Abortion law and control of contraception, clitoridectomy and infibulation, chastity belts, forced hysterectomy and forced pregnancy, forced sterilisation, systematic murder of female infants, banishment during menstruation, foot-binding, malpractice in childbirth, persecution of midwives as witches, punishments for female adultery and for lesbian sexuality, bride-price, arranged marriage- these are all characteristics of male power over women, according to essayist Adrienne Rich. (Full list here)
We can’t look at all of these things in depth today; this post is going to look specifically at abortion, menstruation, and female genital mutilation.
In El Salvador, women are being sent to prison for miscarrying. We might want to think that in our own societies this could never happen, but this has also happened in the US. The proposed complete ban on abortion which has been so fiercely protested against by women in Poland would require miscarriages to be investigated as possible crimes. The abortion debate rages on in many countries we think of as progressive.
“It’s time for the abortion debate in this country to come to terms with what pro-life politicians like Huckabee are really saying. Banning abortion isn’t “preventing killing,” it’s forcing pregnancy. And forcing a person to substantially compromise her own health against her will for another’s benefit, even her own child’s, is wrong. We don’t do that after birth. We shouldn’t do it before it, either.”
Women will continue to have abortions as long as they have unwanted pregnancies. The question is whether they will have access to medically safe abortion in regulated environments, with care provided for their physical and mental well-being, or whether they will be forced to go it alone and risk their lives in the process. The evidence shows that restrictions on women’s reproductive healthcare force women to self-induce abortion.
One abortion provider tells this story:pace Space
“No matter how much you shame and scare them, women will still come for abortions. Pretty recently I had this young woman, 15 maybe, and we did the procedure. I said, ‘Your uterus is empty, the procedure is over. I have to go check to make sure we got everything,’ and I left the room to examine the tissue. Then I came back and told her, ‘Everything’s fine, your uterus is healthy.’ And she said, ‘So … when are you going to use the steel ball?’ I picked my jaw up off the floor and said, ‘Steel ball?’ She said, ‘Well, I went to the crisis pregnancy center and they told me you’re going to put a steel ball that’s covered with sharp blades into my uterus and twirl it around.’ And this kid still came! I was thinking, How did you ever make yourself walk in the office believing I was going to do that?”
It frightens Chelian that with every passing year there are fewer women like her who can recall what abortion was like before it was legal. “What they don’t know anymore, what’s gotten lost in the history, is how many women died trying to give themselves abortions,” Chelian said. Some time ago, Chelian asked a class of college freshmen what they would do if restrictions kept them from getting abortions. “We’d use a coat hanger,” one young woman replied. “Like our grandmothers did.”
The period taboo is used to control girls and women in different ways in different societies- whether to control where they can go, who they can see, or how they can freely talk about their own bodies.
UNICEF found that in Sierra Leone, 21% of girls reported skipping class because of their periods. In Afghanistan, it was 30%. In these and other countries, like Bolivia and Nepal, girls face limited access to affordable sanitary products, inadequate bathroom and waste facilities at schools, and a huge lack of information when it comes to what is actually happening to their bodies.
Though menstruation is one factor which exempts Muslims from fasting during Ramadan, the period taboo leaves Muslim girls and women feeling that they have to pretend to fast in order to hide their period.
In some countries, women face restrictions on where they can go, where they can sleep, even who or what they can touch, when they’re menstruating. In western Nepal, the tradition of banishing girls and women from the home while they’re on their periods is called chaupadi, and according to this tradition girls and women may not enter any house while they’re menstruating but have to stay outside, eating and sleeping in sheds.
While, in our society, we don’t prohibit women and girls from entering the house or touching their loved ones, or in fact have any kind of social code restricting a woman’s physical freedom during menstruation, periods are still a taboo here.
An effect of women’s increasing sexual objectification is that women’s bodies become more and more taboo outside the context of sexual objectification. Adverts (see below) by the company Thinx, who produce period underwear, were denied placement in the NYC subway last year, because they were deemed “inappropriate.” One reason was that the advert used the word ‘period.’
