Politics and Periods – A Blog by Charlotte Amrouche
I launch this discussion on menstrual activism with these new vagina emoji’s (Figure 1) to illustrate the existing liberal conversation women are having about their bodies. In this text we will see how this conversation contrasts with existing patriarchal gender orders (Connell, 2009: p.72). These vagina emoji’s also express the essence of the women’s movement: for all women to have the freedom to do what we want with our bodies. In this blog I will apply the feminist lens to a traditional ‘women’s issue’. I will focus on current menstrual activism and question whether periods have been hijacked by patriarchal regimes. In considering the male-domination of periods I stumble upon difficulties and contradictions in my own feminist understanding. How can we discuss a ‘woman’s issue’ without falling into an essentialist view of ‘woman’? This personal reflection is written under the limitation of a Western perspective, omitting some inspiring menstrual activism that is taking around the globe, such as Japanese design student Mariko Higaki award winning invention ‘Flo’ (Slavin, 2015). I will conclude this blog with a discussion of the need for an intersectional approach to menstrual rights.
2015 has seen an unprecedented focus on periods in social media: Instagram was criticised for removing photographs of artist Rupi Kaur on her period (Tsjeng, 2015), Donald Trump’s obnoxious comments of Fox News debate moderator Megan Fox invited a storm of live-period-tweets and a portrait of the tycoon himself painted in period blood (Figure 2), the debates on tampon-tax even made it into British parliament (Channel 4 News, 2015). These structural and political discourses continue to censor periods and label them as a taboo subject. However, a strong backlash is simultaneously taking place through the activism of individuals such as Kiran Gandhi, who ran the London marathon as a ‘free-bleeder’ (McGraa, 2015), and students Charlie Edge and Ruth Howarth (Howarth, 2015) who stood outside the House of Parliaments last week and freely bled in white trousers in protest against the ‘tampon-tax’. Periods have undoubtedly become politically topical in 2015. However, beyond the clickbait quality of these stories there are pressing issues and concerns which require attention in order to address the oppression women experience; whether it is Instagram censorship or being banned from your family kitchen while menstruating (Greenlagh, 2015). At the core of menstrual activism is the belief that menstruators’ bodies are their own: the essential feminist aim of bodily autonomy. However, how can this topic, which is cloaked in centuries of patriarchal oppression, yet simultaneously seen as the most personal, become autonomous without political intervention?
Facts don’t lie. Tampons are taxed as luxury items in the UK (BBC News, 2015). Menstrual pads are often withheld from women in prisons as a humiliation tactic (Bozelko, 2015). Acquiring sanitary pads and tampons is a continuous difficulty for homeless women. British women spend on average £18,450 on their periods over their lifetimes (Moss, 2015). And the 4.3 billion disposable sanitary products used in the UK every year end up in our seas and landfills, creating mounting environmental concerns. This evidence leads to two conclusions. Firstly, governments do not want to pay for women and their ‘luxury needs’. Secondly, the media, advertising corporations and mainstream women’s magazines continue to profit from menstruation, by fuelling a capitalist need for more disposable, taxable and throwaway products. Women are continuously encouraged to buy expensive and harmful –to the environment and to our bodies- products, while alternative remain unknown and unadvertised. As long as menstrual hygiene products are taxed, as long as it is taboo for menstrual blood to be red in adverts, as long as advertisements for Thinx are deemed too racy because of their suggestive photography and use of the word ‘period’ (Kutner, 2015), and as long as education continues to exclude the alternative reusable products such as menstrual cups and reusable pads: then periods are not solely a personal concern. Periods have been hijacked and controlled by capitalist tycoons and male-dominated politics.
