by Kat Kelley
So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?
Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event:
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 […]
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”).
Gloria Steinem “If Men Could Menstruate“
After a full day of language instruction, and with merely a scarf to protect me from the sun reflecting off the marble of the Grand Mosque, I found myself struggling to commit the ritual washing ceremony to memory. The sheikh washed his hands, mouth, nose, face, right and then left forearm, head, ears, right and then left leg, three times through. This is a ritual he performs five times daily, and which Muslims are expected to perform before praying in the mosque. He rattled on about the formalities, mentioning that despite the thorough procedure, it is not always a sufficient cleanse. Women are prohibited from entering the mosque while menstruating. Additionally, they are prohibited from praying, touching or reciting a verse from the Qur’an, or performing the Hajj while menstruating. As my eyebrows arched, I realized that this was not a Muslim phenomenon, even as a young American I had encountered the menstrual taboo.
Our language is rife with euphemisms for menstruation, and the only time pop-culture addresses menstruation is in regards to PMS. Desperate requests for tampon are always asked in a whisper and I staunchly avoid intercourse while on my period- yet never feel comfortable articulating my reasoning.
I remember sitting in my high school’s cafeteria, during the 2008 Democratic primaries and hearing “I’d never vote for Hilary Clinton, I don’t want someone in office who is PMSing every fourth week.” I laughed it off, but I couldn’t shake the lingering frustration. It was as though we were reduced to beasts. Out of control and unreliable, for a fifth of our reproductive lives. We’ve been taught that periods themselves are shameful, as tends to happen with women’s bodies and biology (I mean, prior to the Affordable Care Act, Viagra received more insurance coverage than the Pill). In a recent study by Kotex, 56% of girls agree with the statement “talking about period care is looked down upon by society.” The stigma causes more than embarrassment and discomfort. The consequent silence causes misinformation, and in many cultures restricts girls’ access to education.
In some nations, such as Nepal women are isolated during their menstruation, expected to live in huts or cowsheds. Where affordable sanitary products and clean, gender-specific facilities are unavailable, girls often stay home from school while menstruating- drop out and absenteeism rates are high for girls in countries with strong menstrual taboos. There is growing evidence that the provision of appropriate facilities and sanitary supplies for girls not only decreases absenteeism for female students, but also contributes to “improved ability to concentrate in school, higher confidence levels, and increased participation in a range of everyday activities while menstruating” (1).
For many young American girls, there is a need for basic sexual health education. For young girls in many developing nations, basic sanitation facilities, or incinerators for disposal, go a long way towards advancing girls’ education. A stigma, especially one as entrenched and ancient as the menstrual taboo, will not be changed overnight. As the power of a stigma thrives on silence, discourse and education are essential to breaking down societal menophobia.