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"Bizarre" and "Backward": Saviorism and Modernity in Representations of Menstrual Beliefs and Practices in the Popular Media

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Popular discourse increasingly addresses cultural and religious beliefs and practices related to menstruation around the world. This article presents a careful textual analysis of eighty-two articles seeking to dispel menstrual myths published in a wide variety of popular online media. While the articles aim to correct misinformation, many lapse into sensationalized or patronizing accounts of menstrual beliefs and practices that disregard and, in some cases, even ridicule cultural and religious traditions. Our analysis reveals that many articles reflect the neocolonial trinity of victim, savage, and savior that cast the global North as progressive and the global South as regressive. Through these representations, assumptions of Western superiority, including the untroubled privileging of modernity, are contrasted with "backward" traditions. In particular, these discursive formulations metaphorically cast women and girls as passive victims of their "savage" culture in need of "saviors" who have the authority and the resources to alleviate their suffering. In doing so, the articles largely fail to understand the complex and diverse meanings of menstrual beliefs and practices and to acknowledge women's and girls' agency.

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... Last, but not least, studies of concrete hygiene practices remain comparatively few in a "Western" or "global north" context, while numerous studies have been carried out in the "global south" (see Bobel 2019). By focusing on a Swedish context, the research presented here is also motivated by providing a nuancing of problematic tendencies in the global debate on menstruation, which position "the West" as menstrually equal and fair, free from menstrual taboos, and "the Rest" as menstrually oppressive, "bizarre," "backwards" (Bobel 2019;Winkler and Bobel 2021). ...
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Why is menstruation so often considered a dirty phenomenon, in both material and symbolic terms? How do ideas and realities of menstrual pollution affect the lived experience of menstruation and everyday hygiene practices? Josefin Persdotter’s study Menstrual Dirt explores how notions and materializations of pollution are enacted in different menstrual practices. It unpacks taken for granted aspects of menstrual life and reveals persistent gendered inequalities in relation to menstruation.
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Over the last decade, many countries have adopted policies addressing menstrual needs. Our research explores the opportunities and challenges that have shaped these initiatives and critically examines their scope and substantive focus. Our study analyses developments in four countries: India, Kenya, Senegal, and the United States. It is based on an analysis of 34 policy documents and interviews with 85 participants active in policy-making or advocacy. Across countries, we found a predominant policy focus on tangible and material outcomes, such as menstrual products and facilities, that is informed by a narrow perception of menstrual needs as the management of bleeding. A number of drivers influenced policy-makers to keep this focus, especially the key narrative around menstrual pads as a perceived solution to school absenteeism combined with sensationalisation in the media and the quest for quantifiable results. Menstrual stigma is so ingrained that it continues to constrain policy-makers and advocates themselves by perceiving and presenting menstruation as a problem to be fixed, managed, and hidden. When considering new policy directions, we need to create capacity for a holistic menstrual policy landscape that overcomes systemic barriers to addressing the needs of menstruators that are largely rooted in menstrual stigma.
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Regular menstruation signals a woman's health and fertility. Yet, menstruation is surrounded by shame, secrecy, embarrassment, fear, humiliation, silence, taboo, and stigma. Linked to this taboo, many cultural and religious norms-often grounded in patriarchal assumptions-seek to prevent contact with menstruating women and girls in order to avoid 'contamination' or 'becoming impure'. To some extent, this perception of menstruation is a paradox, given that motherhood is glorified. However, menstruation is not perceived as 'feminine', and it does not conform to the stereotypical role and behavior of women. Such stereotypes require women to be beautiful and beautified, deodorized and fresh, not bloody and smelly. Hence, women and girls are expected to hide menstruation and go to great length to conceal it. Against this background, the Article explores challenges for menstrual hygiene at the practical and policy level. It examines how menstrual hygiene is situated in the human rights framework, in particular gender equality, how menstrual hygiene can be defined in human rights terms and how using the framework of human rights and substantive equality may contribute to giving menstrual hygiene greater visibility and prioritizing the development of appropriate strategies and solutions. The taboo and silence around menstruation makes menstruation a non-issue. Despite making up half of the population, women's requirements are overlooked and neglected, sometimes even deliberately ignored. This low priority and lack of attention at all levels-from international policy-making to the private sphere-has devastating impacts on women and girls' lives. It prevents women from reaching their full potential and achieving gender equality. Women and girls lose days of school and work with far-reaching implications for their education, well-being, and livelihoods; they are subjected to cultural prescriptions that may amount to harmful practices. The contribution of the human rights framework lies in drawing attention to the plight of women and girls who are not able to manage their menstruation adequately by highlighting States' and other actors' obligations and responsibilities with respect to menstruation and its hygienic management. The framework of human rights and substantive equality requires guaranteeing women the exercise and enjoyment of human rights on the basis of equality. Poor menstrual hygiene, stigmatization, or cultural, social, or religious practices that limit menstruating women and girls' capacity to work, to get an education or to engage in society must be eradicated. Considering menstruation as what it is-a fact of life-and integrating this view at all levels, will contribute to enabling women and girls to manage their menstruation adequately, without shame and embarrassment-with dignity.
