FICTION HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE PLACE WHERE ‘FORBIDDEN’ subjects are explored, and writers have dared to probe various aspects of sexuality, thereby offering readers a window into an understanding of the subject or an alternative perspective. Writers from all cultures have seen the breaking of silence as their main task. In her book The Novel of the Future (1947), Anais Nin wrote, ‘The writer’s task is to overthrow the taboos rather than accept them.’1 In her short stories, she never shied away from illuminating moments of sexuality, no matter how transgressive they were. Similarly, around the same time, Ismat Chughtai, known as Urdu’s wicked woman,2 wrote about sexual experiences in verse with great candour.3 She was charged with obscenity and put on trial for her short story ‘Lihaaf ’ (‘The Quilt’) which had erotic and lesbian undertones. Later, in an interview, she said she hated the suffocation in the lives of her characters, and that being trapped in ideas of shame and honour was absurd. In the same way, Fahmida Riaz, known for breaking barriers, celebrated the unspoken aspects of womanhood in her works. Her poem ‘Woh Ik Zan-e-Napak He’ (‘She Is an Impure Woman’) talks of ‘blood, milk and menstrual discharge’.4
The writer is not without anxieties of her own, and writing about subjects likely to invite censure requires courage. Virginia Woolf described in her essay ‘The Angel in the House’ (1931) how she struggled to break free of society’s expectations and was conscious of how they could hinder her, especially if she was writing about sex, morality and human relations. She wrote powerfully about wanting to be free to express her opinions without the sense of being controlled, even going so far as to illustrate as murder the extreme feeling of suffocation of the Angel’s presence. ‘Had I not killed her she would have killed me … She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.’5 In a Paris Review interview, Ursula le Guin, an admirer of Woolf and a writer of courage and insight herself, said: ‘Hey, guess what? You’re a woman. You can write like a woman. I saw that women don’t have to write about what men write about, or write what men think they want to read. I saw that women have whole areas of experience men don’t have – and that they’re worth writing and reading about.’
Female writers have written boldly about what disturbed them, as they tried to make sense of their bodies and relationships in spite of how society might judge them. Indeed, the same is true for male authors, such as Flaubert, D. H. Lawrence, Nabokov, Manto, Marquis de Sade and others charged with obscenity and whose works were banned because they went beyond the acceptable. As Evelyn Waugh said, ‘an artist must be a reactionary’, and a writer’s purpose, according to Camus, must be to ‘keep civilisation from destroying itself ’.
So how did writers of fiction explore menstruation and what did they show? For both male and female authors, it has been a difficult subject to broach, and there has been a marked difference in their depictions. Female authors, when writing about menstruation, have shown a sensitivity to the cultural taboos surrounding it, an understanding of the accompanying bodily changes and the anxiety of lack of information. They have illustrated it as a time of healing and female solidarity, when women occupy a different space – metaphorically and literally. In contrast to this empathetic representation, male writers have presented their female protagonists as objects of male fantasy, obsession and voyeurism. I will begin by looking at the approach taken by female writers.
In the early 1960s, it was unusual and brave for a work of fiction to even mention menstruation, let alone explore it in any detail. In Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook, the protagonist, Anna, worries about her period and how it will affect the integrity of her writing. She says,
A period is something I deal with, without thinking about it particularly, or rather I think of it with a part of my mind that deals with routine problems. It is the same part of my mind that deals with the problem of routine cleanliness.
Bapsi Sidhwa, in The Crow Eaters (1978), set in Pakistan, gives a clear depiction of the exile to which Putli, the wife of the main character, Freddy Junglewalla, is subjected during her period:
Every Parsee household has its other room, specially reserved for women. Thither they are banished for the duration of the unholy state … Putli quite enjoyed her infrequent visits to the other room. It was the only chance she ever had to rest. And since this seclusion was religiously enforced, she was able to enjoy her idleness without guilt.
It is in fact only when Putli is kept isolated in the ‘other room’ that she finds some form of freedom. Nevertheless, she is reminded every month that ‘even the sun, moon and stars are defiled by her impure gaze … She knew she couldn’t help herself to pickles or preserves for they would spoil at her touch. Flowers, too, were known to wilt when touched by women in her condition.’ As much as Putli is ‘able to enjoy’ the segregation, she knows during these days she is considered to be the ‘other’: ‘The family was permitted to speak to her through closed doors – in an emergency, they could speak directly, provided they bathed from head to foot and purified themselves afterwards.’
