The comedy circuit is a bold, bastion of free speech. Anything goes. And on the Fringe this year, no topic is off limits. Race, religion, politics, gender, sex, money, Love Island – you name it, it’s all happening. But there is one word which must never pass your lips, especially if you are a female stand up and that is the P word. No, not that one. Periods. It’s a total no-go area. As a comedy promoter advised me early in my career, it’s like a red rag to a bull. Literally. It was fine to have queues of young men talking about Star Wars and playing with their Light Sabers, but it was NOT OKAY or morally acceptable to have a young woman, or any aged woman, talk about what’s like to bleed for five days a month.
Of course, the comedy circuit, reflects society and culture and talking about periods is still a huge social taboo. It is something men and women find embarrassing and awkward even though it is a part of biology and is not exactly a new phenomenon. There is shame and a lack of dignity about it. It is seen as being dirty or unclean. I remember being told as a teenager that I wasn’t allowed to go to a Mosque to attend a religious event because it was my time of the month and I was “impure.” I was about 13. Nice.
Every woman will have experienced the horror of being caught unaware by their period or the nightmare of a leak which is a common occurrence. Back in day, there was an advert for sanitary products involving a woman wearing tight white jeans because yes . . . that is “exactly” the kind of sensible outfit you would choose – further proof that most advertising is a load of absolute toilet and run by blokes. It is only recently that any adverts have “dared” to suggest that what may drip out is red in hue – shock horror. I thought there was something medically wrong with me because there was a worrying lack of blue gel.
You have shame when you start bleeding from around 13 and you have yet more shame when you stop at around 50 and the menopause kicks in – another largely taboo topic which is only starting to be explored thanks to honest accounts from prominent women like Kirsty Wark.
And this collective cultural silence about menstruation and women’s health of course bleeds though to public policy. If the real world didn’t want to talk about it, then the very male-dominated world of politics certainly didn’t want to either. But at long last, things are starting to change, mainly as a result of having more women in politics.
But I found myself dropping the P bomb in Edinburgh – but not on the Fringe, at the Scottish Parliament of all places.
I was at Holyrood on Monday helping MSP Monica Lennon launch an important consultation for a Bill proposing universal free access to sanitary products in schools, colleges and universities for girls, women and trans people across Scotland to end period poverty.
Period poverty is not something out of Poldark. It’s a serious issue facing women and trans people. Poverty is a growing issue with record use of food banks and child poverty on the increase and women heading up the majority of lone parent families. When money is so tight – even when people are working – getting food on the table for your kids becomes the priority, which means sanitary products suddenly look unaffordable. This predicament was highlighted in the film I, Daniel Blake when the female character ends up shoplifting sanitary products out of financial desperation. There are heart-breaking stories of women who are using socks or rags or taping tissue to their underwear because they cannot afford to buy the products they need. The Scottish Government recently launched a six-month pilot in Aberdeen for women and girls to received free sanitary products and that is to be welcomed and I hope is rolled out across Scotland and the rest of the UK.
Tampons and pads are not fun, swishy luxury products. Dawn Primarolo, a former UK Treasury Minister, famously challenged her largely male team of advisers and civil servants to explain why tampons were deemed a luxury item while razors were deemed essential and had their VAT reduced to five per cent from 17.5 per cent in 2001. Following sustained campaigning by feminists, the UK Government announced it would finally zero-rate sanitary products and end the tampon tax, but why did it take so long? Probably because there were so few women in the room.
We know that homeless women often cannot access sanitary products and we heard from the brilliant Red Alert – a group of students (many trainee doctors) who organise collections of washbags of tampons and pads from fellow Glasgow University students to distribute to local shelters. Even for women not in dire financial straits, there is still stigma around accessing tampons or pads, especially at school. At the launch, we watched a powerful short film by Alison Piper depicting the emotional and physical stress and shame that girls can face with trying to navigate accessing sanitary products at school. We’ve all experienced the nightmare of fighting with a broken, dusty machine in a public loo or not having 30 pence in exact change when you’re at Crimson Tide levels of emergency.
The simple idea proposed in this consultation would be for universal provision of these products in the loos of all schools, colleges and universities. South Lanarkshire College started doing this in January and it has been a great success for female and trans students and has been implemented in a very straightforward manner. New York City Council voted to provide free sanitary products in public schools, hospitals and homeless shelters and I hope Monica Lennon’s consultation to end period poverty becomes a Bill and makes it into law with cross-party support in Scotland.
The word that came up again and again at the well-attended launch on Monday was dignity. Women and trans people who menstruate just want to be to get on with their lives without having their own period drama every month. We’ve got enough going on.
And we have to make sure men of all ages understand that periods are natural, not gross and should not be used to shame women about. Many young boys who tease girls at school about periods will grow up to be fathers of daughters one day.
Education and just talking about it is crucial because lots of men don’t have a clue. It reminds me of that sketch by Ben Elton where he bumps into a woman, she drops her bag and out falls a load of tampons which he duly collects and hands back to her mumbling the words “didn’t know you smoked...”
Ayesha performs her show State of the Nation at the Gilded Balloon at the Museum until Sunday 20 August, 7.30pm.