Periods. As much as we talk about them and do our part to destigmatise the taboos around menstruation, there is still a lot of shame and guilt. Nearly every woman will have experienced this feeling at some point in their lives; the need to hide a tampon up a sleeve or lie about why they're feeling unwell. Why are we ashamed of a completely natural and biological process that affects half the global population? Well, it might have something to do with men.
I am a Muslim Arab woman. Our culture and religion have placed a lot of shame on periods and menstruation, but this shame was created by men. In my culture, women are not supposed to talk about periods around men. We are not to leave sanitary products on show in shared bathrooms. Muslim women are exempt from religious duties, such as praying and fasting, if they are menstruating and so, if I were on my period, I would be expected to pretend that I had already prayed or lie and say that I am fasting if a man were to ask. Women can talk a little more freely about it among themselves, but conversation is still limited and awkward.
When I was younger, I used to ask my mum why things were this way and she would always respond: "It’s just the done thing." Now I'm older, I’m not confident she really knows why we walk on eggshells around men when it comes to periods. It’s been ingrained and conditioned in all of us – women and men – for so long, by a combination of culture, society and religion, that to question it is harder than to go along with it. I hide my period from my dad or male friends because it’s just a normalised habit for me. And even though I’m older now and more educated on the matter, I still sometimes feel awkward getting out a pad in public.
Yet this is not a culture-specific issue. The shame and guilt around periods is alive and well in Western society, too. In my experience, plenty of white Western men also become uncomfortable discussing periods. Of course, let me insert here: not all men. I have male friends and colleagues who are totally clued up on the matter, but they are not the majority. In my experience, men seem to want to ignore or gloss over the fact that women menstruate. I mean, it’s not their problem right?
With all these campaigns and open discussions around the destigmatisation of periods, did we forget to include men? They created the stigma but here we are doing the work to undo it all.
This is where all the taboo and the stigma and the shame around periods stems from. It isn’t women who have created and imposed the shame and awkwardness on themselves but it is women who are now trying to break down the stigma. But with all these campaigns and open discussions around the destigmatisation of periods, we may have forgotten to include men. Perhaps it’s time we shift the focus from tackling our stigma and shame to tackling their stigma and shame. We need to challenge their lack of comfort and awkwardness and get to the key question: why? Why do you feel awkward talking about periods?
This is exactly what I’m now trying to do – talk to men about my periods. A few months ago I got tired of avoiding the subject, tired of using 'stomach pains' as an excuse and sneaking off to the bathroom with a pad up my sleeve. But no more. I am now leaving my sanitary products out and proud, at home and at work. I’m no longer shoving pads to the bottom of shopping bags, hoping the male cashier didn't notice what he just scanned. If I’m asked if I’m okay or why I’m feeling under the weather, I say that I have menstrual cramps. I will no longer be made to feel awkward or ashamed about a bodily function.
I have been met with mixed reactions. Lots of men have been unfazed. They didn’t flinch and offered to make me a cup of tea. One even volunteered to run out and buy pads for me when I said I was running low. I’ve had frank conversations about periods with male friends, discussing everything from period poverty to the menstrual cycle. The reactions from my male family members have been surprisingly positive. Being more open about what I'm experiencing while I'm menstruating means that I’m no longer as embarrassed or awkward around my dad when I’m on my period. On top of that, we’ve even started talking about the topic, me explaining how I feel, him showing empathy for my discomfort. Things were even easier with my brother who, despite being a teenage boy, isn’t squeamish or grossed out by the concept anymore.
Inevitably, there have been negative reactions too. I have had men become visibly uncomfortable and awkward. Men have told me that I am sharing "too much information" or said: "That’s gross, let’s not talk about that." Less vocal men have simply changed the subject of the conversation. One man literally stood up and walked out of the room when I brought the subject up.
Nevertheless, I’m going to press on with my mission to talk to men about periods, to break down the stigma both within my own culture and religion, and within wider Western society. Of course, not all women are in a position to safely discuss or challenge men on this topic and my ability to explore menstruation out loud comes from a place of privilege. But for those of us who can, I would urge any woman to do the same – even just by saying the words: "I’m on my period."
The more open we are with men about our periods, the sooner we can break the taboo and bleed without shame.