Inga T. Winkler & Chris Bobel
“34 Bizarre Myths about Periods from around the World”… This and many other examples of popular discourse increasingly address cultural and religious beliefs and practices related to menstruation.
We’re very excited to see increasing media recognition that menstruation matters. But we also see risks. Many articles lapse into sensationalized or patronizing accounts of menstrual beliefs and practices that disregard and ridicule cultural and religious traditions.
Many of the articles in our sample of 82 reflect the neocolonial tropes of victim, savage, and savior that cast the global North as progressive and the global South as regressive. These discursive formulations metaphorically cast women and girls as passive victims of their “savage” culture in need of “saviors” who have the authority and the resources to alleviate their suffering.
For example, many articles utilize the passive voice when referring to menstruators and their behaviors and/or beliefs. One article asserts that “menstruating girls are banished to dark rooms.” The assumption here is that the menstruators universally and necessarily submit to the restrictions placed upon them. They are cast as “victims of cultural oppression.”
When referring to menstrual practices, the articles cast these as “bizarre” and backward,” reflecting the trope of the savage. Words like these clearly pack a judgmental punch.
What struck us most were the global North vs. global South comparisons, and these consistently landed on West=Best.
Take this one for instance: “Fortunately for most of us in the UK, the … beliefs have been established as myth. But in continents such as Africa and India, such myths remain and are drastically impacting the lives of young women.” There is a lot wrong with this assertion (beginning with lumping together all of Africa!). The global South is labelled as backward and stuck in its “savage” culture. The implication is that there is a dire need to move on from a certain tradition or cultural practice. To adopt so-called “modernity.”
Overall, the articles represent women and girls as passive victims of their culture that is cast as in need of change. The articles are largely silent about women and girls’ agency, choices and preferences. Not one article suggests that women and girls may choose to engage in cultural and religious practices.
Many of the articles assert or imply that they are motivated by the quest for human rights and gender justice. But they do not allow for the complexity of human rights, which necessarily includes a serious reckoning with women and girls’ agency. A comprehensive understanding of human rights is one that stresses agency and autonomy, one that covers all possible choices and is informed by local contexts and socio-cultural environments—this extends to choices that might be different from liberal Western assumptions.
This brings us to our core argument: The fundamental problem with this genre of articles is that they assert authority over the lives of women and girls whose lived experiences they often do not know. The articles patronize by claiming to know what’s best, namely to do away with culture and religion. In doing so, they replace one prescription with another rather than actually acknowledging women’s and girls’ agency—including the freedom to choose their religion and follow its rules.
While we appreciate the increased attention to menstruation, as global menstrual community we need to do better to understand the diverse meanings of menstrual practices in their sociocultural, religious, and historical contexts. Only then can the menstrual movement advance the rights of all people who menstruate.