Yet, menstruation is still a topic that is rarely addressed and often avoided.
Last year’s speaker Iman Mujahed asked this question: why are ‘women’s issues’ still a taboo subject? Before organising a special envoy to Syria, she was told that women there were in dire need of “women’s things” – that is, sanitary towels and tampons. The problem here is not only that the women lacked access to what we would call the most basic of resources, but also that they are referred to as simply “women’s things”.
Growing up, girls subconsciously feel an expectation to hide their periods. It is rarely discussed openly in conversation. We feel the need to subtly hide our tampons or sanitary towels when leaving the classroom or office to go to the bathroom. Adverts that depict women happily riding a bicycle while blue liquid is gracefully poured onto a sanitary towel clearly demonstrate that there is no such thing as bleeding or pain during ‘that time of the month’ – but we know that this is far from the truth.
Recently, artist Rupi Kaur has received media attention for challenging this very taboo, by posting an image of herself on Instagram as part of a menstruation-themed photo-series, depicting herself as fully clothed, with blood on her trousers and sheets. The image was then swiftly removed from the site, as it violated its community standards. After challenging this, the image was eventually restored. However, her story made headlines around the world, receiving mixed responses.
Although there is a certain shock element to it, it’s not that women aren’t used to this sight – it just isn’t what we are used to seeing in the media. Very often we see images that could also said to be as shocking, and even vulgar. The sexualisation of women is rife in the media, presenting unrealistic expectations of women to be perfect in the eyes of men. Even if it makes us uncomfortable initially, menstruation should not be seen as something that is offensive, when it is simply a natural process that all women go through.
Nevertheless, throughout history, stigmas surrounding menstruation have always existed.
During the B.C. era, Jewish cultures required women to be physically separated from men for the duration of their menstruation. Not only were women considered ritually impure, but anything a menstruating woman sat or rested on was also considered impure.
In the 1800s, the British Medical Journal published a statement saying that menstruating women were medically unable to successfully pickle meat. Female factory workers in France at the same time were asked not to work in sugar refineries during their periods for fear they would spoil the food.
However, surprisingly, similar views remain with us now, albeit in less developed countries. In particular cultures, such as Hindus in Nepal, menstruating women must isolate themselves by living outside in small sheds for the duration of their period, rendering them susceptible to rape and poisonous snake bites. The touch of a menstruating woman is said to pollute other women. If they touch a man or a boy, he will start shivering and become sick. If she eats butter or buffalo milk, the buffalo will also become sick and stop producing milk.
“Here, menstruation is dirty, and a menstruating girl is a powerful, polluting thing. A thing to be feared and shunned.”
Because of this, they must also wash and dry their menstrual cloths out of sight, often in damp conditions. As a result of tradition, the health of these women is put at risk. But not only this – girls are also influenced to leave education due to poor facilities at schools. Some girls even turn to ‘transactional sex’ in order to obtain money to buy sanitary towels to stay in education. The added impact of poverty means many women are forced to make a decision between buying food, or buying sanitary towels, often turning to using newspaper, straw or sand instead.
WaterAid, along with other organisations, are working towards improvement in menstrual hygiene in such countries, which is a step towards women empowerment and recognising that this is a widespread problem that affects a large part of the world.
Menstruation needs to be accepted as a natural and normal part of being a woman. It needs to be addressed directly to solve on-going issues such as poor health, lack of education and gender inequality. It should not be seen as offensive, vulgar or unnatural. We talk about many topics openly, yet menstruation is not yet one of them. This needs to change.
To be viewed as a lesser human being, as a menstruating woman, is wrong. Too often, a woman’s opinion is discounted due to menstruation – from being ostracised from their community, to simply being dismissed with, “she’s just on her period”.
To say that menstruating women don’t matter, is to say that women don’t matter.
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