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Removing the taboo of menstruation

Uta Steinwehr cc
May 28, 2017

Periods, menstruation, the "curse": Who manages to talk about this nonchalantly? The aim of Menstrual Hygiene Day is to help overcome embarrassment and shame. Let’s talk openly about periods – all over the world.

Teenager Menstruation Symbolbild
Image: picture-alliance/prisma

Not long ago I saw a tweet that really made me laugh. It showed two female sexual organs making fun of a woman who was quite sure her monthly period had finished. They then sent forth an unexpected gush, causing her to have a mishap.

I didn't dare retweet it, though. I was embarrassed. But why?

The female cycle is a natural thing, part of the preservation of the human species - yet it's a taboo topic. Now, though, women are starting to speak about their periods. Social media networks are challenging the stigma, with the hashtag #periodpositivity on Instagram, for example, or the blog "Die Menstruationsbeauftragte" ["The Menstruation Commissioner" (in German)]. Women under the age of about 35 are particularly active campaigners.

Information, not inhibition

"We've all seen naked bodies and breasts a thousand times, and we can watch porn everywhere. But when it comes to menstruation, there's total denial," says Eva Wünsch. She is one of the two (female) authors of the book "Ebbe und Blut" ["Ebb and Blood"], which promises to tell all "about the tides of the female cycle." The two women, who are 24 and 25, wrote it as a way of finding out more for themselves.

Collage aus dem Buch "Ebbe & Blut"
Dealing with the topic of periods without shame: a collage by Luisa Stömer und Eva WünschImage: Luisa Stömer/Eva Wünsch

Co-author Luisa Stömer thinks advertisements for feminine hygiene products are a good example of societal shame and taboos. "They always show women skipping about in white clothes as if they had no problems during their period. That completely ignores the reality." Also, menstrual blood is represented in advertising by a blue liquid, although in reality it's somewhere between red and brown. "How inhibited is that?" asks Stömer.

Public bleeding

Some women are now adopting a different approach. In 2015 the drummer Kiran Gandhi caused a sensation when her period started the day she was taking part in the London Marathon. She chose not to use tampons or pads, and of course her "free bleeding," as activists call it, darkened the crotch of her trousers.

Kiran Gandhi läuft während ihrer Menstruation den London Marathon 2015, ohne Hygieneprodukte zu nutzen
Kira Gandhi (left) experienced both hostility and approval after her runImage: Kiran Gandhi

Gandhi wanted to "draw light to my sisters who don't have access to tampons and, despite cramping and pain, hide it away like it doesn't exist." Women, she wrote, are "socialized not to complain or talk about their own bodily functions, since no one can see it happening."

At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the Chinese female swimmer Fu Yuanhui just missed out on winning a medal. Asked afterwards about her expression of pain, she explained, without beating about the bush, that she was having stomach cramps because she'd got her period. Her openness drew a big response on social media.

Women in every country bleed

The issue Kiran Gandhi wanted to draw attention to exists in many countries: no running water, no clean toilet, no hygiene products - and no possibility of talking about the problem. In some places, girls simply don't go to school during their period. World Menstruation Day aims to raise awareness of this, too.

Uganda, for example, has some catching-up to do. During last year's election campaign, the country's president, Yoweri Museveni, promised that in future he would see that schools were provided with free sanitary pads. After the election, the money was not available to do this. The feminist Stella Nyanzi started a campaign to collect money for pads, and she criticized those in charge, including the president's wife, who is also the education minister. Nyanzi is currently awaiting trial on charges of "cyber harassment and offensive communication" for insulting the president.

In Kenya, on the other hand, people nowadays talk much more openly about periods. Television and advertising have lowered the threshold, says 33-year-old Bruce Amani from DW's Kiswahii Service. When Amani was growing up in the countryside in western Kenya, his sister would sometimes tell his mother that she had "visitors." "As a young boy, I always used to wonder what visitors she was talking about," he says.

Rashida Nalukenge links und Catherine Nantume rechts basteln Binden
In Uganda, schoolgirls sew themselves reusable pads that are sterilized by washing and ironingImage: DW/S.Schlindwein

Amani learned more about periods in lessons at school - including, for example, that his female classmates would improvise with leftover bits of cloth because sanitary pads were hard to come by. "They weren't as effective, though. Sometimes you would see specks of blood on the girls' clothes." Amani says that if he had daughters now, he would go with them to buy tampons or pads. "I'd even get the most expensive ones, to ensure their well-being."

Banned from cooking while menstruating

In India, especially in religious families, there are taboos surrounding menstruation. Thirty-two-year-old Ritika Pandey from DW's Hindi Service says, "As a woman, when you've got your period you're not allowed to cook or to touch certain foodstuffs, like pickles. Otherwise, they say, the food will spoil."

Until just a few decades ago, there were similar codes of conduct in Germany, too. Right into the 1970s, many women were told not to touch milk or preserve food while they had their period.

The young generation in India are pushing to remove the stigma around menstruation - as, for example, when a high-ranking cleric wanted to check whether women had their period in order to ban them from entering a temple. This was based on another widespread taboo. Twenty-year-old Nikita Azad responded by starting the campaign "Happy to Bleed," which attracted a great deal of publicity.

Indien Binden Herstellung im SISP Center Kovalam
A non-profit center in southern India is making sanitary padsImage: Imago/S. Weller

Ritika Pandey also remembers women activists distributing sanitary pads in public places - "Clean ones, of course! That was enough to shock people, because no one expects to find a pad stuck on the wall or the bus stop."

When Ritika Pandey has her period and isn't feeling well, she says so openly - in front of male colleagues, too. "I don't want to pretend I've got a stomachache or a headache," she says. Pandey wants to set an example. "That way, when a female intern or a young colleague joins the team, it might encourage her. Someone just has to make a start at making this a normal subject." These days, she even talks to her father about it.

Menstruation is like deleting an e-mail

Digital media are calling for a lifting of the taboos - though in India this message only really reaches the urban population. One example is the video series "Sex Chat with Pappu & Papa," (Ed. note: switch on English subtitles) in which a father explains sexuality to his young son. The father compares menstruation to an electronic mailbox. Once a month, Mother Nature sends a message asking whether a woman would like to become pregnant. If she doesn't answer, the e-mail is deleted. During this phase, the woman bleeds. So far, the video has been watched more than 3.2 million times.

The son says he thinks it's pretty unfair to keep sending women e-mails for up to 40 years when they might only want to answer "yes" a couple of times. He concludes that women should simply unsubscribe from the spam.