Menstruation is Serious Business

Igiaba Scego

A ritual during the Rishi Panchami holiday in Katmandu, Nepal, September 18, 2015. According to tradition, this sacred bathing rite purifies women from the sins committed during the days they menstruate.(Photo: Navesh Chitrakar, Reuters/Contrasto)

[Ed. Note: Igiaba Scego first published this essay on the Tampon Tax, her most popular ever, in Italy’s Internazionale magazine on January 19, 2016. Since that time, an European Union measure against taxing femine hygiene products has been promised, and in the UK Parliament has passed legislation to eliminate their tampon VAT, due to go into effect in 2018. To date, only a minority of states in the US—Massachusetts among the first—have similar measures.]

Every month I spend eight Euros on pads. My menstrual flow is heavy (without even mentioning premenstrual leakage), and the eighteen from one box are never enough. During other periods of my life I’ve used tampons and those cost a lot too. Like everyone else in Italy, I pay the value-added tax on each pack—the tax placed on all female sanitary products—that amounts to 22% of the cost. Unlike some products in Italy, the pad, the tampon, or the vaginal cup are not considered essential (and therefore non-taxable) items. According to the Italian state, they aren’t like bread or a newspaper. Each month we women have our cycle, but for the country we live in that’s just a detail. The cramps, the migraines that chew your head off, the blood flowing between your legs—more details. Almost as if all this wasn’t really important for our beautiful country.

Well, there it is— each month that damn 22% tax falls on us and comes directly out of our wallets. So when Giuseppe Civati, the leader of the new Italian left-wing party Possibile, proposed a parliamentary measure that would knock down that 22% wall, like a lot of women, I jumped for joy. At last there would be legislation that included pads and other sorts of hygenic and sanitary products in its legal definition of essential goods. At last someone—and a man at that—had given some thought to my needs.

Yet as soon as this initiative was announced, Giuseppe Civati was flooded by a shower of snark. So many little boys making light of the matter; many of those little boys considered such a measure unfair.

In one tweet, someone pushed it this far:

(To @civati! if the #TamponTax is today’s news for @matteorenzi’s reds, then we’re starting off really really badly. Any ideas on employment, homes, energy, or tech?)

In short, online and elsewhere, the Tampon Tax was made into a joke.

But it’s no joke, my dear little boys.

I’ll address myself to you, because we women know that menstruation is serious business. Millions of women in Italy, and not just here, know it; each month they go through the hassle (and yes, also the joy) of bleeding.

Not by chance, back in the seventies, the voice for US feminists Gloria Steinem wrote a (still timely) essay titled “If Men Could Menstruate.” The activist wrote: “So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event.”

Gloria Steinem lays the irony on thick; its tone is bitter, revealing a chasm between the universe of men and that of women: “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.” Moreover, “guys would . . . ‘give fives’ on the corner with some exchange like, "Man you lookin' good!" "Yeah, man, I'm on the rag!"

The Last Taboo

Steinem writes that “Men would convince women that sex was more pleasurable at ‘that time of the month’” and “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 [. . . and there would be specialized products too]: “For Those Light Bachelor Days.”

From the left and right everyone would fight over male menstruation, which would naturally become, not only the coolest thing in the world, it would—as Gloria Steinem reaffirms—be transformed into an instrument of power.

Alas, as we know, the menstrual cycle has instead been demonized on every level. Made fun of or isolated in other ways, the menstruating woman is invariably considered bizarre, irritable, someone to avoid, and in some cases even dangerous.

Do you remember Carrie by Stephen King? There the girl’s first period causes one mess after another and a natural event like menarche is associated with Satan in the flesh. Menses are not only not appreciated, they’re taboo, perhaps even the ultimate taboo.

In many religions menstruating women are considered impure; Hebrew, in fact, has a word, niddah, for them. To be precise, niddah is a woman who has had her period and hasn’t performed a mikveh, i.e., a purification ritual. In fact in Leviticus 15:19-30 it is said that, “When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening” (New International Version,

In Islam as well, during her period a woman doesn’t pray and must take a purifying bath before performing the canonical prayers. I remember how in Somalia, my country of origin, during her entire monthly cycle a woman was defined nijas, impure. My mother told me that with the nomadic shepherds, in the part of the country where she was born, during those days a woman had to stay separate, distanced from the everyday routines: “They called you nijas and you couldn’t slaughter animals or perform any other tasks.” Today even those who don’t consider menstruating women impure (for instance, in the West, where I live), nonetheless treat us as a highly incendiary subject.

