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Whisper(ed) Narratives: Politics of Stain and Shame

By Shaweta Nanda:

I am in my periods; I cannot enter the assembly of men!”  -  Draupdi to Dusshasanna when she is dragged to court to be disrobed.

 “(She had) blood coming out of her wherever”  – Donald Trump on Fox News host Megyn Kelly

We as a society seem to be preoccupied with exterior appearances. Most advertisements of sanitary napkins are replete with phrases such as ‘protection’, ‘cleanliness’ and ‘freedom’. On further thought, one unearths a tacit understanding between the product makers and advertisers, as well as between the consumers and viewers that this freedom and protection is from the stain’ which is projected as being the seminal concern when it comes to menstruation. Issues of health, hygiene and infection are conspicuous by their absence in this discourse. The meager 12% of the total menstruating population of 355 million in India that uses sanitary pads is also blissfully unaware of the problems that they court by using these napkins and tampons, which contain many toxic ingredients and have long term environmental implications apart from affecting their personal health.

Whether something is upheld or denigrated is not innocuous but is a conscious choice ‘made by those in power’. This becomes evident through a satiric essay written by Gloria Steinem (1934- ) in 1978, where she imagines what it would be like “If Men Could Menstruate”. She succinctly opens her argument by saying that since “the characteristics of the powerful, whatever they may be, are thought to be better than the characteristics of the powerless”, “menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much…. Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea to help stamp out monthly discomforts. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free…

Moreover, Steinem shows how menstruation which is now projected as an impediment and an obstacle for women would actually be cited as “proof that only men could serve in the Army” (“you have to give blood to take blood”) by “Military men, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists”. Steinem turns the entire argument of inferiority of women owing to their celebrated ‘mercurial’ temperament and irrational instincts to their “that time of the month” by ingenuously demonstrating how the very same ‘phases’ would enable men to master “all” sciences and philosophy and would be used to keep women out of the circle of learning and decision making. “How could a woman master any discipline that demanded a sense of time, space, mathematics, or measurement, for instance, without that in-built gift for measuring the cycles of the moon and planets — and thus for measuring anything at all? … Or for their lack of symbolic death-and-resurrection every month?

Steinem continues to mock at the male ideological tyranny by further stating how women who now suffer from “penis envy” (Freud’s term) would now suffer the terrible pangs of “menses envy”!

Steinem, in a masterstroke, exposes the hypocritical attitude of the patriarchal society – as on the one hand, women are denounced as unclean inferior beings on account of menstruation but, on the other hand, men would be further raised to the pedestal and deified as their act of shedding blood would be likened to that of Christ. “Your husband’s blood is as sacred as that of Jesus” would be a constant refrain, she exclaims. Steinem, thus, exposes the fact that the manner in which menstruation is viewed/projected in a demeaning fashion is a part of the larger (patriarchal) ideological agenda to denigrate women and constrict them both psychologically and physically.

Having encountered tyrannical customs such as ‘female genital mutilation’ – that scar women physically and emotionally for life at close quarters – African-American women writers have spearheaded the movement to visualize women’s experiences, especially menstruation in alternate, more liberating and empowering fashions. Lucille Clifton (1936–2010) in her “Poem in Praise of Menstruation” raises a series of rhetorical questions, thereby overturning the usual associations of periods as being a stumbling block – by comparing the menstrual flow to that of a “beautiful”, “faithful”, “ancient” and “powerful river” that evokes diverse emotions of both “passion” and “pain”. Clifton, thus, successfully undermines the entire gamut of demeaning notions of ‘dirt’, ‘pollution’ and ‘sin’ that are often associated with menstruation, and envisions it as a strong life force instead – a life force that is “more powerful than this wild water” – which she prays “that it flows also through animals beautiful and faithful and ancient and female and brave”.

