Decolonising Menstruation: an introduction
Updated: Sep 21, 2021
Diana (Dee-Anna) More led the Decolonising Menstruation project, a collaboration between Bloody Good Period and Decolonising Contraception, a collective formed by Black people and people of colour working in sexual and reproductive health. The year-long programme was funded by The Body Shop.
Most of Diana’s careers have been as a portrait & photo-activism photographer, a little bit of filmmaking around women’s representation, the female gaze, sex positivity and representation. Her activism is focused on campaigning for gender and race equity, highlighting underrepresentation or inaccurate representation in music, art and environmental justice - mainly in the UK and Mexico - along with other social justice issues in Mexico, and brings an intersectional approach to sex-positive activism to support those experiencing gender-based violence and prevention. Diana also recently graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London with an MA in Race, Media & Social Justice.
In this blog, Diana tells us about Decolonising Menstruation, and why decolonisation is so bloody essential. This blog is co-written by Diana and BGP blog volunteer Heidi Stedeford.
Decolonising Menstruation aims to create menstrual equity and end period shame, focused within the unique circumstances of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC)* communities in England & Wales. We did this through a series of creative workshops, encouraging participants to be more comfortable with their cycle and themselves and create an outcome that reaches and benefits their wider communities.
This involved a series of six tailored workshops with BIPOC with periods. We connected with these individuals through working with centres for Refugee and Asylum Seekers: Xenia and Refugee Women’s Centre, both in North London, and Baobab Women’s Project in Birmingham. Each workshop series included the same individuals so that we could cultivate a safer space for open discussion. We aimed for this work to be inclusive of all people with periods, including trans and non-binary people.
* Though far from ideal, I use the term BIPOC for lack of a better term. I like it because it attempts to build solidarity, while recognising that even though we all experience racism, we are not a homogenous group. BIPOC highlights the existence of anti-Blackness and Indigenous invisibility. Even though there is a very small Indigenous community in London, it is still here.
First of all, though: what is decolonisation, and just why is it so important right now?
There isn’t any other work being done (at all) around decolonising our attitudes towards menstruation. I come from an academic background and haven’t been able to find any academic research into pre-colonial or non-colonised menstrual practices. The few bits of work that have been done in this area, the research that does exist, is from a “white male gaze”, an anthropological exotising and “othering” that often vilifies and distorts traditional practices.
Along with slavery, genocide, germ warfare, theft of land and natural resources, colonisation also destroyed languages, identities, traditions, customs, spirtual practices and communities. Racism and “whiteness” were created to justify these atrocities. And under the guise of “civilising”, colonisation imposed rigid gender binaries, codes of conducts and values of worth and power assigned to men and women that did not exist prior to European arrival. Of course there were some gender roles prior to colonisation, but they weren’t so rigid or controlling, and all roles were valued.
Asking how the sacred became dirty, we see time and again that under assimilation practices of colonisation, menstrual practices created to provide respite or comfort, were distorted to diminish and control women. A modification that was meant to help someone during their menstruation because their energy might be low, for example a person could sit while praying instead of kneeling or work in a different way to ease period pain became a modification a person had to do during menstruation and meant they became excluded.
It’s really important to question why we think the way we do, who wrote the history, who decided what was “right” or decent, and who it serves. The universality of menstrual shame today says more about the patriarchy than it does about any one specific culture. At the same time, it’s important to look at the nuances and manifestation in individual cultures of period shame, in order to unpack and break them down. So the workshops gave individuals space to think about their own lived experiences, what they have been taught or what has been omitted from their education and general comfort level to speak about menstruation and sexual and reproductive health.
How can you be in control of your body and look after it, if you don’t know it?
Our workshop Welcome Box
In the UK, there is definitely a big taboo around periods so the work we’re doing is really
important. Being a person with a period, you sometimes think you know everything about menstruation, but then you find yourself discovering new things. I definitely found that during the sessions with participants, and it’s not just specific participants, it’s everyone. Quite a lot of participants have shared stories about their period and they’ve never talked about it before – they’ve had these life changing moments and they’ve saved it for thirty years.
I think talking about periods can help heal the discomfort or even trauma people might have around them. You realise you’re not the only one going through things. I think that’s how you break the taboo – normalising periods. That’s what we’re trying to do with participants. We are aiming to have a wider community impact as well so individuals beyond participants can benefit from these activities. For example, putting the posters we make in community centres and working with the wider community of people to see what different types of period products are needed.
Part 2, on its way soon, will look at what our Decolonising Menstruation workshops looked like and what they've achieved.
We have also been recommended these two pieces by the team at the Menstrual Health Hub, on research in the field around decolonizing menstruation and menstrual health practices: 1. Taq Bhandal's research
2. This thesis project from 2011 that looks at menstrual health practices in the pre-colonial Maori world.