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Background Attention to women’s and girls’ menstrual needs is critical for global health and gender equality. The importance of this neglected experience has been elucidated by a growing body of qualitative research, which we systematically reviewed and synthesised. Methods and findings We undertook systematic searching to identify qualitative studies of women’s and girls’ experiences of menstruation in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Of 6,892 citations screened, 76 studies reported in 87 citations were included. Studies captured the experiences of over 6,000 participants from 35 countries. This included 45 studies from sub-Saharan Africa (with the greatest number of studies from Kenya [n = 7], Uganda [n = 6], and Ethiopia [n = 5]), 21 from South Asia (including India [n = 12] and Nepal [n = 5]), 8 from East Asia and the Pacific, 5 from Latin America and the Caribbean, 5 from the Middle East and North Africa, and 1 study from Europe and Central Asia. Through synthesis, we identified overarching themes and their relationships to develop a directional model of menstrual experience. This model maps distal and proximal antecedents of menstrual experience through to the impacts of this experience on health and well-being. The sociocultural context, including menstrual stigma and gender norms, influenced experiences by limiting knowledge about menstruation, limiting social support, and shaping internalised and externally enforced behavioural expectations. Resource limitations underlay inadequate physical infrastructure to support menstruation, as well as an economic environment restricting access to affordable menstrual materials. Menstrual experience included multiple themes: menstrual practices, perceptions of practices and environments, confidence, shame and distress, and containment of bleeding and odour. These components of experience were interlinked and contributed to negative impacts on women’s and girls’ lives. Impacts included harms to physical and psychological health as well as education and social engagement. Our review is limited by the available studies. Study quality was varied, with 18 studies rated as high, 35 medium, and 23 low trustworthiness. Sampling and analysis tended to be untrustworthy in lower-quality studies. Studies focused on the experiences of adolescent girls were most strongly represented, and we achieved early saturation for this group. Reflecting the focus of menstrual health research globally, there was an absence of studies focused on adult women and those from certain geographical areas. Conclusions Through synthesis of extant qualitative studies of menstrual experience, we highlight consistent challenges and developed an integrated model of menstrual experience. This model hypothesises directional pathways that could be tested by future studies and may serve as a framework for program and policy development by highlighting critical antecedents and pathways through which interventions could improve women’s and girls’ health and well-being. Review protocol registration The review protocol registration is PROSPERO: CRD42018089581.
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Anthropologists have hitherto considered Taiwanese pollution beliefs largely in the framework of Mary Douglas's theories, neglecting important sociocultural aspects that contribute to the persistence of pollution beliefs and related menstrual taboos. Recent studies have shown that most societies hold diverse attitudes toward menstruation, and that such attitudes are deeply rooted in the sociocultural and religious structures of the respective societies. Thus, in this article, rather than generalizing about "the pollution of Taiwanese women", I argue that the unraveling of the complexity of Taiwanese menstrual pollution beliefs necessitates their analysis in the context of Buddhist philosophy and practice. Embedded in the specific Buddhist context, pollution beliefs and menstruation taboos gain validity. While menstrual taboos do not hark back to Buddhist beliefs, certain Buddhist attitudes toward the human body in general, and female embodiment in particular, allow for the formation of pollution beliefs. The analysis of Buddhist beliefs and practices in conjunction with Chinese views shows that their conflation contributed to the shaping and persistence of pollution beliefs and menstrual taboos.
Article
This essay examines cases of both voluntary and forced marriages of teenagers to older men, and analyzes the different narratives that emerge when the actors are white Americans and immigrants of color. In Texas, a fourteen-year-old woman and twenty-two-year-old man who were Mexican immigrants were considered to have a common law marriage that served as a defense to a charge of statutory rape. This marriage was understood to be a product of "Mexican culture," even though Texas culture, as embodied in statute, resolved the case. In contrast, when in Maryland a thirteen-year-old married a twenty-nine-year-old man in a formal marriage, the marriage was not considered to be a product of a classless "white culture." The essay then examines two cases of forced marriage of adolescents, the first involving two teenaged sisters, forced by their Iraqi immigrant father to marry older men; the second involving a fifteen-year-old in a splinter Mormon sect forced by her father to marry her uncle as his fifteenth wife. The first case was depicted as illustrating a multiculturalism run amok; the second, while condemned, was not similarly considered to threaten long-standing American values. The essay examines why people of color are more likely thought to be governed by cultural dictates, so that "bad behavior" is selectively blamed on culture. It discusses how this assumption facilitates the presumption that feminism and multiculturalism are values that lie in tension, and concludes by arguing that the equation of racialized immigrant culture with sex subordination exaggerates the prevalence of sex subordination in immigrant communities at the expense of recognizing the universality of gendered subordination.