As illustrated, the discussion of this ‘women’s issue’ takes place under patriarchal dictations of gender norms and the misogynistic gender regime that politics, governments, budgeting, media and education follow. Despite this gender order, we have seen above the encouraging moments of resistance and liberated discourse of women. However, today’s menstrual activism takes place in a context of continuous feminist debate. This is clearly illustrated by the two strands of menstrual activists: feminist-spiritualists centre on the celebration of what they see as the uniqueness of womanhood, and contrast with radical menstruation activists who “deploy a gender-neutral discourse of menstruation as they resist corporate control of bodies” (Bobel, 2010: p.12). The discussion and activism surrounding menstrual rights therefore takes place in its own politically challenging arena. The difficulty lies in how to discuss a bodily function which is described as purely a woman’s issue, one which is loaded with cultural and historical taboo, without depending on essentialist accounts of womanhood.
This discussion of menstrual rights required me to self-reflect on my own feminism. In exploring this topic and the distinct, yet similar, difficulties women encounter worldwide, deep divisions emerged in my feminist epistemology. The performative description of a gender continuum of post-structuralists such as Judith Butler speak volumes to me. While overall in order to achieve gender justice I believe in the need for a radical reconstruction of society. This part post-structuralist, part radical feminist approach encounters clear problems with the essentialist ideas of womanhood which menstruation inspires in me. Menstrual health has been commandeered by political and corporate institutions. The male-dominated regimes of these structures have silenced women’s voices and experiences of menstruation, allowing the medical (male-prescribed) epistemology of menstruation to be the only authorised position (Martin, 1990: p.79-80). This silencing of women’s experience echoes the oppression patriarchy exudes across the globe. Under this injustice and silence I long to find platforms for expression more thrilling than the woman’s magazine. I personally recognise the experience of menstruation as part of my becoming a woman. This recognition has led to a perplexing understanding of how gender justice can be attainted, and what equilibrium of feminist knowledge I must utilise in order to achieve the goals of menstrual rights and dignity.
The experience of womanhood is greatly influenced by nationality, biologically (medically) assigned sex category, class, education, race, (dis)ability: and this list is not exhaustive. My journey to womanhood takes place under the privilege of an excellent Western education. An advantage too many girls do not have access to, and an advantage which is further hindered by the difficulty girls have in gaining access to sanitary products and private washrooms (Girl Effect Team, 2015). However, my Irish education never taught me about periods in the one sexual education class I had. Experiences intersect and are not consistent in privilege. These intersections create identities that require an intersectional approach in order to be fully understood and explored. In the discussion of the politicisation of periods, both through gendered political structures and informal political resistance, we must retain a focus on the multitudes of people who identify as ‘woman’ and their individually different experiences of womanhood. An intersectional approach is essential in order to understand how the development of identity categories can be used to negotiate fields of power (Lykke, 2010: p.50), while it also presents the feminist discussion of a biologically determined issue with clear complications.
The aims of menstrual activism goes beyond the tired old phrase that ‘all women want is to be equal to men’. To echo a feminist saying “if you think equality is the goal, then your standards are too low”. The topic of menstruation illustrates the vast dispersity among woman and a key struggle of third wave feminism: how to fight for women’s rights when the category ‘women’ is no longer uniform. Today’s feminist concerns go beyond equalising the dichotomy to creating societies that instead accommodate for our individually different bodily experiences. Women are different, not only from men, but from each other. Periods happen to most women for large proportions of their lives. However, it is the politicisation of periods and the influence of the gender regimes of our societies that have negative and damaging effects on the lives of women.
Menstruation is a source of power which can be converted into political activism: one must only look to the barrage of live tweets Irish women sent to Taoiseach Enda Kenny this week (Phipps, 2015). Such acts of informal politics illustrate the power woman have when they own their bodies. The examples of oppression and activism throughout this text have a common link: politics. Therefore, can this personal issue be resolved through a state-adoption of feminism or can positive change in attitudes only come from grassroots movements? In conclusion I believe that the mainstreaming of periods is essential: we need more comedians like Amy Schumer making tampon jokes, we need more menstrual health education and more politicians like Stella Creasy who stand up in masculine institutions and speak for women’s rights.
