Menstruation

Periods, menses, that time of the month; whatever you call the Crimson Tide, we should all be familiar with the aches and pains of menstruation. It may seem too obvious to have an entry on menstruation in a feminist encyclopedia, but the age-old in-your-face gender biases that we revisit each Shark Week are just as important to think about as the more obscure ones. 

Menstruation is typically a ‘women’s issue’ as for centuries we have lived in a binary world. Periods are an essential part of pregnancy and motherhood and are thus wrapped up in the feminine mystique of womanhood. It is only very recently that society has come to acknowledge that not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are women. Even with this recognition, menstrual stigma is merely extended to new groups of people. 

Periods have a dark past that still clings on today. Historically, women have been denied access to public spaces and career opportunities due to their periods, or the possibility of getting pregnant. It was believed that the uterus caused women to be too ‘hysterical’ a term that comes from the Greek word ‘hysterika’ which literally means uterus. Hysteria has been linked to women’s anatomy throughout medical history and still features in some contexts today as an excuse to keep women out of the public and religious sphere. The dark history of women being institutionalised and medicated for their periods has built a huge stigma around ‘lady troubles’ which causes a vast amount of problems today including internalised misogyny, period poverty, and the under-diagnosis of serious medical ailments such as endometriosis. 

A small side note, endometriosis is a common condition where tissue similar to the lining of the womb starts to grow in other places, such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes. The chronic illness affects one in 10 women in the UK and 2-10% of women in the USA. It is extremely difficult to get a diagnosis for endometriosis, as the symptoms are pain during menstruation, pain during or after sex, pain when urinating, feeling sick during your period, heavy bleeding during your period, and depression. These types of pain have been so normalised in society that women/people with uteruses do not go to the doctor if they suffer from these symptoms, and even if they do, they are often prescribed over the counter pain medication and some dark chocolate. Endometriosis can lead to an increased risk of cancer and infertility, and there is an 8-year gap between symptom recognition and diagnosis. This idea that pain is a normal part of women’s lives features all across the medical system, from the lack of pain medication during surgery (i.e the insertion of an IUD) to women being told that heart attacks are ‘just anxiety’.

There is so much to be said about periods and the role they play in society from sexual health to assumptions about motherhood, and right back to those people who menstruate and don’t identify as women. The rich, culturally diverse history of menstruation influences our biases and behaviour today and is an undercurrent to patriarchal systems everywhere which use this natural process to brand women as weak, fragile, unclean, impure, and incapable of participating in the public realm. However, it is also the subject of feminine mythology: the myth that a group of women who are close to each other will ‘sync up’ or the mystique that surrounds the connection between periods and the moon. 

The taboo and stigma around periods are still prominent in many countries around the world. In some parts of Nepal for instance, people who menstruate are confined to a menstrual hut (usually a cow shed) outside the house during their period because they’re considered ‘impure.’ From being prey to snakebites to suffocating to death, let alone the psychological trauma of having to be punished for something you have no control over – people who menstruate continue to be ostracised despite the practice being officially banned. Furthermore, lack of access to menstrual products poses severe health implications for menstruating people. In India, menstrual hygiene products were taxed at an outrageous figure of 12% till as recently as 2018. Sadly, tax exemption is only a small step where so many continue to suffer from period poverty and have to make use of old rags, ash, husk, leaves, and other such life-threatening materials because of lack of access and education.

Effectively, although we are taught not to mention it, menstruation influences society in the most surprising of ways. Nowhere has this been so wonderfully illustrated as in this quote by Sandi Toksvig:

“The old saying is that “Necessity is the mother of invention.” This may be true, but it leaves out the fact that the inventor may also be somebody’s mother. Years ago, when I was studying anthropology at university, one of my female professors held up a photograph of an antler bone with 28 markings on it. “This,” she said, “is alleged to be man’s first attempt at a calendar.” We all looked at the bone in admiration. “Tell me,” she continued, “what man needs to know when 28 days have passed? I suspect that this is a woman’s first attempt at a calendar.”

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