In Shashi Deshpande’s The Dark Holds No Terrors (1980), set in India, the protagonist Saru has a similar but opposite experience; while Putli is sent to the other room, Saru is banished from rooms altogether:
It was just torture. Not just the three days when I couldn’t enter the kitchen or the puja room. Not just the sleeping on a straw mat covered with a thin sheet. Not just the feeling of being a pariah, with my special cup and plate by my side in which I was served from a distance, for my touch was, it seemed, pollution. No, it was something quite different, much worse. A kind of shame that engulfed me.
Unlike Putli, Saru is alienated by every aspect of the experience which she associates with becoming like her mother, whom she hates. Deshpande uses melodramatic language to show her anger and resentment: ‘You’re a woman now, she said. If you’re a woman, I don’t want to be one, I thought resentfully, watching her body.’
Contrast this with Pettinah Gappah’s (2009) short story ‘The Maid from Lalapanzi’ set in Zimbabawe, from her collection An Elegy for Easterly. Like Putli and Saru, Chenai is put in another space during her period, but a metaphorical rather than an actual one: ‘When my period came, SisiBlandina was there to say, “Well you are in Geneva now, and you will be visiting regularly.”’ For Chenai, ‘Geneva’ connotes a foreign, distant and cold place where she has to go when she is menstruating.
Throughout the story, Gappah maintains a natural rhythm in the dialogue, suggesting Chenai’s situation is the norm. Even when Chenai discusses a visit from Johnson & Johnson marketing representatives with the girls in her community, the tone is matter- of-fact:
The women from Johnson & Johnson had come to the school and separated us from the boys so that they could tell us secrets about our own bodies . . . It was an unsanitary time they said. Our most effective weapon against this effluence was the arsenal of sanitary products that Johnson and Johnson made with young ladies like us in mind, they said, because Johnson cared.
Similarly, in Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan novel My Brilliant Friend (2011), the protagonist, also named Elena, is kept in ignorance about the menstrual cycle by her mother. When Elena gets her first period, she is ‘terrified by I don’t know what, maybe a scolding from my mother for having hurt myself between my legs’. The lack of shared knowledge illuminates how shame is learnt and passed on. Later, when her friend Lila begins her period, Elena wonders whether Lila will become pretty, or ugly like herself. As it was for Saru, the onset of menstruation for Elena is fraught with anxieties about becoming like another, or even ‘other’.
Miranda July’s short story ‘The Metal Bowl’ (2017) could not be more different. Written in the first person, the narrator is candid: ‘Our son, Sam, trotted in sleepily, and I warned him not to get in the bed: “It’s all bloody.” Sam pulled back the sheets and studied the mess, smiling giddily. “You got your period.” This new generation of men has been taught (by me) to feel excited about the menstrual cycle … I’ve been waiting a long time to have my period cheered on.’ July’s tone is cheeky: the narrator is aware she is pushing the boundaries of the modern-day limits of period-related conversation. She also, however, references ‘tadpoles turning into frogs or the moon that follows them wherever they go’, alluding to traditional menstrual myths: transformation, madness and sexuality.
Angela Carter, in her fairy tale retelling ‘Wolf-Alice’, from her short-story collection, The Bloody Chamber (1979), uses menstruation to explore what it means to become not only a woman, but also more human. Wolf-Alice is raised by wolves and uninhibited by her nakedness and dirt. After she secretes ‘natural juices’, Wolf-Alice recognizes a regular rhythm in her body unlike the ‘filth, rags and feral disorder’ from before: ‘The flow continued for a few days, which seemed to her an endless time. She had, as yet, no direct notion of past, or of future, or of duration, only of a dimensionless, immediate moment.’ And then: ‘Soon the flow ceased. She forgot it. The moon vanished; but, little by little, it reappeared … Sequence asserted itself with custom and then she understood the circumambulatory principle of the clock perfectly.’
