In an age when educated people are rejecting scientific fact in favour of identitarian faith, dietary whims, and anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, there has been a sudden, quite passionate embrace of biology at least to do with women. BBC Radio 4 is offering us, 28ish Days Later, ‘An intimate, bold, taboo busting series,’ in twenty-nine fifteen-minute episodes, all about the menstrual cycle.
Over breakfast, to a plink-plonky light touch musical background, I heard an eager young woman describe the mechanics of menstruation with as much enthusiasm as if the monthly cycle had just been discovered. I already knew a bit about it, like most people, having been told the facts aged eleven when I started biology at secondary school. An all-girls’ school where we were riveted for once, not upset or demeaned by the news, some made jokes about, ‘sunny periods,’ but then none of us were woke, and could not know the political implications of all that monthly hassle.
28ish Days does not ‘do’ jokes just shocking ‘facts’ about periods and the western patriarchy. Presenter India Rakusen promises that her series, ‘Will change your life!’ obviously that is needed by all women oppressed by their biology, and she is clear that this is not just a scientific but an almost mystical subject, as she celebrates the wonder of the uterus to, ‘be wounded and to heal, the power to nurture and protect, and the power to evict and expel.’
We are quickly introduced to a self-styled ‘Witch’ who describes her power when she, ‘Bled in the Romani tradition.’ Since the 70s feminists have been looking at alternative ways of ‘celebrating’ what their mothers modestly kept to themselves, taking up dancing in groups, celebrating their ‘moon-times’ and using cups rather than intrusive capitalistic pads and tampons. That did not last for obvious reasons.
Day One described how your first period (it’s assumed that only women are listening but then who would now dare say that only women have periods?) will ‘affect the rest of your life’. Almost as traumatic it seems as first sex. The next episode explored other cultures; the type once called ‘primitive’ until that word was forbidden.
Naturally they do things better than we do, involving women-only areas and a lot of dancing. Any stigma involved was properly ignored. It was noticeable that all the dusky women interviewed about their menstrual rituals have moved to the UK, where they will find that many local authorities, including Oxford City Council, have recently decided to give away free sanitary wear in the town hall.
I hear this series while I am eating my toast and honey, a meal bringing to mind Winnie the Pooh, but his wild alter-ego has sadly been deliberately used, according to Rakusen, to undermine the autonomy of women.
Thirty years ago, in Canada a kindly youth told me that women going down to the woods today, could be in for a big surprise, if they were having a period, as all the bears that ever there was might gather there for certain because they can’t resist the smell of blood. He couldn’t have known that his words are now seen as a ‘blood libel’ against women. Episode five, ‘Blood and bears,’ goes back to August 13th 1967, now known to concerned feminists as ‘The Night of the Grizzlies,’ when two women died in separate bear attacks. The program doesn’t bother to tell us where, but it was in the US Northern Rockies. For Rakusen, the following response was all about a misogynistic ‘obsession with blood’. ‘That is where the myth begins,’ she says. ‘The reason not to trust us, to keep us away.’
To spooky soundtrack music Caroline Byrd, a conservationist from the Yellowstone National Park, described the women’s deaths. ‘People said it was because they were women’ she said. ‘Because they menstruate. You shouldn’t have to stay home if you’re on your period. A lot of people are afraid of bears, and that’s just fine. But it’s not rational to be a woman afraid of bears because you’re a woman.’ India is adamant about that: it was not an attack on women by bears but by the people, mostly men who run national parks. ‘And that, incredibly is the story the papers ran with,’ she says, ‘that parks are dangerous for women who menstruate – get out!’
‘Why on earth would they land there?’ Says Byrd sadly, US speak for; how could they get that mad idea?’ India is also outraged: ‘That one night led to the National Park Service and the US Forest Service saying that menstruating women are more vulnerable.’ Her voice becomes laceratingly sarcastic, ‘a menstruating woman smells, right? That menstrual fluid smells so much worse than any other body fluid, right?’ She sounds as if she’d like to draw blood from other directions. No one ever did say that about the deaths, there was no comparison of smells, it was just suggested as a possible risk.
That won’t wash with the makers of this program who see a serious social injustice that must be righted. ‘This attitude to menstrual blood didn’t just appear in the 60s,’ Rakusen yowls. ‘It has a long, long history of fear and disgust over menstrual fluid.’ Elinor Cleghorn author of, Unwell Women, a history of the ways in which medicine in the US and Britain has abused women is certain where the blame for all this lies; our Christian culture and heritage which she says involves the ‘Christian myth that menstruating women are dirty, defiling, capable of ruining crops and harming babies, a litany of terrible things.’ ‘For years western medicine has stigmatised women for having periods and now we are living with the consequences.’
Bears traduced, women’s problems ignored, things couldn’t be any worse. I thought they might blame God for having created the whole hopeless ‘binary’ mess in the first place, but God is no longer male but in transition, at least according to the C of E. Women have been having periods since the start of time, the same is true of the menopause, which is also going through a similar re-identification not as a normal event but another unjust female catastrophe which can only be controlled by large amounts of serious medication. The bear in the room during this series is that we all know that if you are a woman living outside the evil West, your experience of those events might not be medicalised but is likely to be cruelly stigmatised.
So far, I’ve heard no mention of the attitude of other Abrahamic faiths to the ‘blood taboo,’ which is so strong that it also affects what they eat. Jews and Muslims forbid any sexual relations during menses. The Koran states, 2:222, ‘Keep aloof from the women during the menstrual discharge and do not go near them until they have become clean; then when they have cleansed themselves, go in to them as Allah has commanded you.’ Muslim women are forbidden to attend prayers or read the Koran and when the bleeding stops must perform ‘ghusl’ or ‘purification’.
During Ramadan, Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset, menstruating women are not required to and as a young woman recently told the BBC, ‘Some have said they hide away from male relatives to avoid being stared at or having to lie about menstruating.’ But none of that is obviously as demeaning as being warned to keep away from bears. Judaism also imposes strict conditions on menstruating women who must ‘separate’ for seven days (Leviticus 15:19). Any object they sit on becomes a ‘carrier of tumah,’ or ‘uncleanness’, The same applies to Romani women whose clothing and eating utensils must be washed separately during the period.
The unchanging repression based on disgust for menstrual blood demonstrated in non-European cultures is not mentioned but this series isn’t really an exploration about blood or ritual, or history, rather it’s about finding another state of victimhood with which to attack western culture and the white men who are seen to control it even from inside National Parks.
Rather than entertaining or enlightening us, it exemplifies the paradox of woke that while Britain is held guilty of racism if it for a moment considers itself superior to any other culture. At the same time much higher standards of social justice and state provision particularly towards minorities and women are expected of it. Too baffling, or as Winnie put it: ‘When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.’