Editor’s Note: This month, that is May 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Menstrual Health, where we invite various articles about various experiences that revolve around menstruation or the absence of the same. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An understanding that does not run far from our lived experiences in our societies is that menstruation has long been perceived as a taboo, with an air of stigma around it. The word ‘period’, for menstruation has long been hushed out or evaded from being used in general discussions. Instead, over a period of time, other words acting as substitutes for the hush word ‘periods’ have been generated through a culture of patriarchy,be it in advertisements,in schools or through the informal discussion in our houses. However, there is an implicit consensus of a deeper nature in the hush-hush culture.
‘Periods’: Vocabulary Of Silence
Natalie F. Joffe argues that in the course of a study of attitudes and beliefs about menstruation among various groups, the relationship between linguistic and cultural behaviour became strikingly apparent. Therefore, it can be conjectured that the nature of words for menstruation in general and how in a given culture they run, may illuminate prevalent attitude towards the subject under discussion.
Interestingly enough, the word ‘periods’ which is rooted in Greek language and in Latin means “recurring cycle”, was not used in the English language, until about early 1800s to describe a menstrual cycle. The euphemisms or secret codes referring to menstruation go back in date even further than the nineteenth century. Since then our vocabulary is rich with words used as secret codes, that imply one is on periods without actually using the word ‘periods’. A period tracking application called Clue, conducted a survey, involving 90000 people across 180 countries and came up with a list of 5000 different phrases used as substitute for periods. Often these words reiterate the perceived shame attached to menstruation and thus goes uncalled out.
In my personal experience, we grew up hearing the words like ‘sick’, ‘ill’, ‘down’, ‘time of the month’ etc., commonly substituted secret codes for the word ‘periods’ or for referring to menstruation. This struck me, more in places of socialisation like our schools. It is not difficult to look at these words and gauge the nature of the subject under discussion and how the society perceives it broadly.
A biological phenomenon, which medical science deems as a sign of healthy body, has been often interchangeably used with words like ‘illness’ and ‘sickness’. The paradox in the vernacular running through the vocabulary in our culture is but a reflection of these attitudes which resort to violence against those menstruating and around menstruation, in general.
Also read: Menstrual Huts: Quarantines For “Impurity”
A Rich Vocabulary And A Flawed Dictionary
There are enough studies on the centuries old stigma around menstruation and menstruating women and how they are kept from kitchen, from participating in rituals, from thronging religious places among a set of other ‘do-not do’ lists. While, these are visible forms of discrimination and stigmatisation, the language underneath epitomises the invisible culture of the same set of attitudes. The violence unleashed through such vocabulary does not have to be explicit or physically evident, but is rather implicit and epistemological.
It is interesting to ask oneself, if there are set of words, as diverse, across cultures to substitute or signify menstruation; call it violent euphemisms. What are euphemisms generally invoked in any language for that matter? According to a basic dictionary, euphemisms are mild or indirect words or expressions substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing. This definition is not just a definition, but when melded and read with the substitutes for the word menstruation or periods, is but the reflection of the epistemological violence unleashed through vocabulary, which varies but nonetheless exists across vernaculars.
Also read: Setting straight the menstrual myth
The Silence Of The Loudspeakers Of Our Times: Advertising ‘Whispers’
What can be called as another set of example in the same line, our advertisement industry further not only reflect but reiterate a similar attitude. The advertisement on sanitary napkin run by the widely used brand “Whisper”, one wonders what is the subject of endorsement, a sanitary product or a product that cannot be referred to out loud and has to be whispered while buying! Or is it but a packaging of the “culture of silence”?
Studies that have analysed the content of certain advertisements on sanitary napkins and product highlight the nature of the taboo by statistically proving the absence of any direct reference to menstruation in those ads and without using any direct terms to sell a product. Ever wondered how an ad sells something without actually talking about the source that mandates the need of the same product! This culture of silence ranges from our houses to workplace, to cinema, media, images, ads, voice-overs in the backgrounds, parliaments and on the streets.
From a combination of such vocabulary in vernacular to unleash epistemological violence and more across cultures, the common thread running as a culture of silence thus projects menstruation as something related to shame, embarrassment, unclean, pollution, purity, disability, illness, something which requires protection of kinds, stigma, regulation of a body and a taboo reinforced.
It is time that the contestations against viewing menstruation happens on all fronts, and the aspect of language, words and silences both, should not be spared from this vehement interrogation.
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