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Episode 037: Breaking Down “The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies” with Inga Winkler

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Inga Winkler a university professor and researcher who specializes in the intersection of menstruation, gender justice and human rights. She is a co-contributor to the Palgrave Handbook on Menstruation Studies: a field-defining resource that offers critical analysis into the cultural, psychological, political and social aspects of menstruation.

In this episode, Inga walks us through concepts from the Palgrave Handbook; unpacks the relationship between power dynamics and menstruation; shares menstrual health policy insights from around the world; dives into the importance of intersectionality in conversations about menstruation; and so much more.

Highlights:

  • All about the Palgrave Handbook on Critical Menstruation Studies, including its purpose and Inga’s personal contribution to the literature
  • The impact of menstrual inequity on human rights and power relations (it’s “about so much more than just the just the biological process, just the bleeding”)
  • What Inga means by, “menstruation unites the personal and the political, the intimate and the public, and the physiological and the socio-cultural”
  • Why we must prioritize the intersectional, context-dependent, lived experiences of menstruators when talking about menstruation
  • Why bringing the personal/intimate elements of menstruation into the public/political space is key to shattering the stigma
  • How the singular narrative of menstrual oppression can erase the agency of women and girls in cultures around the world – and why it’s essential to consider sociocultural/religious nuance in conversations about menstruation
  • How menstrual policies and media representation have evolved over the past decade
  • Insights from analysis of menstrual policies in Kenya, India, Senegal and the U.S.
  • Why policymakers need to transcend their narrow scope of understanding about menstrual health education (and their own ingrained stigma) to truly eliminate menstrual inequity for all
  • What the Palgrave Handbook can offer you, the listener

Connect:

Handbook: PDF link here

Website: www.ingawinkler.com

Twitter: @Inga_Winkler

Bio:

Inga Winkler is an Associate Professor in International Human Rights Law at the Central European University in Vienna, Austria. She is also the director of The Working Group on Menstrual Health and Gender Justice at Columbia University. Her research focuses on socioeconomic rights and gender justice with a particular interest in the intersection of menstruation, culture and representation. Her research builds on her extensive experience in the UN system, and she seeks to engage with policymakers on menstrual health. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about her contributions to the Palgrave Handbook on Critical Menstruation Studies.

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Transcript:

Jessica Williams
Welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast, a show about breaking barriers for women and girls around the world. I’m your host, Jessica Williams, Chief Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. At Days for Girls, we believe in a world where periods are never a problem. We are on a mission to shatter the stigma and limitations associated with menstruation by increasing access to sustainable period products and menstrual health education for all people with periods.

Jessica Williams
Today’s episode is with Inga Winkler. Inga is an Associate Professor in International Human Rights Law at the Central European University in Vienna, Austria. She is also the director of The Working Group on Menstrual Health and Gender Justice at Columbia University. Her research focuses on socioeconomic rights and gender justice with a particular interest in the intersection of menstruation, culture and representation. Her research builds on her extensive experience in the UN system, and she seeks to engage with policymakers on menstrual health. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about her contributions to the Palgrave Handbook on Critical Menstruation Studies. I learned so much from today’s conversation, so I cannot wait to share this with you too. Thank you for listening. Now, let’s go on to the show.

Jessica Williams
So Inga, welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast. How are you today?

Inga Winkler
I’m fine. I’m great. Thanks so much for having me.

Jessica Williams
Yeah, absolutely. Well, I am so excited to talk to you. Because when I first started working at Days for Girls, everyone said, well, one of the best places to go is the Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies. And I was like, okay. So I go online. And I was like, whoa, this is this book is huge! And I thought, I’ll never get through this. So this is going to be really fun. Because I think you wrote a few chapters, and you can maybe break some of it down for us and help us not be so overwhelmed by the book itself, because it is a really comprehensive look at menstruation and menstrual health. So I’m really excited to talk to you today.

Inga Winkler
Well, I’m excited too. I can relate to it. If we were doing this on video, I would show you the actual hard copy of the book. I mean, it sells really well as a doorstop – the volume! So we have more than 1000 pages, 72 chapters, but I think what when we were editing it, what we were most excited about is really the diversity in the handbook. And there are more than 134 contributors from more than 30 different countries. And I think really, I mean, it’s hard to explain kind of, and I mean, I can relate to that feeling of being slightly overwhelmed when you first look at it. But I mean, our idea was the handbook. And I really want to credit our lead editor Chris Bobel, who kind of came up with the entire framing and the idea of producing this massive volume. But our idea was really to broach and explore menstruation from from almost every possible angle we could think of. I mean, we’re well aware that there are issues we have missed, and I’m happy to talk about the gaps and what others should be doing, and the second edition. But I think our idea was really to look at menstruation through different lenses through different angles through different disciplines: the historical, political, kind of the embodied nature of menstruation, but also its cultural, religious and social meanings. Looking at health, looking at economic perspectives, also bringing in artistic and literary ideas about menstruation and so much more.