Bleeding Happy

To sum it up, these blessed menses are a fact, but the world tends to speak about them as little as possible, and when it does, it whispers. In fact all patriarchies have this taboo in common, from East to West. Perhaps the means for putting it in practice are different, but I’d say the discrimination is exactly the same. Even today, if you think about it, ads for the major brands of sanitary pads ban the color of blood. Instead of red, on our little domestic screens we see a flow that is blue, almost transparent, one that not only hides but takes away something that is, after all, simply part of every woman’s natural state.

In India, just a few months ago a protest by women reaffirmed: we bleed every month and we’re fine with that. This might seem obvious. But on the Indian subcontinent menses are a gigantic taboo, and nothing is really obvious when you’re talking about menstruation.

It all began outside the Sree Dharma Sastha temple in Sabarimal, one of the most famous and most frequented shrines in the Indian state of Kerala. Prayar Gopalakrishna, in charge of managing the temple, did in fact prohibit women of child-bearing age from entering, because he didn’t know how to differentiate those who were pure from the impure—in other words, those menstruating from those who weren’t.

To some of the local press, the Hindu cleric commented that allowing women in would have been possible, if only there were a machine that functioned like a menstrual metal detector, so that the bellies of female pilgrims could be scanned. Naturally, such comments caused no end of fury among Indian women, especially those in Kerala. Nikita Azad—a student whose name already signals her combativeness—launched a Facebook campaign #HappyToBleed and thousands of women across the subcontinent immediately signed up. Text messages, posters, and even pads were used as banners for breaking the taboo and beginning at last to speak openly about this biological process—happy, natural bleeding.

Last August, another woman caused menstruation to be front-page news all across the world. Her name is Kiran Gandhi, and she’s twenty-six years old. Kiran became famous for having run the last London marathon without tampons or pads. On her blog she explained the dual purpose behind her initiative. First she wanted to show women that menstrual blood was nothing to be ashamed about. But she also intended to call attention to how difficult it is for many women to buy pads.

Engines of Female Emancipation

Buying a box of our beloved pads from the corner store and then using them seems easy, almost automatic. But this act isn’t always so obvious. I realized this in Hargheisa, in northern Somalia, when I went there for a book fair. There a box of pads cost as much as an average monthly salary (and sometimes even more). And that in a place where, it needs to be said, few still even receive a regular salary. Many women simply don’t have access to these products, and unfortunately this isn’t just true of Somalia. Around that time, a local businessman—who had started marketing the Nune brand of pads and napkins (very popular across the horn of Africa)—told me that “menstruation is a major taboo in both Somalia and Somaliland. In our part of the world, women wash and reuse the same pad thousands and thousands of times, causing the risk for vaginal infections to be extremely high.”

In Bhaktapur, Nepal, on February 11, 2014, during the Swasthani Brata Katha holiday, where women who are menstruating are separated from the rest of the faithful. (Navesh Chitrakar, Reuters/Constrasto)

I still remember the solemn face of this young businessman, a member of the Somali diaspora born in the US who had returned to Africa in order to help where he could. And in fact he has helped. He worked with a local NGO to create free distribution of pads, obtained directly at school, in order to prevent girls from staying home because of their monthlies (many of them were forced to stay home by their families or leave school entirely, because the shame of a stain would be impossible to bear).

Hargheisa is no exception, nor is Mogadishu, nor are the many areas in India that remain in a similar state. Not by chance, then, many NGOs have begun specializing in pads.

Today for us pads are everyday objects, we take them for granted. But historically they were one of the engines of women’s emancipation. For centuries in fact women had used everything possible to absorb the menstrual blood that gushed down their thighs. Out of desperation and necessity almost everything has been poked up there. From the ancient Egyptians’ rolled papyruses to do-it-yourself tampons, made out of cotton bolls, leaves, paper, moss, wool, and even animal fur.

Then sponges showed up, along with kitchen rags, and, for better-off women, leftover scraps of fabric. Even underwear as we know it today didn’t always exist. Each and every month women had to use their wits in order to creatively fix strange things between their legs, in order to prevent their flow from escaping and causing a stain. And so women of earlier times equipped themselves with pins, shorts, strings of all sorts, each making do however she could. My mother was lucky and had her menarche late, when she already had moved to Mogadishu. But she remembers women who dug holes in the earth and stayed there for hours, curled up like dogs. My mother was lucky, because her sister, Aunt Faduma, was an obstetrician and received her ration of monthly pads for free. But it wasn’t like that for everyone. “Many of my friends simply wouldn’t leave the house,” she told me.

