Periods, Tampon Tax & Menstrual Stigma – Meet The Women Disrupting Society’s Comfort Zone For Female Empowerment

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It’s one of the universal things that can make a grown man cry. Well at least feel very very awkward and grossed out. We’re talking about periods, of course. But why is  a natural bodily function such a turn off, when there are FAR worse things a human body can do to make even the most tolerant of us go a little green in the face.

Feminist author and activist Gloria Steinem writes about this phenomenon in her essay from 1986 titled ‘If Men Could Menstruate‘.

Men would brag about how long and how much.

Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day. To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps.

Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of such commercial brands as Paul Newman Tampons, Muhammad Ali’s Rope-a-Dope Pads, John Wayne Maxi Pads, and Joe Namath Jock Shields- “For Those Light Bachelor Days.” Statistical surveys would show that men did better in sports and won more Olympic medals during their periods.

Generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (“men-struation”) as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat (“You have to give blood to take blood”), occupy high political office (“Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?”), be priests, ministers, God Himself (“He gave this blood for our sins”), or rabbis (“Without a monthly purge of impurities, women are unclean”).

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She writes. It is worth reading in full to get an idea of how this topic would be different if it were men experiencing it. Hypothetical insinuations aside, there are far too many negative and dangerous ways a woman’s period is viewed so we should start with this before sharing about the activists we mentioned in the title.

An estimated 800 million girls around the world miss one week of school every month, putting them at a disadvantage as their education progresses. Countries like India and Guatemala hold such stigma around menstruation forcing women to hide themselves away from society which in turn affects their ability to work, earn money and contribute to their community. In Sierra Leone, more than a fifth of girls miss school because of their periods. In Afghanistan and Nepal, three out of 10 girls miss school for the same reason.

There are many ways in which women’s bodies are policed and shamed toward the edges of society in order to make us shrink back and participate less in the world. But lately there have been a number of female activists around the world standing up shouting “no more!” in bold, badass ways.

The first one we’d like to highlight is Rupi Kaur, a photographer from Toronto, Canada whose photo project titled ‘Period’ gained viral attention but not in a good way at first. In a series of images of Rupi, taken by her sister Prabh, we see her lying in bed with a period stain on her pants and on her sheets (lead article image). We see her changing a pad while on the toilet, bleeding out while in the shower, and washing her blood stained sheets in the laundry.

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“I bleed each month to help make humankind a possibility. My womb is home to the divine. a source of life for our species. Whether I choose to create or not. But very few times it is seen that way. In older civilizations this blood was considered holy. In some it still is. But a majority of people, societies, and communities shun this natural process. Some are more comfortable with the pornification of women, the sexualization of women, the violence and degradation of women than this. They cannot be bothered to express their disgust about all that, but will be angered and bothered by this. We menstruate and they see it as dirty, attention seeking, sick, a burden. As if this process is less natural than breathing,” says a description of the images.

When she posted some of the images on Instagram however, it was removed twice because it apparently violated the social media platform’s community standards. Rupi challenged the pushback and was eventually allowed to keep the image on her account. Instagram apologized to her but the significance of the removal spoke volumes and reiterated Rupi’s message profoundly.

“I wasn’t being provocative. The point of the photo was to de-mystify all the taboos that are around menstruation. You won’t go on vacation because of your period, you change your wedding date, it goes everywhere with you and you are in so much pain. Women are hospitalized,” she said in an interview with BBC Newsbeat.

This seemed to be a turning point for so-called “period activism” because since then there have been a handful of women striking blows to the societal damnation of a woman’s bodily function.

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New York-born musician and business school graduate Kiran Gandhi, who has played drums for the likes of M.I.A and Thievery Corporation, became an international media headline sensation when she decided to run in the London Marathon. It wasn’t her athletic ability that people were interested in, it was what was happening between her legs, literally.

In a blog post on her website, Kiran says she decided to run the marathon without a tampon after getting her period the day before. Rather than suffer discomfort of a tampon for just over 26 miles, she decided it was a brilliant opportunity to take a stand against harmful messages that are forced upon women in the West, and take a stand for women in the developing world who are shunned for having their period.

“I ran with blood dripping down my legs for sisters who don’t have access to tampons and sisters who, despite cramping and pain, hide it away and pretend like it doesn’t exist. Pads are a luxury for most rural communities, and tampons are not a practical solution for most societies that are extremely protective of women’s virginity – this kind of penetration would not be encouraged or allowed. By making it difficult to take care of because we make it hard to talk about and expensive to clean up, most girls end up just staying at home monthly, missing school and growing up to feel shame around their bodies, instead of confident,” she writes.

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“Women from a young age are told that their main value to society is that they must look beautiful, consumable, f*ckable. A period doesn’t fit into this category, so it is made taboo. So much so that parents have an awkward time discussing it with children, period commercials are all about concealing yourself or saving yourself from “embarrassment” (they don’t even show blood in a commercial about blood! they show a metaphorical blue liquid…!?) and girls are quiet about periods when other boys are nearby, even though it should be something to be ashamed of,” she added about what girls in the Western world are taught.