Article
This article critically looks at the human rights project as a damning three-dimensional metaphor that exposes multiple complexes. It argues that the grand narrative of human rights contains a subtext which depicts an epochal contest pitting savages, on the one hand, against victims and saviors, on the other. The savages-victims-saviors (SVS) construction lays bare some of the hypocrisies of the human rights project and asks human rights thinkers and advocates to become more self-reflective. The piece questions the universality and cultural neutrality of the human rights project. It calls for the construction of a truly universal human rights corpus, one that is multicultural, inclusive, and deeply political.
Article
In this paper, I explore the benefits of using a Foucaultian approach to examine research questions related to Dene women, menstrual traditions, and physical practices (the term physical practices is here used to encompass the contested terms sport, recreation, traditional games, and physical activity) in the Dehcho region of the Northwest Territories, Canada. While it is clear that Indigenous research frameworks have been marginalized in past research projects, this paper argues that the current approach of using almost exclusively Indigenous frameworks when conducting research with Indigenous communities has several drawbacks and relies on some troubling assumptions. After outlining the strengths of a Foucaultian approach, examples derived from fieldwork in the Dehcho region are used to illustrate the ways in which a Foucaultian approach can be operationalized, while also demonstrating the ways in which such an approach to research can complement Indigenous research frameworks and agendas.
Article
Approximately 20 million people in the United States have genital human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection linked to cancer. We examined the news information presented about the HPV vaccine in major U.S. newspapers over the 19 months following its Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. To answer the question of how news information is presented in ways that might influence public health, we explored the frequency of cancer prevention and sexually transmitted infection prevention message frames used to describe the HPV vaccine, the extent to which journalists relied on official sources, and the presence of personal examples. A content analysis of 547 newspaper articles revealed that less than half of the articles provided detailed health information. Of the articles that contained a message frame, cancer prevention was most frequently employed. Government/political sources, medical doctors, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were the most commonly cited sources. Finally, we found that only 16% of all the articles we sampled featured personal accounts. Together, our findings suggest that U.S. newspaper coverage lacked detailed information about both HPV and the HPV vaccine in spite of federal approval of the vaccine, legal mandates for the vaccine, and a widespread information campaign. Implications for public health are discussed.
Article
Mass media campaigns are widely used to expose high proportions of large populations to messages through routine uses of existing media, such as television, radio, and newspapers. Exposure to such messages is, therefore, generally passive. Such campaigns are frequently competing with factors, such as pervasive product marketing, powerful social norms, and behaviours driven by addiction or habit. In this Review we discuss the outcomes of mass media campaigns in the context of various health-risk behaviours (eg, use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs, heart disease risk factors, sex-related behaviours, road safety, cancer screening and prevention, child survival, and organ or blood donation). We conclude that mass media campaigns can produce positive changes or prevent negative changes in health-related behaviours across large populations. We assess what contributes to these outcomes, such as concurrent availability of required services and products, availability of community-based programmes, and policies that support behaviour change. Finally, we propose areas for improvement, such as investment in longer better-funded campaigns to achieve adequate population exposure to media messages.
Second Sex: Women's Struggles and National Liberation-Third World Women Speak Out
Association of African Women for Research and Development. 1983. "A Statement on Genital Mutilation." In Third World, Second Sex: Women's Struggles and National Liberation-Third World Women Speak Out, edited by Miranda Davies, 217-220. London: Zed Press.
Doing Religion' in a Secular World
  • Orit Avishai
Avishai, Orit. 2008. " 'Doing Religion' in a Secular World." Gender & Society 22, no. 4 (August): 409-33.
Interim Report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief
  • Heiner Bielefeldt
Bielefeldt, Heiner. 2013. "Interim Report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief." United Nations sixty-eight session, August 7, 2013. https://www .ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Religion/A.68.290.pdf.
A Content Analysis of News Coverage of the HPV Vaccine by
  • Crystal Calloway
  • Cynthia M Jorgensen
  • Mona Saraiya
  • Jennifer Tsui
Calloway, Crystal, Cynthia M. Jorgensen, Mona Saraiya, and Jennifer Tsui. 2006. "A Content Analysis of News Coverage of the HPV Vaccine by U.S. Newspapers, January 2002-June 2005." Journal of Women's Health 15, no. 7: 803-9.