Unlike Carter, whose imagery and vocabulary highlight the feminine, earthy qualities of menstruation, Jeannette Winterson’s, Written on the Body (1992), uses figures of speech that are equally visceral, but more masculine. The unnamed narrator here is of ambiguous gender and says about their lover Louise: ‘When she bleeds the smells I know change colour. There is iron in her soul on those days. She smells like a gun.’ Iron is an obvious reference to blood, but ‘in her soul’ suggests a toughness, and ‘smells like a gun’ alludes to a masculine phallic representation, both explosive and violent.
This attention to smell is addressed differently in Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, where Anna is repulsed. ‘I begin to worry: Am I smelling? It is the only smell I know of that I dislike … And resent. It is a smell that I feel as strange even to me, an imposition from outside. Not from me.’ Anna’s preoccupation with her hygiene and the wish that the days would pass quickly indicates how she is psychologically affected by her physical changes. She feels her period and its effects are not essential to her, but rather an intrusion.
In ‘Bones’ (1993), fantasy and horror writer Marcia Guthridge’s male protagonist is attracted to the dark, messy, primitive side of human nature, including death. He notices everything that is conventionally considered dirty or spoilt; blood, urine, chipped and yellowing toe nails, slimy fish tanks, and even disfigured animals and maimed body parts. One morning as he is finishing his shower, his wife comes into the bathroom and stares at his naked body. He observes, ‘What I continued thinking about after she left the bathroom, presumably satisfied, was how odd it sometimes seems to me that she has a wet sticky place on her like a sore. She wears a sanitary pad every day, even when she doesn’t have her period, like a Band-Aid stuck onto her underwear.’ What Guthridge is highlighting is male fascination and distaste with female effluvia, and how it is managed. In fact, it is these aspects which are accentuated in the representations of menstruation by some of the male authors I researched.
In her famous essay, ‘If Men Could Menstruate: A Political Fantasy’, Gloria Steinem considers what the world would be like if men, not women, menstruated. ‘Clearly,’ she says, ‘menstruation would become an enviable, worthy masculine event.’ In Steinem’s imaginary world, male menstruation would be openly acknowledged, nurtured and celebrated, men would brag about it and, in the same vein, portray it as the essence of masculinity. But as it is in the real world, through repugnant depictions of menstruation, several male authors have implied that there is something ‘wrong’ with the female character’s body and her mind. My first example of this is the novel of Czech writer Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). He writes of his protagonist, Tereza: ‘Whenever as a child, she came across her mother’s sanitary napkins soiled with menstrual blood, she felt disgusted, and hated her mother for lacking the shame to hide them.’
These negative connotations are further compounded, when Kundera, as author-narrator, makes a comparison between Tereza’s period and that of her dog, Karenina. ‘Why is it that a dog’s menstruation made her light-hearted and gay, while her own menstruation made her squeamish? The answer is simple to me: dogs were never expelled from Paradise.’ The degradation here is palpable; for Tereza, women are sinful and repellent, and of a lower status than dogs.
We see an equally demeaning treatment of a menstruating character in Philip Roth’s 2002 novel, The Dying Animal. In this story, Professor David Kepesh is told by his student Consuela about a boy who would ‘want passionately to watch her menstruate’. She would call him over whenever she started her period, ‘and she would stand there, and he would watch the blood run down her thighs and onto the floor’. Later we learn that he licked the blood from her legs. These graphic descriptions reveal that, as a character, Consuela is only an object of lust; the purpose of her menstrual bleeding is solely to fulfil the sensual needs of a male character.
A more lyrical illustration of this can be found in Nuruddin Farah’s Secrets (2016), set in a Somali village. In this story, the protagonist, Kalaman, enjoys the precocious sexual attentions of an older girl, Sholoongo, who is at various times his mentor, companion and tormentor. He is encouraged by her to taste the ‘feminine trust of blood’, which he empties from the ‘thimble in a gulp’ and asks ‘for more’. Sprinkled with tribal wisdom and parables, the novel highlights the fecund aspects of the menstrual cycle with lush prose: ‘menstrual blood scarlet … dark as fertile earth …’ Granted that the novel is in the genre of magical realism, and that Sholoongo is a dynamic character, a ‘shape-shifter’, and a practitioner of magic, Nuruddin Farah illustrates menstruation as primarily serving to satisfy the male character’s lustful greed.
