The triumph of Period. End of Sentence, a documentary on periods, at the 2019 Oscars has served as one of many recent instances that have resonated with the larger audience about the underlying taboos, myths, and issues around menstruation.
The Supreme Court’s Sabarimala judgement marked a watershed moment in India’s history, with the top court removing the ban on entry to the temple of women of menstruating age (10-65 years). Those supporting the ban on women’s entry cited the temple’s customs related to the celebate Lord Ayyappa, and the belief that menstruating women are impure.
As the Sabriamala case shows, the stigma around menstruation largely stems from old religious customs and archaic beliefs, and general misconceptions regarding periods. The impact of treating menstruation as something to be endured (by women, often in silence) and shunned (by society, often openly) rather than shared remains strong.
In fact, “the stigma around menstruation and menstrual hygiene is a violation of human rights, most important right to human dignity,” according to UN official Jyoti Sanghra.
The locus of the movement around menstruation in India has mostly revolved around period poverty. A majority of the population of girls and women undergoing menstruation are denied access to menstrual products, because of the financial burden of purchasing those products. However, the place of the transgender community as equal participants in the menstrual experience, the conversation surrounding the challenges and stigma of menstruation, as well as accessing sanitation facilities as a part of menstrual health initiatives has been completely neglected. The transgender feelings of shame, alienation, and exclusion are likely a lot worse since their issues in relation to menstruation are rarely, if ever recognised as legitimate.
Place of the transgender in the period positivity movement
The term transgender includes individuals whose lived gender identity does not conform to gender they were assigned at birth. Such individuals may identify as either male or female or even beyond the gender binary.
In India, there exists a general ambiguity about transgender and sexual minorities, in the legal context. By the judgement in NALSA v Union of India in the year 2014, the Court accorded recognition to transgender and their right to decide their self-identified gender as male, female, or the third gender. However, under the Transgender Bill, 2016, the progressive self-identification laid down in the 2014 case, was removed, and it made way for a rather regressive move, where a district screening committee will decide on the award of a proof of identity certificate, which will then confer the rights guaranteed under the bill.
Even beyond the political spheres, the contemporary discourse, through the mainstream media, heavily advocates embracing and celebrating periods as a part of one’s womanhood. However, this very aspect of period positivity poses problems to all those it excludes from its ambit, namely, the transgender community.
What is period positivity?
The period positivity movement intends to de-stigmatise and normalise menstruation. It seeks to dispel the shame associated with menstruation and share the unpleasantness of the experience in an open way, which promotes awareness. This is an anti-thesis to the hush-hush way in which we have been conditioned to deal with and talk, or rather not talk, about our menstrual cycles.
This discourse on menstruation is viewed in the backdrop of a heavily gendered society and a women-centric approach to the issue. The transgender community often voices its experience of invisibility in this discourse. They hope to shape a discourse around menstruation where the awareness and acceptance of their experiences in relation to it is validated, socially and medically.
Importance of trans-inclusive sanitation facilities
The lack of public toilets, and the poor infrastructure of it where they exist, poses a major roadblock in providing access to sanitation to all menstruators. However, even where public toilets are provided, they are gendered, and this further exacerbates the troubled experience of menstruation further for the transgender community (TGC).
Though the Menstruation Hygiene Management Guidelines under the Swachh Bharat Mission 2015 does mention providing separate toilet seats for transgender, it is a mere consolation in the face of reality.
In response to this, TGC leaders in Manipur have emphasised “that access to sanitation and hygiene has to be a part of a larger effort…to be not a goal in itself but a means to further other forms of inclusion.” In fact, a trans-advocacy group in Manipur decided to prioritise improving access to toilets in education institutions, workplaces, and other public places by creating new transgender-specific facilities as well as providing a few gender-neutral toilets.
To substantiate that point, it is not enough to simply provide a restroom facility for transgenders. Keeping with the theme for Menstrual Hygiene, it is key that menstruating transgenders are considered with just as much sympathy, if not more, owing to the dysphoria that they reportedly experience, triggered by the gendered messaging around menstruation.
What is this dysphoria? In their own words…
In an intimate conversation, a transgender man who wished to be anonymous revealed feeling “stress[ful] since so many people refuse to see me as the gender I am already. If they knew I menstruated, I would never be able to gain their acknowledgement and respect.” For some people, “the use of feminine underwear and menstrual product worsens the dysphoria”.
There is a deep sense of discomfort that is intrinsically linked with their monthly menstrual cycle, as they are forced to confront the conflict created by the gender they were assigned at birth and that they identify with.
Trans women also report feeling excluded due to the strong linkage created between menstruation and the idea of femininity; they point out that the socially-accepted ideal of womanhood still rests upon menstruation and reproduction.
The lack of infrastructure in terms of toilets earmarked for the TGC then makes coping with the dysphoric experience of menstruation even more challenging, while putting them at the additional risk of abuse and harassment.
Could this be the way forward?
A first step towards trans-inclusivity in the movement of period positivity could be the use of sensitive, trans-inclusive language in the discourse on menstruation, especially by touching upon topics such as the validity of the problems they face in relation to their periods. At a micro-level, use of the term menstruator, rather than ‘women undergoing menstruation’ can be instrumental in shifting the narrow perspective of menstruation that has existed thus far.
In UK, the Brighton and Hove City Council is now advocating for schools to ensure that “language and learning about periods is inclusive of all genders, cultures, faith, or sexual orientations.” This approach would first and foremost help counteract the typical, segregated first exposure to sex education in schools. In the official statements, the Authorities express that, they “believe that it is important for all genders to be able to learn and talk about menstruation together… our approach recognizes the fact that some people who have periods are trans or non-binary.”
Following this, there is a clear need to address the physical obstructions to the TGC’s experience of safe and comfortable menstrual experience. Building infrastructure so that the promise of menstrual health and hygiene is not denied to an entire section of society is imperative, and ought to be implemented in a manner such that their safety and dignity is preserved. For this, deliberate efforts must be taken to protect them from being subject to violence, the threat of violence, and outright abuse, especially in public places. Therefore the solution is not just in terms of providing physical infrastructure through investments in, and designation of, gender neutral toilets in public spaces, but also in terms of creating awareness about the trans experience and the community’s cardinal place in the larger society, by policy-led action.
As suggested by a report, to enlarge the scope of recipients of the benefits of the Swachh Bharat Mission including menstrual health, representatives of different minority communities, including the TGC, ought to be made part of the Mission.
Representation and visibility of the TGC so as to move in the direction of social inclusion is indispensable as an approach to social equality and gender justice. However, unless there is engagement with the transgender community there can be no effective realisation of any form of such inclusion, since their problems and issues will never be brought to light in the true sense.
Menstrual health ultimately, ties into the far greater problem of access of medical care for transgender. The freshly released advertisement by Gillette, one of largest marketers of men’s products features a transgender boy being taught how to shave by his father. This is a first for trans-visibility in more mainstream media and more specifically, in the domain of personal hygiene products.
Ishita Mehrotra is a writing analyst at Qrius.
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