How Discreet is Your Period?

By Martha Silcott

Shh! Keep it quiet! Nobody must know. Even in the liberal modern world, menstruation is the last taboo. Despite it being a mundane biological function, periods remain shrouded in mystery and shame. Great strides have been made in normalising how women talk, act and feel about their periods, but one concept seems to endure: discretion.

In some ways it’s understandable. People tend to be discreet about other toilet functions too, not just periods. We mock TV commercials where sanitary pads absorb blue liquid, yet we’d never expect to see an ad for toilet paper smeared with anything realistic. As a society, we’re happier with the bathroom door firmly closed.

But whereas most women would feel comfortable talking openly in the office about the loos running out of toilet paper, it’s likely that they’d lower their voices if they’d run out of tampons and needed to borrow one. It’s in a whole different category of discretion. Does that mean, in the scale of revulsion, menstrual blood falls somewhat lower than excrement? What does that say about women’s status in society?

When sanitary pads first went on sale, they were kept behind the counter as a secretive purchase. Some pharmacies even offered an honesty box, so women could complete the transaction without making eye contact. Even now, sanitary items are packaged with discretion in mind, individually wrapped to minimise blushes should they fall out of a handbag.

Recent research by FabLittleBag with Mumsnet users found that 84% of women felt embarrassed disposing of their tampon at other people’s houses. It’s a very high proportion, but perhaps unsurprising given that many bathrooms don’t seem to have caught up with the fact that women have periods.

The research revealed the unspoken angst felt by women who are too responsible to flush their tampon, but are uncertain if they’ll find a bin in the loo. Without a bin, women are reduced to MI5-worthy manoeuvres, such as the Handbag Smuggle (sneaking their used item out the loo in search of a bin). It’s a miserable ritual and wholly unnecessary, if only the silence on this subject weren’t so deafening.

Even with the luxury of a bin, the indignity continues. Many find themselves faced with an unlined basket, or a lidless bin, none of which lends itself to dignified disposal of a used tampon or pad. Having a period is nothing to be ashamed of, but depositing a soiled bundle in someone else’s bathroom remains beyond the pale. And women can only wonder what genius invented see-through bags for sanitary disposal (a male one perhaps?).

The journey towards a society with a truly enlightened attitude to menstruation continues. Until then, we need to find a balance between exaggerated secrecy and being able to manage our bodily functions with some dignity. All we ask is a bathroom bin, an opaque, sealable disposal bag and a world that grows up a little about periods.

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FabLittleBag is an alternative form of tampon disposal to flushing or the “bag and bin” option. FabLittleBag is the end result of many, many years of trying to get a new product in a taboo area to market. It is about having a proper solution – one which is discreet, hygienic and provides confidence to users in a typically awkward scenario. Importantly, they also ensure that people bin such products and do not cause blockages or environmental pollution by flushing. FabLittleBag degrades so does not add negatively to the plastic mountain in landfill – it just ensures that what needs to go there, gets there. Its purpose is unique and manages to bring a cool and attractive design to an area not previously associated with those words!
For more information on the FabLittleBag, visit: http://www.fablittlebag.com

They Hold Up Half the Sky

By Natalie Lever

‘A businesswoman’.

Looking up at me, this is the reply of thirteen-year-old Nikita to my question ‘What do you want to be?’, her eyes fill up with tears and her mouth is slightly smiling. No-one notices this but I nod at her and move the subject on, careful not to draw attention to her reaction.

We are in the middle of our daily Aspire class, which I co-develop and lead with another teacher named Kirsty at Gandhi Shikshan Bhavan School (GSB) in Juhu, Mumbai. Together, we meet each day with twenty teenage girls in the ninth standard, in-between teaching other classes. These sessions consist of discussions and project-based work; we focus on topics such as employability, sustainability, the role of women in society and democracy, activism, and current affairs, as well as skills-based workshops to promote women’s empowerment.

