Hello and welcome to the first instalment of Catch up with Zareen, a series in which I chat to Dr Zareen Roohi Ahmed, Gift Wellness founder and the lead fundraiser at The Gift Wellness Foundation, about all she’s been up to recently, giving us a glimpse into the delights and difficulties of fighting for a cause.
Zareen and I spoke on the phone one chilly February morning, and early on in the conversation Zareen started to laugh, and explained that her elderly father-in-law was in the background listening to videos on his phone. ‘I’ll try to concentrate’ she says between laughs, and then ‘I can’t go in the other room because my husband’s on a Zoom call in there.’ After deciding to move upstairs, I say to Zareen ‘you’ve got a full house’, she agrees and it becomes so clear that not only is Zareen the centre of all of the work at The Gift Wellness Foundation, fighting for improved access to period products for people across the world, but that she’s very much at the centre of her own family and community as well. She’s got an awful lot on her plate but always hungry to add more, do more, make more of a difference.
The main topic I wanted to ask Zareen about was the TEDx Talk she has coming up in March. I’m a huge fan of the talks and curious to find out more about the process. Her talk will be on the issue of period poverty, and has been pushed back and back again due to pandemic. It won’t be live as the talks normally are, and the studio set-up isn’t exactly normal either. I ask whether that makes things easier or more difficult and she suggests that there is something positive about having to take a different approach instead of forcing things to carry on as normal. Her biggest worry is the performance aspect of it, she’s not at her most comfortable in front of a camera and without a script to follow she’s fully reliant on her own mental notes. She knows what a huge audience she’ll reach by doing this though, and I have full confidence that because she knows the subject so well and genuinely cares, she’ll have no problems at all.
Zareen explains that the lead-up to the talk has already been very rewarding for her in that she’s been in regular contact with the other speakers, who, including Zareen, will form a total of nine female speakers. Due to all the shifts caused by the pandemic, the talk isn’t part of the TEDxWomen series, but the speakers are all women with important messages to share. Their focuses vary widely, ranging from environmentalism and sustainable development to education, but what they all have in common is their trailblazer status, their leadership skills and resilience. One topic Zareen brings up which will feature in a talk is ‘the things you wished you’d said’ and having the confidence to say what you really mean. The topic seems to really strike a chord with Zareen, perhaps because she can see the links to her own charitable efforts; if more people were speaking up about period poverty issues, and if more people’s concerns regarding menstrual health were listened to, the issue wouldn’t be so pressing.
At this point I feel that I’ve been given exclusive early access to Zareen’s talk when she begins to explain that her intention is not only to depict the issues faced by women and those who menstruate, but what real-world solutions and changes can and must be made. For Zareen, this effort is extremely personal, she’s impassioned to help others in memory of her own daughter, Halimah, who tragically passed away and who had such great plans to bring about positive change in world. For Zareen, periods represent that never-ending cycle which links generations together, it’s like ‘passing the baton’, she says, it’s a powerful force of nature. Zareen explains the kind of closeness she had with Halimah, that they shared a vision that they wanted to bring about in the world, and that on a more superficial level, they’d pick out the same clothes when out shopping too. I can relate to that, I tell Zareen, but what I can’t relate to is the unimaginable suffering Zareen must have endured when that closeness was interrupted by Halimah’s death. I’m careful in using the world ‘interrupted’ here because Zareen is careful with her words too, she describes how after Halimah’s death she went onto what she describes as ‘autopilot’, and quickly realised that she couldn’t carry on internalising all the love she would have directed towards Halimah without losing herself too.
She recalls a trip back from Pakistan when she was sat in Lahore airport, where for the first time she read stories of women in refugee camps, who were forced to tear up clothing to use for sanitary products. ‘Lauren, at that moment I visualised myself giving pads to these women,’ Zareen said, ‘and that’s when I knew what I had to do’. From that moment came Gift Wellness Ltd and The Gift Wellness Foundation, and what is now many years of supporting people in need of period products. Not only has Zareen helped others but she describes the process of starting the charity as one which has helped her life to become richer, visualising herself helping others gave her a sense of reawakening and renewed purpose which ultimately she says, means that Halimah feels more alive now than ever. Although that generational ‘passing the baton’ has been interrupted, Zareen hasn’t let that stop her from sharing her love, it simply means that’s it’s being redirected onto those who need it elsewhere.
Not only does Zareen talk passionately about wanting to help the women in refugee camps where perhaps the period poverty issue is most recognisable, she wants to help those closer to home too. Towards the end of our conversation we discuss how people in the UK and other western countries, who are at work or school during their period, suffer immensely because organisations don’t have the framework, the understanding and acceptance that is required to enable someone to be both effective and comfortable whilst menstruating. For such a common experience, and a very normal one at that, it’s unbelievable that things aren’t better.
We end the conversation by discussing Scotland’s move to make period products free and Zareen explains how in terms of affordability, it means that period poverty has been eradicated there. The Gift Wellness Foundation’s Red Rebel Day, during which Zareen’s TED talk will be aired, has essentially the same goal, not only to raise awareness and money, but to ultimately go as far as possible towards solving the issue completely. As Zareen herself says, ‘I want to not have to do this work.’
Will you help support the campaign to solve the Period Poverty issue?
All we need at this stage is a completed COUNT ME IN form to say you’ll support #RedRebelDay on Sunday 21st-Monday 22nd March. Two weeks before that date, we’ll get back in touch with more information.
We’ll be talking the importance of International Women’s Day when we Catch up with Zareen again!