Decolonising Menstruation: Looking back at the workshops
Updated: Sep 21, 2021
The bloody brilliant Diana 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.
In Part 1 of the Decolonising Menstruation blog series, Diana explored what decolonising menstruation means and why it's so bloody important for creating menstrual equity and ending period shame. In today's Part 2, Diana looks back at the Decolonising Menstruation workshops - a year-long programme funded by The Body Shop - where we put this thinking into action.
This blog is co-written by Diana and BGP blog volunteer Heidi Stedeford.
What did the Decolonising Menstruation workshops look like?
The programme involved a series of six tailored workshops. 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.
The workshops involved three sections: A Menstrual section, a Decolonial section and a Creative section.
The Menstrual section
Here we explained the biological aspects of periods, including different aspects of the menstrual cycle from puberty through to menopause. We also discussed women’s health issues such as heavy bleeding and period pain, what might be the causes, how to manage it and when and how to speak to a healthcare professional. All workshops were conducted with support from Dr Annabel Sowemimo from Decolonising Contraception.
The Decolonial section
In this section, we first introduced the reality of colonisation, what that has looked like and what effect it had and continues to have on our ideas of menstruation and our bodies. We examined the fact that racism, homophobia, transphobia, and many aspects of misogyny are European concepts, only introduced (forcibly) to the rest of the world as a part of the colonisation process, and used as a means to control and own people, land and natural resources. Europeans enforced their idea of the gender binary, because before colonisation, people of other genders often held positions of power - including healers and decision makers - and were very highly respected. So of course they were targeted by Europeans motivated by greed, eager to take control.
Every culture and everyone’s experience with colonisation is so individual. We didn’t take an anthropological approach, meaning we don’t come in as the outsider (white European) observing the exotic or “other” and passing judgement. We look at communities and individuals reconnecting with their own ancestry, telling their own story, for inspiration.
We then thought about what it means to decolonise and what that could look like in practice.
To discuss decolonisation in the workshops, I presented a lot of theory and examples of how colonisation has affected people from the Global Majority and the resistance / reclaiming they are creating. We looked at different examples, like a group of Maori who are reclaiming their traditional menstrual practices; we talked about the devastating impact colonisation had on Aotearoa (so called New Zealand) and the effect that had on attitudes towards sexual and reproductive health. It’s important to look at lived experience, listening to Māori who are reclaiming their traditional ancestral practices.
I once spoke with a friend, who is Indian, and she told me about the stigma that exists in India around the Gonds’ menstrual practice. She said it is commonly believed that women are excluded and almost punished when they have their period. But when she visited the Gonds community, she observed a woman leaving a party because she was on her period. But this was no panicked or forced exit. Other women at the party explained that she was leaving because being on your period can feel tiring, and that her husband was now going to take care of her for three days. He would do all the cooking and cleaning, so that she could rest while she was bleeding. That’s the post-colonial hangover or legacy. Colonisation frames indigenous communities as backwards, sexist, or uncivilised when the realities are more inclusive and caring.
I hope that the workshops have helped provide a framework for participants to look at their own traditions and ancestry, and better understand them.
I share my personal experiences with machismo and marianismo imposed by the conquistadors onto Latin America, how that has brought shame and control of women’s bodies that didn’t exist anywhere in the Americas prior to 1492.
Then we had group discussions and created projects aimed at helping participants explore their own stories and write their own history. This is a lofty goal, I know, especially for a new project. But I hope it started a conversation that will lead to many more and be a small part of the work we all must do to end period shame.
It’s also important to note that attitudes towards periods aren’t necessarily uniform across one country. For example: a workshop participant from Nigeria once shared how starting their period was a really big thing and was marked by celebrations, which another Nigerian woman agreed with; whilst another Nigerian woman didn’t know anything about this practice. This is likely due to variations between tribes, and the role of colonisation in bringing those different tribal cultures together.
The Creative section
In this final section, we focused on cultivating self-care practices in order to help with healing and stress relief. Participants have really enjoyed writing poems together centred on menstruation. We use the Cinquain poem format (five-lined poem) with one person saying one word, the next saying two, all the way to five and then back down to one. In one session we looked at puberty, period parties and poems about menstruation, then wrote about our first period and wrote a group Cinquain poem.
Each session was participant-led, so activities and outputs varied in each session. But other ideas included creating zines about different aspects of periods, such as advice to people with periods who have recently arrived in the UK, such as containing details on where to go to for help, or celebrating the sacredness of periods and why decolonisation is important. We also looked at understanding and mapping menstrual cycles, including why energy levels are different at different times, and how we can empower people to better understand their health. This is so important for self-adocating for proper health care, especially in a racist system that doesn’t always believe BIPOC women and menstruators.
What’s feedback been on the sessions?
An hour before the first session with the second centre started, I got a text saying that most of the participants would have to leave before the end of the session. But actually, everyone stayed, right until the very end. It just shows how nerve wracking it is to talk about menstruation - they wanted an excuse to leave before the sessions began. Afterwards, participants said how pleased they were with the space that had been created. I remember one individual said, “I love it. I’m awake about periods now, I used to be asleep”.
All and all feedback has been really positive. Everyone has really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about their periods, period products and the menopause. They really want more spaces like this, to be happening everywhere, at schools and with friends and family.
At the start of workshops everyone is always so happy to see each other, so happy to have this space to share together. It feels like we really created a little cosy space, even though it's on zoom, where everyone looks forward to joining and seeing each other.
The last session I had with the third centre, half the participants said they had a cold at the beginning of the workshop - but still everyone stayed the whole 2 hours. It really shows how needed these spaces are, from some people feeling apprehensive to join and then others ending up not wanting to miss out, even when they’re feeling sick.
How have your workshops been impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic?
Workshops were held via Zoom. We experienced some issues with accessibility to Zoom including people just not being used to Zoom; problems with using Zoom on phones - which is how a lot of participants access the sessions; and participants not having enough data to attend, as attending a 2-hour zoom meeting costs around £5 top up if you’re not on a phone plan (the data costs are being covered for participants).
The fact that participants were at home could also be difficult. I don’t know whether participants would have engaged differently with the workshops if they weren’t at home and there must be some participants who are worried about their family members hearing or are looking after their kids while attending. Some people also attended virtual sessions whilst in public spaces, such as on a train, so didn’t feel comfortable talking.
We also had to send participants' Welcome Packs to them. These included disposable and reusable period products, a note pad, pens and a monthly period planner. It’s really nice as everyone gets excited about receiving their packs as no one can leave the house. It’s important participants receive these resources and items that may be particularly difficult to access at the moment.
Race, gender and lived experience intersect to create particular realities that are all too often ignored by menstrual activism. We must move beyond this reductive approach and grapple with why and more importantly, how, we can properly include all people affected by period shame. This includes integrating the long and rich history of pre-colonial menstrual practices, acknowledging their colonisation by European male-dominated interests and being cognizant of lived experiences beyond those of just straight, cisgendered, white women. We hope the Decolonising Menstruation programme was a firm step in the right direction.
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.