saturday, as the audience tip-toed around Ma Ei’s living space, cautiously peering at her sleeping form.
But for some, handling sanitary pads is still a step too far.
One man, after gingerly accepting a pad from Ma Ei, pushed it back into her hands like a hot potato, with a flurry of flustered words.