Artist Rupi Kaur created a photo series on Instagram designed to demystify periods and try and break down the menstruation taboo- instead, because of the menstruation taboo, Instagram took down the photos. Twice. In her response to Instagram’s actions, the artist said,
“thank you @instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique. you deleted a photo of a woman who is fully covered and menstruating stating that it goes against community guidelines when your guidelines outline that it is nothing but acceptable. the girl is fully clothed. the photo is mine. it is not attacking a certain group. nor is it spam. and because it does not break those guidelines i will repost it again. i will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be okay with a small leak, when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified, pornified, and treated less than human[…] a majority of people, societies, and communities shun this natural process. some are more comfortable with the pornification of women, the sexualization of women, the violence and degradation of women than this. they cannot be bothered to express their disgust about all that, but will be angered and bothered by this.“
Partly, this taboo results from men’s lack of knowledge of periods, and the way girls are made to think they need to hide their period precisely because of this male lack of knowledge. When I was ten, we had the talk about periods in school, but the boys were sent out of the room. The message this sent was that the boys shouldn’t know, that we should hide this, that it was shameful somehow. One of the easiest things we can do to break down taboos around menstruation is to normalise it by teaching everyone about periods, not just girls. That, and finally admitting that women don’t menstruate weird blue liquid. On a positive note, one company, BodyForm, have finally done that:
Female genital mutilation is the partial or total removal of the external genitalia of girls and young women, practiced in some cultures as tradition, and now illegal in many countries. UNICEF estimated in 2016 that 200 million women had undergone FGM in 27 countries in Africa, as well as in Indonesia, Iraqi Kurdistan and Yemen.
The practice is rooted in beliefs about women’s sexuality and ideals of purity, and has been used to control women’s sexual autonomy. Sociologists such as Kathleen Barry have also pointed out that clitoridectomy has been used to try and prevent women from forming sexual relationships with each other. FGM is usually carried out by female relatives, who fear that failing to do this will lead to social exclusion of girls. The practice ranges from minor incisions to infibulation, in which the external genitalia are completely removed and the vagina stitched almost completely closed- the UNPF estimated in 2010 that around 20% of women affected by FGM had been infibulated.
“The consequences [of FGM] can be devastating: girls can bleed to death or pick up infections, and in the longer term can suffer from recurrent bladder infections, cysts, infertility, childbirth complications, mental trauma and lack of sexual desire.”
FGM is not an issue we can dismiss as something that happens “somewhere else”- it’s very much alive in the UK. Even if it wasn’t, though, the fact that it’s happening to women elsewhere in the world should be enough reason for anger, and for us to give support to those organisations working to end female genital mutilation, rather than trying to normalise the issue by using less emotive language or by defending the practice itself. Many people have refrained from speaking out against FGM on the grounds that they don’t want to be seen as criticising other cultural practices. We like to think of our society as diverse, progressive, and tolerant of difference. The problem is that as feminists we can’t be accepting of cultural pressures which undermine women’s equality or affect their autonomy. No girl or woman should feel pressured to undergo mutilation in order to be seen as “acceptable.”
This article compiles some of the stories survivors of FGM have told as part of a project called The Face of Defiance. One woman, human rights activist Hawa Daboh Sesay, says:
“We should not be followers of those traditions that go against human rights – we are the people who decide and we are the ones who make the traditions. Traditions are not sent from God – we have the right to change cultures and we should change them. I will always condemn FGM and send a challenge to those who use religion as an excuse to mutilate girls.”
Khadija Gbla is an activist against FGM, and you can listen to her talk about her own experience here: (warning- this talk contains some hard-to-hear details)
Want to read more?
- Molly Redden – The War on Women is Over and Women Lost
- Susan Moller Okin, Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, Martha Craven Nussbaum – Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? (Book PDF)
- Bakamo Declaration on the terminology FGM
- UNPF Female Genital Mutilation FAQs
- UNICEF Data pack on FGM – 2016
- UNICEF – Menstrual Hygiene Management in Schools