Inga Winkler
So, I don’t think anyone should be overwhelmed. Because I mean, no one has to read the entire handbook. It’s perfectly made for kind of the picking and choosing, and I would think of it as kind of your critical companion, for anyone who’s interested in menstruation to kind of advance the field and such. And really establish critical menstruation studies as a field of study that’s worthy, as a field of study and a really rich field. But also acknowledging that there’s a lot we don’t know, that does a lot well, where we struggle with certain myths and fallacies and need to need to expose those and really keep asking those questions. And I think the way we’ve done that is really approach it through deliberate diversity in content and experiences, having different offers and having different formats. I think what we so often see in the academic literature more broadly is that it’s all research pieces that are somewhat inaccessible. And what we thought would be great to do with the handbook is to also include other kinds of knowledge.

Inga Winkler
I think the chapters that I personally like the most are the personal narratives where people speak from their personal experience. But just as much, there are several policy and practice nodes that are so-called transnational engagement, where people come together speak from different kinds of perspectives about the same issues. I mean, there’s one on menopause, there’s another one that was meant for education. And another one that kind of deals more with policy perspective, another one on on cultural and religious meanings of menstruation. So I think it’s relatively short pieces is the front perspective that I hope I mean, it’s easy to say for me, but I hope make it a lot more accessible and kind of take away the daunting of of having over over 1000 pages, because the individual chapters are all pretty short. So I would I would encourage any listener to to just start anywhere. I mean, there’s no particular order, start with anything you’re interested in and just have a look at it.

Jessica Williams
Awesome. Thanks for breaking that down. That is really good advice. You know, and I’ve looked through the handbook pretty extensively. And I agree with you, I think that’s probably the best way to do it. So kind of diving into some of your work with the book, you you actually wrote chapter two. And you wrote in the introduction, that you believe menstruation is fundamental. And you say, “menstruation is so much more than a normal biological process for many people. In fact, it’s fundamental.” And I’m curious, like, what you mean by that? Can you talk about that? What do you mean, when you say menstruation is fundamental?

Inga Winkler
Yeah, happy to do so. I think it’s really about starting with a biological process. And I think even if we were at the point where we would just accept menstruation as a normal biological, physiological process, that would be a huge step forward. But it’s really just the just the starting point. And I come to the study of menstruation from a human rights perspective, which is my my background, I’m a human rights professor. And so in my work, I always consider menstruation through the lens of human rights and the way it impacts human rights. And I think there are obvious linkages with mental health and the right to health. But I think it’s so much more than that. I mean, considering the right to education, freedom of religion, of belief, safe and healthy working conditions – rights related to culture, to engage in public life, obviously, human rights related to equality and non-discrimination. So I think all of those are impacted by menstruation in various different ways. And I mean, let me give you give you some examples to kind of break that down.

Inga Winkler
If you think about the context of work, there was there was a case in Georgia, in the US where a call center operator was fired because of their “heavy bleeding” (and I’m using air quotes) that soiled the carpet. So I think there is this relationship between – I mean, we have this biological process, but it’s so much more because of what we ascribe to it. And if you think about other other instances, and some of those are dealt with in the handbook, if you think about the context of prisons or jails, where we over and over again, hear about prison guards withhold menstrual products. Or similar instances in various kinds of shelters. Or another chapter in the handbook deals with persons with disabilities who are being sterilized, and again, because it makes it easier to manage menstruation. I think there are all these standard expectations that put menstruation in a sociocultural context, and ultimately really make menstruation fundamental because it is about about power relations. It is about the power of that prison guard. It is about the power of judges to either authorize sterilizations or not. It is about the power of teachers in how they share or withhold information. It’s about the power of healthcare providers, and how they engage with menstruators, whether they gaslight them or whether they actually engage with them and take them seriously. It’s about the power of employers to either label people who menstruate as as hysterical, as many of us, I assume have experienced, or actually support them and accommodate menstrual needs.

Inga Winkler
So I think recognizing those power relations is absolutely key. And that is what makes menstruation about so much more than just the just the biological process, just the bleeding. It’s really about so much more than than blood. And I think in that context, and among what we try to do in that initial section of the handbook is to consider the the lived experiences of many different menstruators and really recognize that the lived experience is very different depending on what religion or culture or political system, or cause or geographical place. Where you live, what context you you live. And it’s often this intersection of say, gender and disability or gender and religion that determine how how you experience menstruation. And I think taking those experiences, not just taking them seriously, but really valuing them and seeking to understand them. I think that adds a lot to to how we understand menstruation and then also seek to address menstruation.

Jessica Williams
You know, it’s interesting. I’ve said this before on the podcast, but I’ll say it again, because I think it’s important to emphasize this point. And it’s that, you know, when I came on board at Days for Girls, I had been doing a lot of work around women’s equality and empowering women leaders. And it just had never occurred to me that menstruation was fundamental to the inequality that we experience. And so I was shocked that like, that had not come across my radar. But once it did, it was so obvious. Right? And is that kind of what you’re talking about when you say it’s fundamental?