A large proportion of students at GSB are from disadvantaged backgrounds and approximately 20% are ‘first generation learners’ (FGL). This term refers to the students who are the first one in their entire family to go to school and receive an education or whose parents have attended the formal education system only up until the primary level of schooling.  These children often face a multitude of academic, psychological, socio-economic and cultural challenges, all of which affect girls most seriously.

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Academic support from parents is often limited due to their own lack of education or lack of time to spend with their children as a result of having demanding jobs. In general, it is mothers who interact more with the school system here in Mumbai; mothers who take their small children to school each day and mothers who sit down with their child to study, even if she is unable to provide them with any academic help. It is the mother who is often the sole provider of motivation and valuable support, and it is she who will play a central role in passing on these good habits and skills to her children. Yet, whilst India has seen a steady increase in primary school enrolment — which is evidenced in large class sizes of both boys and girls — many of these female students drop out before they have finished their primary schooling (usually before the age of fourteen), or whilst they are at secondary school.

Uniquely, the school works under the Gandhian philosophy, ensuring that its teachers are agents of social change and inclusive development and that its students are well-rounded and socially-conscious members of the community. This kind of environment creates an equal learning platform for both boys and girls, making sure that they stay in school beyond the consistent eighth standard drop-out period. Most of these learners are typically children of bus drivers, labourers, civic-sanitation workers and housemaids with no educational background. As a result, these students may find themselves ‘on the margins of two cultures’, often having to renegotiate a relationship at school and at home to manage the tension between the two. This is manifested in the number of absences in school; it is still rare that there is full attendance in our class and on a day to day basis, it is difficult not to think about the causes and consequences of this.

I think back to when we recently celebrated India’s Independence Day at GSB. The morning was spent singing patriotic songs together and hoisting the national flag above the trees that surround the school premises. Performances were also given, one of which included a short play made by some younger students. It depicted the scenario of a family not allowing their young daughter to complete her schooling, so that she may leave to marry a man in a nearby village.

‘Please can I go to school? Just for one day?’ the girl argued.

‘But what would you even do there?’ her father replied.

After some talk of her obligation to marry versus the benefits of staying at school, the conclusion of the play was positive; the mother and the father discussed her options with their daughter and agreed for her to complete her education. Afterwards in her speech, the head teacher of the school reflected on this and reminded everyone of their main ethos, echoing the words of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘We cannot succeed as a country if 50% of our population is at home and not being heard.’

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There are a number of things that need to and can be done in order to improve this situation, including curriculum development; more involvement of (often uneducated) families in school life in order to help to manage their child’s education; reducing or omitting the cost altogether for the most vulnerable children and compensating families for the loss of labour (a frequent reason why children drop-out). School hours should be more flexible, so children can help at home and still attend classes. In addition, the safety of girls travelling alone should be addressed, particularly in villages. This is a major concern for Indians and at GSB, a female teacher will stay on the school-bus until every child has been dropped off, so that no girl is left alone which can make them more vulnerable to ‘eve-teasing’ or assault.

The Indian woman today faces unique challenges at every step, within her own home and outside of it. Not in all circumstances, but in far too many, an Indian girl with any trace of ambition has a long, hard road ahead of her. I am still unsure as to why Nikita reacted in that way to that question in that class, nor will I ever ask her. But I think of the words of the head teacher on Independence Day and I think of my own beliefs concerning the importance and power of girls’ education. An educated woman acquires the essential skills, information and self-confidence and strength that she needs to be a better parent, worker and citizen. When women and girls are given the opportunity for full participation and a full education (this includes completing their studies from primary through to secondary without changing schools or dropping out entirely), women will gain more control over their future and consequently their whole family, community and country will benefit.

In hindsight, I believe that one reason that Nikita reacted the way she did was perhaps that she felt relief; she felt happy in a moment where in the safety of her peers and in a silent room of listening ears, she was able to bravely reveal her aspirations and admit that she had the hope to achieve them.

