Period Punishment

Tulasi Shahi, an 18-year-old Nepalese woman, died from a snakebite last week when she was banished to a ‘menstruation hut’ while on her period, reports the IndependentThough Nepal is not the only country to have groups practice banishment during menstruation, it has certainly been the one to garner the most attention lately, as the country has had, in addition to the death of Shahi, two other women die from the ancient practice.  Although banishment is on the extreme end, period punishment is by no means limited to Nepal.  In various countries, including most notably in the United States and the United Kingdom, women are forced to pay a tax on sanitary products as they have been deemed by governments as “non-essential” items.  According to the Guardian, the inability to afford sanitary products even keeps some girls from attending school.  Around the world, the menstrual cycle continues to be surrounded by a negative stigma and women are suffering.

The so-called “tampon tax” has not gone unchallenged.  Laura Coryton, a college student, launched a petition campaign to confront both the stigma of periods and the additional cost to women.  According to Coryton, the tax “supports [a societal] period taboo, that periods should be something we should be ashamed of and shouldn’t talk to the male Parliament about. I think women have been made to feel shameful about menstruation for a very long time…[and it] has no relevance in the 21st century.”  Not only are women charged extra for products that are necessary for a healthy and productive life, but they are also told that they are neither emotionally stable nor capable during “that time of the month,” which a recent study has debunked.  Heading up the study was Professor Brigitte Leeners of University Hospital Zurich who told the Independent that “Although there might be individual exceptions, women’s cognitive performance is in general not disturbed by hormonal changes occurring with the menstrual cycle.”

The idea that, in the 21st-Century, menstruating women are still considered otherworldly is laughable, but as it also leads to discrimination – and it is discrimination – it really is not a laughing matter.  Those born biologically as women are going to have their menstrual cycle for approximately 37 years or one period a month for roughly 4 days for those 37 years.  Periods are a biological fact of life and yet women are not only stigmatized for talking about them, but also punished.  That science has been dominated by men for most of human history goes without saying, but there are signs that this dominance is slowly beginning to fade.  Such a demographic change should impact the way in which the female body is studied and treated.  With better education and, perhaps most importantly, more women willing to talk openly about the menstrual cycle, the negative stigma will dissipate and so too the negative effects such as tampon taxes and menstruation huts.

Just why menstruating women are considered “unclean” or even “dangerous” is a cultural phenomenon found around the world.  Procter & Gamble Research Fellow, Dr. Miranda A. Farage, who has studied the topic extensively, told Hannah Betts of the Telegraph that the exact reasons for this idea of menstruating women as unclean are not known, but she theorizes that the “link to reproduction and birth imbues the menstrual cycle with a certain mystique. Bleeding is usually a sign of injury: our ancestors may have viewed cyclical bleeding – without dying – as a supernatural event…From first-century Rome to 19th-century England, menstruation was thought to render women periodically dangerous.”  The continued presence of patriarchal societies has done little to help assuage such ideas.

The issues addressed in this article only scratch the surface of this deep topic, but suffice it to say that to punish women through taxes and ill-treatment is to discriminate against those who cannot help having a period.  Such discrimination hinders their ability to function within society as full and equal members as is their human right.

S.M. Ellison

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