Women's bodies, both past and present, are the battleground on which the war of morality is fought. Even with our modern laws and supposedly progressive ways of living, the effects of 'virtue' and 'principles' are still felt on the female anatomy.
One issue that myself and many other women still struggle with is menstruation. As a Muslim African woman, I grew up with the idea that tampons were taboo. The only option presented to me was the sanitary towel. At home, my sexual and reproductive education extended to a single sentence and was presented with hurried instructions on how to wear a pad: "If you play with boys (place pad on knickers like this) you will get pregnant (fold the wings under like this)." That was it. The idea of a tampon was not just offensive, it was so completely alien that it never crossed my mind to try one.
Now, as an adult, I am still unlearning the socialisation that made me a tourist in my own body. Last summer, I had a breakthrough. The September sun was beating down on our villa in Bali. We had a pool outside and I was dying to get in. I turned to my English-raised friend and huffed about the inconvenience of my body. "I’m on my period," I grumbled. "Oh, I’ve got tampons," she casually responded.
The ridiculousness of the situation suddenly made me laugh. At 26 years old and very much aware of the different products on the market, I had never used a tampon. The idea of sticking something up myself was scary. I voiced my concerns and for a whole afternoon we talked about it as a group. "Does it hurt?" I asked, again and again. "Are you sure it doesn’t hurt?" And, more fearfully: "Is it right?" I remember feeling like a 13-year-old having her first period as it dawned on me that I had absolutely no idea (and was downright petrified about) what was going inside my own body.
I took a deep breath and departed for the toilet. I climbed the mountain. And I succeeded! Afterwards, like the millennial that I am, I took to Twitter to rant. I quickly found a whole family of women brought up in similar cultures which uphold virtue and use religious teachings about purity, chastity and modesty to tell women that their bodies are maps on which their own and their family's morality is displayed.
Writer and performer Afshan D'souza-Lodhi told me about her mother’s negative reaction when she started using the Mooncup. "I [had] never used tampons before… Using [them] meant you weren’t a virgin anymore." She clarified: "I don’t remember my mum using the word 'virgin' but she was like, 'It goes inside you and messes with you. You shouldn’t do that'."
In cultures like mine, virginity and chastity are so important that women are led to believe that an intact hymen carries the honour of their whole lineage. This is quite the burden to put on something that can tear while riding a bike. Or, in some cases, when inserting a tampon.
This was reflected in the words of a Christian woman from Kenya who contacted me after seeing my tweets. "My teenage upbringing was heavily influenced by purity culture," she told me. "Especially that imported from American evangelical Christianity. My period education was all received from the Catholic school I attended, which frowned upon the use of tampons [and] encouraged us to use pads." Having eschewed tampons as an adult (she’d been dissuaded by fears of Toxic Shock Syndrome), my tweet encouraged her to try again and, after many attempts and YouTube videos, she finally succeeded!
Socialisation is a hard nut to crack and, often, getting rid of the judgement we put on ourselves can be the hardest part. "The emphasis on purity made me so judgemental in my teens and early 20s," she went on. "[I thought that] life and sexuality was some kind of reward system, that maintaining my virginity would earn me respect and make me better than my peers, that I deserved all the good things that came with what is essentially a patriarchal evangelical family fantasy."
Globally, women’s choices continue to be impacted by the notion of purity, entrenched in a socioeconomic structure aimed at the continued othering of women. However, women are refusing to be othered. Zahra, a 21-year-old law student in Australia, told me the breaking point for her was also a hot day and a cold pool. "The first time I used a tampon, I was on holiday and desperate to have a swim in the pool." She says she managed to overcome the idea that she was 'spoiling' herself and take the plunge.
"With my own daughter," Zahra continued, "I hope that I’ll be open and informative about menstruating and all the products we have the option of using. I never want my daughter to feel that I am judging her."
Faiza Ali, a black Muslim woman, told me that she already uses tampons but initially struggled to feel okay about doing so. "When I started wearing them, I used to feel a bit guilty. I felt that it was a big secret."
'Guilt', 'shame', 'judgement' – I kept hearing these words as I talked to these women about their sexual health, their sexual education, their bodies and their virginity. It's totally understandable when you consider that periods and vaginas are not welcome topics of conversation at home. Even during the holy month of Ramadan, many Muslim women pretend to be fasting while on their periods (which they aren't meant to do) so that the men in the family remain untroubled by the most natural thing a woman’s body can do.
Preventing a woman from exploring her own body will lead her to become anonymous to herself. She will enter adulthood not knowing her body, her pleasure and worse, her own health.
Nonetheless, with the rise of more platforms disrupting the myth of purity, with millennials ranting on Twitter and women talking openly to men, we can begin to add a little filth into the principles of morality. And maybe one day, when someone describes a woman's virtue, that will include a bloody tampon.