‘People Who Menstruate’: Periods Are Not Gendered, JK Rowling
What makes a woman? Is it her sex organs or is there more to womanhood?
JK Rowling is no stranger to whipping up a storm with her pen.
But on Sunday, 7 June, the frenzy wasn't because of an unreleased Harry Potter book, it was the far more disappointing tweet that many saw as transphobic and uninformed.
Twitter roared back: celebrities, former Harry Potter stars and readers all called the tweet insensitive, while asserting that trans and non-binary people menstruate too. Some even called JKR a TERF, or a trans-exclusionary radical feminist.
On Tuesday, 9 June, Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe spoke up through an essay, saying,
“I feel compelled to say something at this moment. Transgender women are women. ”Daniel Radcliffe
He added that he was learning to be a better ally through his involvement with the LGBTQ+ NGO The Trevor Project, and said, “To all the people who now feel that their experience of the books has been tarnished or diminished, I am deeply sorry for the pain these comments have caused you. I really hope that you don’t entirely lose what was valuable in these stories to you.”
Is Menstruation a Gendered Experience?
Back in school, we learnt that women and men have different biologies and reproductive systems and women have a monthly menstrual cycle.
As we grew up and read more about diverse experiences, most of us realised that we were taught a lie.
Men and women are not the only genders that exist. Gender is a spectrum, with many lives existing along the way.
Statements like ‘only women menstruate’ erase a whole set of people, trans people and non-binary people (people who exist outside of the male-female binary).
Words hold power, especially when coming from someone (formerly?) universally beloved, someone whose words helped shape our childhoods.
By conflating women with menstruation, JKR also narrowed the definition of womanhood to only those who menstruate. Many women do not get their periods and most go through menopause.
JKR reiterated that her female experience and oppression formed much of her identity and so denying womanhood would be like chipping off her idenity.
True, the universal femme experience is often of oppression, most people who present as female or cis woman (women who are born as biological women and identify as such) do face harassment because of their gender. Gendered violence is real and systemic and women are often at the short end of the stick for everything from equal pay to sexual violence.
But first, let’s go back to the basics with a simple question.
Who Is A Woman?
What if we step back for a minute, way back to our classrooms when we learnt about what it meant to be a ‘woman’. Often, it comes back to our biology, getting your periods meant you have officially become a woman.
But in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir said, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one.” Ever since feminists have been grappling with the idea that gender is a social construct.
Sociologist Judith Butler explained that gender is but a series of repetitions taught to us, a performance we conduct or a mask we put on. The gendered way you behave then results from socialisation since you were born - that is, you were taught to behave like what society thinks a girl should act like.
Why does this matter and why should JKR read Butler’s seminal work, ‘Gender Trouble’?
Because it complicates ideas of gender AND sex determinism. It breaks the strict binaries and suggests that like gender, biological sex is also something that doesn't exist in twos.
In India, nearly 1 or 2 in 1,000 infants are born under a category defined as ‘intersex,’ and many more children are born deviating from the ideal of male or female with variance in their x chromosome composition, gonadal structure, hormone levels, and the structure of the internal genital duct systems and external genitalia.
So much deviance that it brings to question the existence of an ideal. In other words, since intersex people exist how can we still believe in binary sex?
Trans men experience great gender dysphoria - where there is a fight between their physical gender and the gender they identify with - when they get their periods.
Trans people often find difficulties accessing safe menstrual hygiene kits and menstrual healthcare, and JKR’s tweet adds to the misinformation and invisbilisation of an already nearly invisible group.
Indian-American trans activist and performer Alok-Vaid Mennon praised Radcliffe but wondered why trans self-identification and self-determination is still so contested.
“There is no singular universal definition of womanhood. We cannot be reduced to vaginas alone, nor periods, nor motherhood.”Jen Richards
Going deeper, gender is a social construct but society does not see all women equally. The African-American women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth asked ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ shedding light on the different layers to womanhood.
There is no one way to be a woman, and women across class, caste, race and more identities have different, overlaying oppressions. That’s intersectional feminism 101.
With new understandings of various intermingling identifies and sexualities, its a given that our language and grammar needs an upgrade too.
Saying people who menstruate instead of woman may sound clunky, but what’s a change in wording when someone disenfranchised can feel more included?
The one lesson we can learn from this is to delink gender from menstruation and push for more inclusive sex education for all genders right from the start.
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