In the final analysis, even in the West, pads are a recent discovery. Only during the First World War did nurses figure out that the cellulose bandages they were using for soldiers’ wounds would absorb the monthly flow better than cotton. From that point on businesses have literally gone with the flow. And they’re still following it today.

A few years back, the former tennis star Annabel Croft invented a new sportswear line of lingerie. There already were sports products designed for those particular days, especially for women who played tennis or went horseback riding, but they were mostly enormous, ballooning breeches, like something out of the nineteenth century. Annabel did in fact admit to the Guardian that her monthlies had always worried her. Those whiter-than-white tennis outfits with their tiny little skirts tormented her—how could you keep from staining them? And then one day her mother showed up with a pair of shorts as big as a sixties-era swimsuit. Annabel, by wearing those shorts, managed to get over her personal trauma, and then she created her lingerie line Diary Doll.

It could be that the monthlies hit women hardest in sports. To our eyes, female sports stars are almost godlike, modern Amazons ready for every battle—nothing could possibly scare them. Or worry them. But they have their monthlies too. Every woman we can think of, from Federica Pellegrini to Serena Williams, bleeds when it’s her time. And the monthlies—i.e., the fatigue and lethargy that come with menstruating—hit them too. Yet only a few have felt authorized to admit it. At least not until Heather Watson arrived and candidly admitted on television that her monthlies had cost her the Australian Open.

Hurray! At last someone took the risk of confessing out loud an open secret known to women of every era.

On occasion, though, speaking too frankly about menstruation leads, not only to bad taste and bad jokes (like those plaguing poor Giuseppe Civati these days), but even to censorship.

That’s what happened to Rupi Kaur, a Pakistani poet that lives in Canada. An incriminated photo shows Rupi Kaur stretched out on her bed at home with her sweatpants stained with menstrual blood. The snapshot was part of a series of art photos, Period, (created with the collaboration of artist’s sister Prabh); it was in fact censured twice by Instagram. Rupi Kaur says she’s been amazed by the response and debate created by the work she and Prabh put together. She had no idea how much this subject was still taboo, even in the West. Not surprisingly, after the clamor created by all the articles and all the social media users infuriated by how the two sisters were treated, Instagram offered an apology and put the photo back online. But such an incident demonstrates that, when it comes to menstruation, gender parity has yet to be achieved.

One of my friends admitted to me that even the word “menstruation” makes her feel uncomfortable. “I don’t use it,” she told me, “It makes me feel a little ashamed.” And she isn’t an isolated case. Every woman, in order to avoid to call it “my time of the month,” has invented some comic, evocative nickname in order to hide the offence.

And that’s why, in Italy, our grandmothers would say “the Marquis has arrived”; apparently these poor noblemen used to wear long, fire-red dressing gowns on ceremonial occasions. And after all, “redcoats” has been another name used to allude to menstrual flow. For instance, when I was young I used to call my menstrual flow “Guglielmo”; it was always, “I got a call from Guglielmo” or “Tomorrow Guglielmo will be taking me out.” All this because my Italian literature textbook—the Guglielmo – Grosser edition, Il sistema letterario—had a vibrant red cover. We were ashamed and we still are ashamed because society has instilled in us the insane idea that this monthly event is dirty and sinful.

No one, in fact, has ever told us that the monthlies are as much a part of us as the air we breathe or the batting of our eyelashes. And that’s why for years we’ve snuck off furtively—as if we were Arsène Lupin, the thief and master of disguise—in order to toss our incriminating pads into the trash, far from the watchful eyes of the males in our family, whether they’re fathers, brothers, or husbands. In short, my dear little boys, we women have lived in a nightmare created out of your prejudices.

Rather than make fun of Giuseppe Civati, it’s high time men and women got together to rise above this state of affairs—and to find as well a solution to the pollution caused by billions of sanitary pads. What to do? From vaginal cups to biodegradable pads the world is equipping itself to solve this problem.

So stop that laughing and instead come up with some good ideas for keeping both us and the planet clean.

And remember that menstruation is a serious business.

Very serious. Without it there might not be life at all. Probably not even yours.

Igiaba Scego is an Italian writer of Somali descent who was born in 1974 in Rome, where she still lives.

Translation by Jim Hicks