Women have always been subject to discrimination and one such form of discrimination is society’s portrayal of a menstruating woman.
Earlier this year, Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience published an article that debunked the notion of “period brain” finding that menstruation does not affect a woman’s cognitive functioning. The study which followed 68 women over two menstrual cycles, was led by Professor Brigitte Leeners and a team from the University Hospital of Zurich and Medical School Hannover. The study tested three cognitive aspects by making women perform ten cognitive tests at different stages of the menstrual cycle. It found that the levels of oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone in a woman’s system had no impact on their attention, working memory or cognitive bias. Although Professor Leeners said that more research with larger samples of women needs to be done, these findings are significant as they dismiss the patronising perception of menstruating women.
UP Anthropology Department’s Dr Fraser McNeill speaks about the myths and taboos surrounding menstruation. Dr McNeill says that there is an idea that “menstruation is when a woman is in a polluted state.” This exists because this is a time when “a woman’s body is cleansing itself and therefore […] in a taboo type state.” Dr McNeill says that there are myths that if you have sexual intercourse with a woman on her period you will get “some kind of illness, because menstrual blood is seen as dirty.” However, this has been proven to be false.
A journal article published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information entitled “Menstruation related myths in India: strategies for combating it” speaks of many taboos and myths surrounding menstruation. This journal article, published in 2015, coincides with what Dr McNeill says, saying that in India “menstruation is still considered to be dirty and impure.” In fact, in some parts of India this myth restricts women from things such as “offering prayers and touching holy books” and preparing food for fear of “contamination.” This exclusion of women from socio-cultural aspects of life largely impacts their “emotional state, mentality and lifestyle and most importantly, health.”
Another well-known myth is that women become extremely irrational or overly emotional while menstruating. Since the myths of lessened cognitive functioning, impurity, and madness heighten discrimination against women for approximately five days in every month, it is important to understand where they come from. Dr McNeill believes they link back to one thing, the patriarchy. He says that “women are connected to nature in a much stronger way than men are and that terrifies men.” To emphasise this connection to nature, he uses examples of childbirth and breastfeeding. Dr McNeill continues to say, “There are some anthropological theories that patriarchy [and] male dominance became a global norm because men are terrified of women” and so men try to “control women’s connection with nature.” It is this inherent connection to nature which also explains why women are more likely to be accused of witchcraft because they can do things that men “can’t quite do.” The National Center for Biotechnology Information journal article found that “in Surinam [South America], menstrual blood is believed to be dangerous” and that this blood can be used to do “black magic” or for women to “impose her will on a man.” Dr McNeill says that “patriarchal society consistently demonises women.” Dr McNeill said that these myths which are driven by patriarchy are also colonial. He said that pre-colonial African communities saw menstruation as a way of cleansing, to prepare for pregnancy or to rid oneself of sexually transmitted diseases. It was the European colonists who imposed the notion of periods being dirty on these communities.
Whether or not people believe in these anthropological theories, these myths and taboos surrounding menstruation can be seen as an expression of the patriarchy. Dr McNeill says that perhaps “bleeding is a great opportunity to exaggerate [male] control” over women as it is something inherent, that every woman faces. The idea of “‘period brain’, women being a bit mad when they’re on their period, might have been […] internalised by women themselves. So, they start to reflect what men and other women expect to see in them,” says Dr McNeill. This notion is addressed by Professor Leeners who says that as “a specialist in reproductive medicine and a psychotherapist, [she deals] with many women who have the impression that the menstrual cycle influences their well-being and cognitive performance.” Dr McNeill notes that this does not, however, take away from the reality that sometimes the pain of a period does cripple women. He says that “maybe in some cases it’s internalised, but there’s also just the physical reality that some women feel as if their uterus is being torn out of their bodies”.
When asked whether society is becoming more progressive in terms of these taboos, Dr McNeill said that “patriarchy isn’t going anywhere.” The way in which “men view menstruation and frame it as women going ‘mad’ […] is all about patriarchal control of women”. Dr McNeill said that in “lived reality patriarchy comes over as a beautiful thing.” Men take great pride in protecting and providing for their women, however, the subtext of this is that women need protection and cannot provide for themselves says Dr McNeill. Dr McNeill believes that only once people stop “treating women like [they] own them”, attitudes towards “things like menstruation will change”. He adds that these myths are “constructed by society, so if there is nothing natural about them and if they have been constructed, that means they can also change.”
Illustration: Sally Hartzenberg