In an interview with Cosmopolitan Magazine, Kiran emphasizes that with all the attention she received from her act, some good some bad of course, she felt it was a big “f**k you!” to the status quo shaming women ingest when it comes to the messages they are taught about their bodies.

In a similar move, a couple of women in the UK decided to go out on a limb for something they feel strongly about – getting rid of the tax on tampons and pads.

Charlie Edge and Ruth Howarth from Berkshire wanted to send a message to the British government that the 5% tax on what is considered a “luxury item” is a major disservice to half the population. So just to show politicians and society how ridiculous that notion is, the two decided to forego tampons and bleed freely while holding up signs outside Parliament House in London.

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“Today, I am forgoing tampons and pads outside the houses of parliament to show how “luxury” tampons really are. We are also raising money to buy tampons for homeless shelters, women’s shelters and the refugee crisis. We’re getting lots of dirty looks and someone just shouted at us to get a job. But everyone keeps saying ‘haha OMG, how quickly would we get free tampons if everyone stopped wearing them?!’ So, I’m giving it a go. Taxes are necessary, I get it. So are tampons and pads,” wrote Charlie in a Facebook page, shared by the Daily Mail.

They received mixed reactions from people commenting on her post and images. Some understood the point, while others said it was disgusting. But what Charlie and Ruth find more disgusting is the contradictory standards that women still have to wade through, as evidenced by the response from even some women. In a follow-up post on her Facebook page to respond to some of the criticisms she received, Charlie said something very important:

“The tampon tax has been decided on almost entirely by cis men. Cis men don’t have uteruses. They don’t have periods. They should not get to dominate laws that do not affect them. The reason you’re all so grossed out by my period is because women’s bodies have been sexualised and vilified inherently throughout history. And as a ‘lady’ I should look pretty and not let the world know I’m bleeding from the vagina. If I posted a picture of my arm with a bloodstain that big the reaction would be ENTIRELY different. And I’m fed up with the patriarchy,” she said.

If you too have any averse reactions to this and the other period protests, we encourage you to read Charlie’s post.

Moving further afield in Europe, there is a young woman from Germany who is taking period activism to a level where it is being leveraged to highlight other social issues women face. Elona Kastrati, originally form Kosovo, decided to engage the city of Karlsruhe in a campaign that would force them to come face to face with the topic of sexual assault in an undeniable way.

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Elona went around town sticking sanitary pads to traffic signs and poles which had messages printed on them. She did this on March 8, which was also International Women’s Day, in the hope that it would raise awareness about the seriousness of harassment. She says she got the idea after reading a simple but powerful tweet which said “imagine if men were as disgusted with rape as they are with periods”.

Although she only stuck the pads around one city, the images she shared went global and as a result, her campaign has gone viral an inspired many. Like the other women already mentioned in this article, Elona has received mixed reactions, but the majority of people understand how important her mission is.

“I’ve gotten many nice responses from very nice people all over the world. I also got bad responses saying I hate men or am seeking attention. I really don’t care, because I don’t hate men at all. For me, feminism means equality. As for the attention thing, I wanted to get attention on this thing!” she said in a statement.

In a feature on OpenDemocracy.net, Elona talks about her passion for feminism and gender quality, saying her family are the reason she is so adamant about her mission.

“My parents did not adopt stereotypes of gender roles,” she said.

Her #padsagainstsexism campaign has gone far beyond Germany, and has inspired other women around the world.

Over in India, a group of female activists who are part of an organization called ‘Period’ at the Jadavpur University embarked on a campaign to put up sanitary pads with protest messages about rape and sexual assault on them at public places across the campus.

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They received support from the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA).

“They have welcomed the campaign by students of Jamia Millia Islamia, JNU, NLUD and Jadavpur University to use sanitary pads to break the silence on menstruation and challenge misogynistic attitudes,” said Arumita Mitra, a second-year JU student, a member of ‘Periods’, according to a news story on Indian Express.

In a country that is extremely conservative when it comes to the representation of women publicly, yet proclaims that it wants to crack down on gender violence, seeing this group of young women take a stand in a powerful and what could be described as “Western” way is an indication the younger generation wants to tackle serious societal issues in a more forceful way.

“Women should not be treated as untouchables while having periods. They should not feel ashamed in case their clothes get stained. They should not have to whisper about sanitary pads, and pads need not be wrapped in black plastic or paper. The silence and shame around periods needs to be broken. It is sexism, anti-women attitude, gender discrimination and gender violence that are shameful, not periods,” stated a letter about the campaign.

It should be noted that many of these campaigns (this list is by no means exhaustive – it is merely the tip of the iceberg) and activist incidents took place in 2015 alone. If this is what it looks like when women around the world mobilize to fight off a stigma that affects half the world’s population, then we are excited to see many more barriers being broken down in the coming years.

There is enough body policing and body control happening, whether it is in the form of slut-shaming, female genital mutilation, discriminatory school dress codes, and of course menstrual stigma. It is going to take a collective effort from women everywhere to raise their voices, stand and occupy public spaces, bleed freely in some cases, and push back against the stigma that seeks to keep women in certain corners of society.

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