The politics of ‘stain’, apart from being associated with the concept of ‘impurity’ (which results in ‘segregation’), also lies at the heart of the deep rooted feeling of ‘shame’ when it comes to menstruation. The very fact that according to a recent international survey, conducted by Clue along with The International Women’s Health Coalition, women across the globe (around 190 countries) deploy close to five thousand euphemisms to talk about periods, points to the climate of ‘silence’, ’embarrassment’ and ‘shame’ that is associated with something which ought to be viewed as a natural bodily function such as breathing or sweating. Drawing from her own experience in the seventh grade when she was shammed by the boys in the classroom for rushing to the washroom, the African American poet Dominique Christina adopts a more ‘militant approach’ in addressing the psychological trauma of shame and fear of being ‘spotted’ and ‘ridiculed’ that is associated with menstruation, in “The Period Poem”.

Christina understands that the responsibility to change the manner in which ‘periods’ are viewed, and the way it affects the life of her daughter lies with her. She states that her intention to write the poem is “to undermine the shaming that happens to some girls around menstruation”. So when her daughter “starts her period and she’s stricken and walks out the bathroom looking like she’s died or something” she “wanted to undermine that” by “throw(ing) every part of my experience…toward her, to sustain her, to offer her language that lifts her up and keeps her up”. Recognizing that one of the potent ways to counter the taboos surrounding menstruation is to openly talk about it, Christina states that she “threw her a period party, my home is red up, dressed in red, and there was red food and red drinks. It was great”.

She also voices the curious bind in which the woman’s body is placed in the ‘hetero-patriarchal ideological’ worldview. The female body which is seen as quintessential source of ‘progeny’ and ‘carnal pleasure’ is at the same time looked at with ‘disgust’ and ‘hatred’. With an acerbic wit, Christina reminds the boy who shamed a girl for being on her ‘period’ while having sex with her, that this very female body that he disdains actually made his existence and his twitter account possible!

Moreover, in a twin stroke, Christina re-envisions the ‘monthly visits’ by the ‘blood’ not as a sign of ‘inferiority’ and ‘discomfort’ – but as something that is ’empowering’ as it makes women “warriors”. She turns the tables on men, and continues her lesson in “feminist politic” by arguing how menstruation, a process where the uterus “sheds itself every 28 days” is extremely empowering as it enables women to discard something which is dead and renew their body and soul as opposed to the ‘masculine’ self which appears ‘static’, ‘stale’, and rather ‘limited’, in comparison. As she states – “The feminist politic part, is that women know how to let things go, how to let a dying thing leave the body, how to become new, how to regenerate, how to wax and wane, not unlike the moon and tides, both of which influence how you behave”.

Christina further stresses the power of women’s sorority as “women have vaginas that can speak to each other and by this I mean, when we’re with our friends, our sisters, our mothers, our menstrual cycles will actually sync the fuck up.” As a reply to oft celebrated narratives of ‘male bonding’, she argues how “My own cervix is mad influential, everybody I love knows how to bleed with me”. Not only does she emphasize the revitalizing power of the feminine body, she also counters the taboo associated with ‘staining’, by announcing that women will introduce men not only to their insides but also to the power of blood and take pride in leaving ‘indelible blood stains’. She also urges women to exercise agency in countering anyone who tries to abuse/insult/subjugate them: “So to my daughter: Should any fool mishandle that wild geography of your body, how it rides a red running current like any good wolf or witch, well then just bleed, boo”.

Widening the contours of the debate, Christina is successfully able to unearth the oft-hidden links between the ‘shaming of women’ on account of menstruation with all the other acts of violence and oppression, such as ‘female genital mutilation’ and ‘unreported rape cases’, that are committed against women. Thus, breaking the silence around menstruation, Christina’s call to “Name the blood something holy, something mighty, something unlanguageable, something in hieroglyphs, something that sounds like the end of the world” sounds like a clarion call to spur women into action and end the culture of ‘euphemisms.’

Taking cue from Steinem, Clifton and Christina, one needs to unearth and analyse the ways in which the issue of menstruation, ‘the physical act of bleeding’, is tied up to the scores of other issues such as the culture, class and socio-familial set up that one inhabits. One can conclude by arguing that it behooves women to recast the ways in which menstruation is perceived and dealt in ‘hetero-patriarchal societies’ so that adequate attention is accorded to issues of female hygiene and menstrual health, both physical and emotional.

(The author is a lecturer, feminist, reader and writer.)