Climbing the Mountain of Oppressions

By Jane Derishu

During the last Shabbat dinner in the house of one of my aunts, I got into a conversation with my cousin and his girlfriend. With my values and beliefs, I always tend to trigger quite a lot of “entertainment” in my right-wing, chauvinist, racist, nationalist family, and often they ask for my opinion about social issues in a way that makes me feel like a child who says funny things.

The good news is that each generation within our family becomes more progressive; the bad news is that they do it in very small steps.

In fact, as we were talking, my cousin’s girlfriend told me that her mother always tells her she will accept her no matter what. However, there is one thing that she will not accept: if she were to marry an Arab man. My gendered mind immediately asked itself whether an Arab woman would be fine, but since I had already brought negative energy with me when I refused to take part in the Kiddush, I decided to choose my battles for the evening and I saved the comment for myself. When I asked her what was wrong with an Arab man, I received a horrified look from both her and my cousin, which clearly asked ‘Are you crazy?’ My cousin’s girlfriend added ‘They beat their wives’, as if no non-Arab woman had ever been a victim of domestic violence. When I told her that there are Jewish women who also suffer abuse, she told me it is not the same.

There are so many things wrong with what she said, irrespective of the racist aspect. Putting aside her perceptions and representations of Arab men and women, what bothered me for a few days after this conversation was her tendency to create hierarchies between oppressions. I continued to struggle with the questions: Can we quantify suffering? Or can we quantify oppression and decide that a certain person is more oppressed than another? That a certain culture is more oppressive?

Maybe when we talk about privileges, it’s a bit simpler to measure it, but every time I try to create a hierarchy between oppressions, I find myself stuck. Is the gender-role division worse than sexual violence? Perhaps the reason I cannot answer this is because oppression is individual. One person would feel that sexism is the most oppressive aspect in their life while another would feel the same for a different form of oppression. Now, I want to be cautious and clear. I am not arguing that oppression is subjective. There are mass oppressions but I do claim that oppression is experienced in an individual way even if we experience the same oppression. If I sit with my amazing ‘Feminist Friend A’ and someone makes a sexist or racist comment, there is almost a 100% chance that we will both notice it and will probably talk about it later, but at the moment it happens, each of us experience it separately.

And so I am ashamed to say that in a way I agree with my cousin’s girlfriend that it is different but that this difference is not due to culture or religion or ethnicity, it is much deeper. It is different for each person. EACH WOMAN KNOWS HER OWN OPPRESSION. I really believe this is the case. It is not possible to compare between cultures because female oppression is not cultural, it is universal and individual at the same time. Oppression is experienced differently by every woman, even if we experience the same kind of oppression. I believe it is also related to the gap between knowing and experiencing. We can “know” (I put it in quotation marks because knowing is a very complicated term, especially in a feminist context) that there is oppression which is based on gender, race, ethnicity and so on, but when we experience it, it becomes individual even when we know it affects a larger group and that other people have experienced the same. For example, I know that the existing wage gap between men and women is oppressive but I feel oppressed when I receive sexist comments, when people (even feminists) comment on my clothes or when I’m told to limit myself in certain spaces.

The arrogance that comes with comments about oppression in other cultures should disappear along with those comments. Not only because it uses dehumanisation in order to muffle oppression that is right in front of us, in our own “culture”, but also because it is not relevant. A woman (she might even be Jewish…) who is abused by her partner is not more oppressed than I am because of her culture (whatever the concept of culture means) — we are oppressed in different ways. For this reason I will stand by her when she struggles. I will believe her words when she claims she is oppressed, because she is the only one who knows how it feels to live her life as her, while I am the only one who knows how it feels to live my life as me.

In gender studies, I’ve been taught that the worst crime in the world is to generalize oppressions. Saying that all women are oppressed is not feminist (or at least worth an F grade). I am still struggling with this postmodernist narrative (conservative me), and in order to solve this dissonance I started to believe that oppression cannot be generalised, not because it is relative due to time, place, culture and so, but because we experience it on individual bases and it’s quite hard to generalise individual experience.  

So please, when a woman tells you she’s oppressed, trust me, she knows what she is talking about; she knows her own oppression.