The objectification of women is nowhere more chillingly displayed than in Ammar Abdul Hamid’s novel Menstruation (2001), set in Syria. The main character Hassan’s heightened sense of smell enables him to identify a woman on her period, even though ‘it is the one he least desires’, because ‘no woman is pretty when she’s menstruating …’ Like the evil attributed to Kundera’s Tereza, Hassan believes that menstrual blood is ‘the true source of all evil in the world’ and pregnancy is ‘an infant vampire nursed on menstrual blood’. His supernatural senses enable him to detect the instant when ‘a medium-sized spurt of deep, dark, almost tarred blood’ has filled a tampon and becomes aware of the ‘invisible cloud of pheromones and odour molecules … climbing up from between her legs …’ and it ‘fills his nostril, his mouth and his lungs’. This is the stuff of both dreams and nightmares. Hassan is drawn to what he fears. His obsession compels him to sift ‘through garbage in search of used tampons’ which he then classifies ‘based on spectral differences of colour and odour across different age groups’, ranging from K to Tl, with subgroups of 1 to 9. This is a ruthless androcentric lens, with horrific and sinister implications; for Hamid’s Hassan, menstruating women must be categorized and controlled.
By contrast, in Carrie (1974), Stephen King presents a more fully developed female character, even as he extrapolates the unpredictable and uncontrollable aspects of menstruation to the realm of the supernatural. In this horror novel, Carrie’s late menarche is linked to her awareness of her telekinetic abilities, which she later uses to avenge her bullies. When she gets her first period, she is terrified because she has no understanding of it and her classmates use the opportunity to taunt her, using tampons and sanitary napkins as weapons, which they hurl at her. Although we get a stronger sense of Carrie as a rounded character, more so than Kundera’s Tereza or Roth’s Consuela, King nonetheless renders the female body as threatening and uses the period as a symbol of primitive violence.
MacLaverty and Joyce offer two gentler interpretations, but still very much filtered through the male gaze. Bernard MacLaverty’s Grace Notes (1997), follows the life of a young composer Catherine McKenna, tracing her feminist and aesthetic development. She is a sympathetic, realistic and fully rounded character, until the moment when she thinks about her period. And then MacLaverty puts into question her presence of mind, as she reflects: ‘Her period was due … a woman was synchronised to the moon and there was nothing she could do about it.’ This fanciful description reduces Catherine’s character to someone subject to fatalistic reflection during her cycle.
And in Ulysses (1922), James Joyce’s picture of Molly Bloom’s observations on her period is heavily coloured by negativity. He describes Molly sitting on the chamber pot, realizing her period has begun, and contemplating the younger, attractive Milly who is wild and carefree, as she herself once was. ‘There is always something wrong with us every 3 or 4 weeks.’ Here again, a female character is found believing she is ‘abnormal’ during her period.
In the texts examined here, the male authors have shown little compassion or understanding towards their female characters, and have surrounded the subject of menstruation with eroticism, fantasy and superstition. There is an emphasis on sensual description which at times verges on obsession and depersonalizes and objectifies women. They are subjected to a restrictive male gaze which divests them of basic humanity and robs them of dignity and power.
Fiction which illustrates menstruation, be it by male or female writers, draws attention to the shame, myth and confusion surrounding it. And perhaps, inadvertently, it may also bring to light, in a way that is unusual for literature, the anxieties felt by the menstruating woman about her femininity and body, as well as a societal fear that a woman on her period is a threat.
In fiction as in the real world, there is a long way to go in removing the stigma from menstruation and normalizing it. However, hope lies in the fact that through the writers and artists, stories will be told, moments of truth illuminated, imaginations stretched and awareness spread.
When asked about the artist’s task, especially in troubled times, Toni Morrison offered these succinct lines in reply: ‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.’6
A version of this essay was published in Ploughshares in 2019.
Farah Ahamed is a human rights lawyer and writer. Her essays and short fiction have been published in anthologies and journals including The White Review, Ploughshares, The Massachusetts’ Review and The Mechanics’ Institute Review. Her short story ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’ was shortlisted for the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. You can read more of her writing at farahahamed.com. Farah and her sisters have been involved in raising awareness about menstruation and increasing access to menstrual products in Kenya for more than a decade. Find out about their work at www.pantieswithpurpose.com.