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Period politics is stuck in the past

Nosheen Iqbal
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA</span>
Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

Inconvenience is all part of being a woman. As a message to girls still at school, still alive with the energy and optimism to change the world, it’s not the most inspiring take, is it? And yet, in the week that Scotland became the first country in the world to provide free period products – excellent if belated news, more on that in a moment – the vice-principal at an Oxford school sent an email to all of Year 12 last week that took the conversation about periods back to somewhere around 1985.

To her sixth form, Jackie Watson wrote: “Any female student asking to be sent home ‘ill’ or phoning in ‘ill’ who has a period will not find this is a suitable excuse. Learning to deal with monthly inconvenience is all part of being a woman, I’m afraid … unfortunately taking that time off is not how society works.”

Ouch! This is a truth I begrudgingly resent in my 30s but it’s not one I would have been ready to accept at 17, jacked up on the injustice: “Miss, the way society works has been designed to serve men! A fact! It doesn’t have to be this way!”

I do believe that if men got periods, if every month they felt shocked at the horror film their own body produced while blood, cramps, nausea and hormones had their way, that things might be different. Period leave might actually be a thing. Period poverty – the lack of basic access to pads and tampons – would not exist because it would be parcelled as basic human healthcare. There might be more compassion, more scientific research, more effective ways to reduce said “inconvenience”.

It wouldn’t take years – as stats attest – to get diagnosed with the many and little-understood period-related conditions: premenstrual dysphoric disorder, endometriosis, polycystic ovaries, dysmenorrhea, abnormal uterine bleeding – the list goes on in a festival of suffering that has no male equivalent. There might not have been a bloody tax on buying tampons and sanitary towels. Maybe boys wouldn’t be shamed by their bodies and how they function? Imagine.

It must be infuriating to be one of the sixth formers at Oxford Spires Academy who felt they had to miss lessons because of period pains, now publicly shamed for doing so.

One pupil told the Oxford Mail: “Obviously I have to understand that people cannot take their whole period off each month, but that is not what anyone is trying to do. When I am on my period, I experience really painful cramps, meaning I cannot walk without having to be bent double. Sometimes, I get so dizzy I pass out or vomit – obviously on these days, I would not consider myself fit to go into school.”

It does raise the question: how vast is the alleged truancy problem at Oxford Spires? Why would their teacher not deal with pupil absence on a case-by-case basis? Intentionally or not, the email upholds a retro and unhelpful view on periods: that those who have them are prone to exaggerate, and that life isn’t fair but it is unfairer if you bleed, so suck it up. To cc in the boys just seems to affirm that it’s OK for them to begin policing female bodies and pain.

As one pupil said: “It’s just making boys think it isn’t bad and that they shouldn’t be sympathetic. I am now quite uncomfortable to think of my next periods and how I will manage them at school, as I’m sure the majority of girls are.”

I can’t think of a single friend or colleague who has willingly told their manager they’re not coming in because of a standard-issue period

Watson’s supporters may argue that her email was just a realistic preparation for the rest of life. But I very much doubt bosses across Britain are sending all-staff emails reminding all employees that sick leave is for real sickness and periods aren’t it. Similarly, I can’t think of a single friend or colleague who has willingly and enthusiastically told their manager they’re not coming in that day because of a standard-issue period. Women have enough to contend with getting treated and paid on par with male colleagues. Getting on with it and downplaying period pain – if you’re prone to getting it, and it’s not one size fits all – is just often the default position.

The very fact that Scotland has made history passing the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act, after a four-year campaign to make it a legal duty for local authorities to provide free period products to those in need, is telling. It’s brilliant, but in 2020 it should not feel so radical. That period poverty even exists in Britain, one of the world’s largest economies, should make everyone feel far more embarrassed than at the mere mention of periods.

And that’s one of the key factors: a culture prioritising male squeamishness and sensitivity or one that takes the Watson approach is why the status quo hasn’t changed in decades. We know women’s bodies and thus, “women’s issues” have been politicised beyond parody. Our pregnancies, our abortions, our maternity leave and pay, the burden of care, our periods! One can only hope those 17-year-olds grow up to dismantle it all.