BBC News (2015) ‘‘Tampon Tax’ paid around the world’, BBC News, 21 August. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-32883153. [Accessed 12 November 2015].
Bobel, C. (2010) New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation. Rutgers University Press.
Bozelko, C. (2015) ‘Prisons that withhold menstrual pads humiliate women and violate basic rights’, The Guardian, 12 June. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/12/prisons-menstrual-pads-humiliate-women-violate-rights. [Accessed 12 November 2015].
Channel 4 News. (2015) Tampons and sanitary towels have always been considered a luxury. [Video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=php82e_z7kY. [Accessed 12 November 2015].
Connell, R. (2009) Gender: Short Introductions. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Flirtoji. (2015) The blue, the green and the stubbly. [Illustration] Available at: http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/26966/1/all-hail-the-vagina-emoji. [Accessed 13 November 2015].
Girl Effect Team. (2015) ‘That time of the month shouldn’t mean missing school – period’, Girl Effect, 21 May. Available at: http://www.girleffect.org/what-girls-need/articles/2015/05/that-time-of-the-month-shouldn-t-mean-missing-school-period/. [Accessed 13 November 2015].
Greenhalgh, J. (2015) ‘A girl gets her period and is banished to the shed: #15Girls’, NPR, 17 October. Available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/10/17/449176709/horrible-things-happen-to-nepali-girls-when-they-menstruate-15girls. [Accessed 12 November 2015].
Howarth, R. (2015) @EdgeOTI and I protesting! @UCLanSH @UKParliament @EUparliament. [Twitter Photograph] Available at: https://twitter.com/VeganInTheAir/status/662603410991144960/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw. [Accessed 12 November 2015].
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Levy, S. (2015) Whatever. [Painting] Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-period-painting_55f6eedee4b042295e36eee4. [Accessed 11 November 2015].
Lykke, N. (2010) A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing. New York: Routledge.
Martin, E. (1990) ‘Science and Women’s Bodies: Forms of Anthropological Knowledge’, in: Body/Politics: Women and the Discourses of Science, Jacobus, M., Fox Keller, E., and Shuttleworth S. (eds). London: Routledge.
McGraa, T. (2015). ‘Why I ran for 26 miles on my period’, Dazed, September. Available at: http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/25908/1/why-i-ran-for-26-miles-on-my-period. [Accessed 12 November 2015].
Moss, R. (2015). ‘Women spend more than £18,000 on having periods in their lifetime, study reveals’, Huffpost Women, 3 September. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/09/03/women-spend-thousands-on-periods-tampon-tax_n_8082526.html. [Accessed 12 November 2015].
Phipps, C. (2015) ‘#repealthe8th: Irish women tweet their periods to prime minister Enda Kenny’, The Guardian, 6 November. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/06/irish-women-live-tweet-periods-enda-kenny-repeal-the-eighth. [Accessed 13 November 2015].
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Slavin, T. (2015) ‘The invention that aims to make periods less of a pain’, The Guardian, 2 October. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/oct/02/menstruation-flo-periods-less-of-a-pain-for-girls-asia-africa. [Accessed 12 November 2015].
Tsjeng, Z. (2015) ‘Why Instagram censored this image of an artist on her period’, Dazed, April. Available at: http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/24258/1/why-instagram-censored-this-image-of-an-artist-on-her-period. [Accessed 12 November 2015].
 Menstrual activism: a third-wave protest aiming to free women’s bodies from government control, corporations and cultural taboos.
 Menstruation activists refer to “menstruators” instead of “women”, this makes menstruation everyone’s issues and expands menstruation beyond the confines of gender (Bobel, 2010: p.12).
 Gender regimes presents the “variously configured gender dynamics prevailing in different parts of the state at the same time” (Schofield and Goodwin, 2005: p.2)
I am currently in my final semester at UCD, studying Sociology and Politics & International Relations -with a feminist lens! I have a keen interest in gender studies, along with social justice studies and human rights. After graduating I will be pursuing a master’s in Gender Studies.