A Bloody Shame! The Politics of Menstruation
The Politics of Menstruation by Aleya Ramparsad Banwari
Cramps, bloating, feeling gassy, and a giant pimple on my chin – all signs indicating that my body is shedding the thickened lining of my uterus and an unfertilised egg. Except, having a period is a bit more complicated than just the physical symptoms and feeling a bit emotional. It is deeply political, and is one of the ways in which womxn are discriminated against institutionally, economically, and socially.
For as long as humankind has existed, womxn have been seen as the “weaker sex,” whose value is less just because they are not men. Historically, The Code of Hammurabi, a Mesopotamian law code written in 1754 BC, exemplifies this. If a man killed a male slave, the slave owner would receive a sum of money as compensation, more than what would have been paid if a man killed the slave owner’s wife. While some things have changed since then, women todays till continue to face discrimination on a daily basis.
Menstruation and social stigma
The social stigma around menstruation has resulted in womxn being seen as less competent, as well as being less of a person. A recent example of this is when Megyn Kelly, an American journalist, called Trump to account for his misogynist comments – such as calling women ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.’ Trump’s retaliation included a comment of how Kelly has blood “coming out of her whatever”. This is just one example of societally-embedded sexism, where the voices of womxn are constantly put down as being not worthy.
Menstruation and PCOS
In my experience as a womxn who menstruates, I have found that the Western world holds women to strict conventional norms; norms which extend even to natural processes such as menstruation. I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) when I was seventeen years old, after I bled for three months non-stop. PCOS is a common endocrine disorder that affects 1 in every 3 womxn. Essentially, it means that I have an excess of the hormone progesterone in my bloodstream and could develop cysts on my ovaries that could make it difficult for me to fall pregnant later on in life. Left untreated, it could lead to cervical cancer.
PCOS manifests physically, as a result of a change in hormone levels, in the form of the thinning of one’s hair, hirsutism, and weight gain. It can be medically managed through the use of birth control, a proper diet and exercise in order to manage the pain and excessive bleeding (or the lack of bleeding). However, this does not necessarily mean the physical manifestations disappear. Womxn living with PCOS are often “othered” because they are seen as being “less feminine” and “manly” because they have a lot of facial hair or are overweight; examples being Harnaam Kaur, Little Bear Schwartz, or Whitney Thore (known for her show “My Big Fat Fabulous Life” on TLC, which highlights her gain of more than 90 kgs as a result of PCOS).
PCOS and Body Shaming
Social stigma has led to womxn living with PCOS constantly being body shamed, despite the fact that 1 in 3 womxn have the disorder. As a womxn living with PCOS, I have very little control over how much hair I grow or how much weight I gain around my midsection, but this does not make me less of a person. This is why narratives of womxn living with PCOS are important; they pave the way for womxn like Harnaam Kaur or Little Bear Schwartz to not be known as womxn with beards – but rather just as womxn.
PCOS and needing to ‘perform’
In my own experience as a student, I have often felt that UCT does not have the ability to understand and engage with PCOS or menstruation in general from a health and well-being perspective. In order to meet faculty requirements, students must comply with the submission of all assignments and attend a certain number of tutorials and lectures. Medical certificates must be submitted in instances where this is not done. If a student does not meet the faculty requirements in this regard, then they cannot sit for an exam.
However, I often do not go to a doctor to complain of debilitating menstrual cramps. I am aware that I have PCOS and do not need to be diagnosed. I just have to endure the cramps until they pass. Whether at a place of learning, or in a workplace, or even in a family context at home, debilitating menstrual cramps is generally not something that elicits much empathy. Womxn are just expected to carry on and perform, regardless – a disadvantage that men are completely exempt from.
Society’s obsession with menstruation
Society is obsessed with the reproductive capacity of womxn, so much so that birth control measures such as the pill or the patch were formulated to mimic menstrual bleeding after the third patch or the twenty-first pill. The “fake” bleeding is not an actual period but rather is withdrawal bleeding. It is ironic that, whether one bleeds as a consequence of a menstrual cycle or not, there is a great deal of social stigma either way – womxn who bleed because it is their menstrual cycle are considered to be dirty and should hide their period from the world. A womxn of childbearing age who does not have her period is considered ‘deformed’ in some way, she is ‘less than a womxn’ for this biological ‘abnormality.’ And, a womxn who is past childbearing years and no longer bleeds is also not allowed to escape prejudice, because she has come to that point in life where she is no longer viewed as a person who possesses sexuality or sexual agency but has rather become “expired goods”.
The economic burden of menstruation
Coming back to politics of menstruation, have you ever stopped to consider the huge economic burden placed on bodies that menstruate when it comes to the cost of sanitary products? Buying sanitary products places a great financial burden on womxn. They are not freely available from government and in South Africa, they are not exempt from value added tax. I feel the economic burden of paying for sanitary products every month. Packs of pads cost anywhere between R25 – R50. Fourteen percent of this goes as tax towards government coffers. If one had to calculate the cost of pads per menstruation cycle and project this over a life trajectory, the costs are significant.
Most women and girls in South Africa live beneath the poverty line. Womxn living in poverty often cannot afford to purchase sanitary products and are forced to make use of alternatives, such as socks, rags, or paper. Not only is this uncomfortable and places them at a much higher risk of developing bacterial vaginosis or thrush as a result of the germs spread by using pad replacements, it is a great cost to their dignity. Often, many days of going to school are lost because womxn cannot afford to purchase sanitary products.
Menstruation therefore acts not only as a barrier between womxn and their ability to achieve an education, but also could lead to them contracting serious ailments when they try to get that education. This is slowly changing; for instance, the KwaZulu Natal Department of Education began to distribute free sanitary pads in schools in January of this year. The change is a step in the right direction, but it is happening at too slow a pace. Think about it like this: if bodies that menstruate are accommodated, it would not only help those women and girls, but would also help to improve the economy, as more womxn and girls will not miss work and school.
Menstruation is not simply a personal issue, it is deeply political and shapes our understanding of how we perceive womxn who are menstruating. We need to challenge the deeply entrenched notions we have of womxn who are unable to or who no longer menstruate. We need to challenge how we accommodate (or do not accommodate) womxn with menstrual conditions that negatively impact on health and well-being. We need to tackle the humxn rights violation taking place against womxn by economically disadvantaging them with the financial burden of menstruation. It is time for us to come together and fight for this issue that affects all of us.