Taboo word out in the open

Posted on July 27, 2009.

Sometime in this century, a taboo word crept out of the dark, dusty basement of journalists’ lexicon and acquired legitimacy and visibility, both as a word and an issue: menstruation.

Bring it into the open: it's our right. By M. Sayagues

Now we can talk about it.

Neither impurity necessitating reclusion nor social blunder, our monthly cycle is now recognized as part of women’s sexual and reproductive needs and an issue of hygiene and dignity.

(…and I wrote “our cycle” on the third edit, it´s still not that easy to be public about it…)

Something similar happened with cancer. As philosopher Susan Sontag noted in her classic essay “Illness as a Metaphor” of 1977, the standard euphemism used in obits was that someone had died after a long illness. Ten years later, she noted “a new candor”, the word cancer uttered more freely.

Regarding menstruation, surprisingly, TV ads did not shy away from comparing pad brands. But the press lagged behind the ad agencies.

The media wises up

One of the first stories that pushed the boundaries of candor, back in the late 1980s, described the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front rebel army’s underground factory of sanitary pads for their female fighters. This was most unusual, especially since their culture traditionally secluded menstruating women.

These days, you can read stories about the lack of sanitary pads as a reason for school absences and dropouts among teenage students in Uganda and Zimbabwe, and about creative ways of manufacturing cheap pads in India and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Last year, I commissioned and edited Polls to Polls, a series of 32 stories on women and elections in Africa for IPS.  I was surprised.

In the second paragraph of the second story of the series, taboo words popped up: sanitary pads and periods, of the biological, not the grammatical kind.

A male reporter described without euphemisms the effort of Thabitha Khumalo, a Zimbabwean parliamentarian, to provide sanitary pads for her countrywomen during hyper-infltion and scarcity.

The fourth story, also written by a man, starred another taboo word  – menopause. A sociologist in Guinea explained that women enter politics later than men, around menopause, when the kids are grown up, the family less critical, and the husband more supportive. To see older women portrayed as assets to society, and menopause as the door to a career, that is unusual.

Ten years ago, few male reporters would have felt comfortable writing about these topics, in these words. All the media training on gender across the continent is paying off.

Last but not least, Oprah Winfrey’s ability to discuss any issue on her TV talk show has made the personal, comfortable.

Half of humankind has, at some point in their lives, a monthly ovulation  cycle - no need to be shy about it.