Menstruation: A Personal and A Political Intergenerational Experience

537f7659c2ae1Menstruation, also known as period or monthly[1], is the regular discharge of blood and mucosal tissue from the inner lining of the uterus through the vagina.[2] This is the simple scientific definition of the menstruation.  We know what is it, but do we actually know the social explanation of it in a gender perspective?

What I mean above is essentially a natural fact for almost every women, generally older than 15. We, the women experience its symptoms mostly in a physiological way. However, what are the psychological and social symptoms of the menstruation for us, if we live in a conservative as well as a patriarchal society, integrated also with Islamic codes? In this sense, this article focuses on the psychological and the social symptoms of the menstruation that have some different effects on the lives of the women from different age groups. The scientific explanation can be universal for every woman, but its social codes differentiate according to cultural relativism and the reactions of the different social classes in a society also can be varied in temporally and spatially.

These stories talk about the first experience of four Turkish women, from different ages and social classes; they can chart out a brief analysis for us in order to better understand a reflexive projection of this natural human activity related with the psychological and social affection. Perhaps we can progress to biopolitics, which is deeply interiorized since we realize the restraints of the gender codes; we are “bleeding”, men are not… This simply phrase has much more than its meaning.

(Note: In the interviews, the names are disguised on women’s own request but the ages are displayed.)

“In my childhood, ‘to bleed’ means ‘to be polluted’.”

“I was only 13 when I first menstruated. I was living in a small village in central Anatolia with my family in 1980s. My family was very faithful to Islamic rules and my mom was obsessive about virginity. She always warned me about being pure for my first night with my husband. If bleeding happened before that, I mean, if I had a sexual discourse with someone before marriage or something made my vagina bleeds, I would be polluted and everyone would call me as an honorable woman. She used exactly these words. One morning when I woke up early, I saw blood on my panties. I was so afraid. I thought that I had lost my virginity although I haven’t done anything! I felt that I was a dirty girl! I had a married sister, 3 years older than me, so I ran to her house and shared this with her. She said that it was natural and there had not been anything to be afraid of. She tried to make me calm. But I could not because there was another terrifying thing for me: marriage! Hence, after a year, when I was 14, a man who was 10 years older than me came with his family to marry me. My father gave me to him in return for 30 sheep. I regretted to share this also with my sister because if I did not, I would not to be forced to marry a man whom I had no idea about. Almost every girl was forced to marry with older men after their menstruations in my village.

(A.D., 46)

 

“A completion feeling…”  

“I was 16 years old when I first menstruated. My family and me lived in Istanbul, I knew what was this experience about from my mother and also from the books I read. My mother was educated and an open- minded woman and she guided me, teaching me how to use the sanitary towels, painkillers etc. I was a young girl in 1970s, the years that Turkey was in social, political and economic change. Not every woman knew about the sanitary towels, they were luxury and no one could buy easily as now. But I used them. They were extra heavy, large and there was no variety as today. Menstruation was a good experience for me, I felt that I had stepped into the femininity and I drew near the feminine completion. However, I hide it from my friends until I enrolled to the university. Because in my youth, this was the privacy of women, not every one except my best girl friends should know about it.”

(B. E., 56)

 

“Dad, I am neither a little baby nor a boy!”

“I was 14 when I first menstruated. I had known about it from my friends and also from my mother. I remember that day when I saw the blood, I cried like mad. I was so ashamed; why? I did not know. My father was an unpermissive man but I loved him, he called me as “little baby boy” because I was shorthaired like a boy and also I was playing football with my brother and my friends. After menstruation I realized that I was a girl, a teen girl, and neither a little baby nor a boy anymore. So there had been a competition between my 2 years older brother and me as I was restricted but he was free, such as; he could go outside in the evenings with his friends but I couldn’t. I remember one of my memories about a family holiday. We went seaside with whole family and I had menstruated. Before my father and brother went to swimming, they called me to join them but I had menstruation and I was ashamed for sharing my condition with them. I refused them and told that I had a tummy ache. It is a natural process but I lied! Maybe the traditions had forced me to lie, because in my youth according to my circle, as middle class in 1990’s Turkey, it was not a favorable action to share your feminine privacy with father, brother or generally with men.”

 

(E.A.K., 36)

 

“A celebrated but a ridiculous thing?”

“I was 12 years old when I first menstruated. I was not happy at all because I didn’t want to grow up; I desired to continue to play with my dolls. In that day, I was in kitchen and my mom saw the blood on my trousers and she kissed me. She shared this also with my father and we celebrated it with the whole family, with a strawberry cake that night. I was ashamed but not in my home, in my school, especially for sharing it with my girl friends. Because no one in my class except me, had menstruated. I thought that they would have laugh at me and that what’s happened. One day, a boy in my class delved in my bag and found the sanitary towel. Actually, almost every one knew about it but my teenage friends thought that sexuality is something ridiculous. So they made fun of me. I said it to my teacher and she told them it was my mother’s towel. This was a very absurd thing. Is sexuality a ridiculous thing that should be hidden from teenagers? In contrast, it should be taught to them, there should be added a sexuality lecture to curriculum. Anyway, the other girls began to menstruate one by one and we also had dinner with their families, we celebrated our first steps to sexuality. We are millennium kids; actually there should not be such absurd things as kidding with menstruation or sexual intercourse. However, masculine sense never changes. You see, they ridicule with women at their 13s, then they alienate women at their 18s and so forth.”

(S.Y., 21)

According to the stories, we can pick up some clues of the psychological reactions for women.  Mostly it is a secret that should be hidden from society; a fear for an arranged and forced marriage, a completion feeling which gives an impetus to the feminine evolution of a young woman, a reason to be ridiculed or a reason for a strawberry cake eaten with whole family. Despite the differences of women’s first experiences and their reactions, the stories tell us about a social fact; that menstruation is a thing to be ashamed of and a thing that should be hidden from society. It is just privacy for women and there is no need to talk about it in public sphere. Although it is a natural human activity, women should secrete it from their fathers, boyfriends and even with their girl friends. In contrast, when boys can loudly talk about their sexual lives in public sphere, this can give them a good reputation, also perceived as a sound step on being a “tough guy”.  It is a junction again in public/ private distinction. And yes, there comes through an enormous boggart of the patriarchy. Maybe more tragically, the first story still is in force not with its all dynamics but its formidable reality. In some Anatolian regions, girls are forced to get married after their menstruations and also being perceived as “mature” for marriage, even they are at the lawful age. In this sense, a Turkish film called Aunt Flow[3] can be given as a good example, portraying the girls’ first menstrual experiences, which then turn into suffering roads for forcible marriages.

Sum up, in personal level, every experience has different meanings for women and also every reaction and the social explanation again differentiate in terms of the relativity. However, collective consciousness requires a congruity, in the simplest term, public sphere belongs to men, personal sphere belongs to women and barely some people resist this unequal dualism. There should not be forgotten; the personal is political. Being ashamed of having menstruation can be personal but it has deeply political meaning as; being ashamed of being a woman, an open target or a threat to be restricted or should has some secrets like hiding her body from society.

 

[1] Women’s Gynecologic Health. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. 2011. p. 94. ISBN 9780763756376.
[2] “Menstruation and the menstrual cycle fact sheet”. Office of Women’s Health. December 23, 2014. Retrieved 25 June 2015.
[3] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3463014/

By Deniz Erdogan

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