Inga Winkler
Yeah. I think you’re really not alone. Because I think menstruation definitely was, and I would say still is in many contexts, it’s so invisible. And we don’t really realize, I mean, that insidious power of menstrual stigma, because we are socialized not to talk about menstruation, we are socialized to keep it hidden, to kind of deal with it, to manage it in private. And I mean, that’s just the management part of it. But if you think about if you experience menstrual pain, the number of times you’re told to just power through – deal with it, not make such a fuss about it. I think we are all told to just not think about it too much, keep it invisible. And I think that is why so many people, I mean, even even those who work in human rights, gender equality, gender justice, women’s leadership, women’s empowerment, don’t really consider menstruation. But I would also say that once you start thinking about it, it kind of become so obvious and it kind of clicks, then you start noticing how it really impacts every every facet of life, I would say.

Jessica Williams
Great, I’m glad I’m on the right track. So one of the things that you go on to say is that menstruation unites the personal and the political, the intimate and the public, and the physiological and the socio-cultural. Can you break that down for me? Maybe give me a couple examples by what you mean with that statement?

Inga Winkler
I think what we tend to focus on is always the first bit: kind of the personal, the intimate and the physiological. But then again, I think that menstruation is so much more than that. And I think as any feminist knows, the personal is political. Thinking about menstruation that way forces us to ask some questions. I mean, of ourselves and others and people working in this space. Why? Why do you think or why do we think that menstruation is something that should be kept invisible? Why should it be private? And why do we even, if we say it’s something so natural, then why do we consider it so embarrassing? And why is a period stain so much more embarrassing than a coffee stain? So I think asking ourselves all of those questions really forces us to think about gendered social norms and our perception of modesty and our perception of what it means to to manage menstruation. And I think that men can inform our understanding of what menstruation should be, and really consider it in more public, that more political space.

Inga Winkler
And I mean, of course I acknowledge and very much agree that menstrual health is something that’s deeply personal. And of course, it depends on individual behavior, depends on individual habits. And actually all that’s true. But that doesn’t make menstrual health any less of a human rights issue. And looking at it from from the perspective of the political, and what’s the role of data in something that is so personal, so intimate, it really changes how we how we think about menstruation. And from the perspective of governments, I mean, that really means that they must ensure that they don’t disadvantage menstruating individuals. So that would mean for instance, not taxing menstrual products that people rely on because they are a basic necessity, or just taxing them as a level of other basic necessities. Treating them the same as groceries, for instance, it means providing menstrual materials in particular settings, such as prisons, or jails, or detention centers.

Inga Winkler
And maybe most importantly, it also means creating this enabling environment. And what I mean by that is, challenging all these power relations that we talked about, that that persist, and that continue to just stay with us. Because menstrual stigma persists. So I mean, that would mean promoting menstrual literacy, really improving menstrual health education, taking that seriously. Promoting workplaces that accommodate menstrual needs, and tackling gender stereotypes, and really trying to understand how stigma works, and then dismantling that stigma. And obviously, those kind of human rights obligations, they seem very, very vague, and they seem very indirect, and they’re not as tangible, as say, providing menstrual products to people. But I think those least visible, those least tangible obligations are probably the most important ones. Because that is kind of where where menstrual stigma and the invisible menstrual stigma really persists. So yeah, long story short, what I’m trying to say it’s more than just the personal and the intimate. But it’s really something that we have to take into the political sphere. And that we have to think about in political and kind of public policy terms.

Inga Winkler
And then I guess the other dimension is really moving from from this idea of something that’s only biological, that’s only physiological, to also acknowledging that menstruation really has lots of socio-cultural meaning or religious meaning for for people. And I mean, I’m really struggling with kind of how that narrative is developing. I mean, I’m super excited that menstruation is gaining more traction and is gaining more more attention in the media. Because from kind of the point where I started working on menstruation more than 10 years ago, we’re a far cry from from that point. And it’s so exciting not to be that lonely anymore, not to get all the weird, puzzled faces. So let me start by saying we’re really excited about more attention to menstruation. But I think as soon as we start talking about cultural and religious practices related to menstruation, there is this tendency to to label those as restrictive, as oppressive, as something that subjugates women and girls, and that has really evolved into this dominant and singular narrative of menstrual oppression. And I think there’s a lot that we lose in doing that. We completely lose the dimension of women and girls engaging in their religion engaging in certain cultural practices. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to condone or endorse anything that would be considered harmful practices. But I think there’s a huge spectrum of what culture and religion looks like to people. And I think we have to nuance our understanding and really to center women’s and girls and any menstruators agency, and how they think about menstrual  practices and what they want to engage.

Inga Winkler
And there are two pieces of work that I think might be might be really interesting. One is an article that I wrote with Professor Chris Bobel, where we unpack some of those articles that we see that we’ve seen flourishing in kind of the popular media, and really take those apart and call for more more nuance. Another is a paper that I did with a graduate student, [Inaudible] Maharaj, who interviewed Hindu women in in Trinidad, who spoke about their experiences with menstrual practices. And the way they spoke about their their practices, I mean, they really rejected the idea that those practices are something restrictive or something stigmatizing. But for them, not engaging in certain religious rituals, not doing religious writings, not doing certain food preparation – all related to their religion – for them, not doing that on the days they they menstruate was really an important part of their religious practice. And abstaining from from some of those aspects of worship was part of their Hindu religion, and they really valued these practices that had a lot of meaning to them. And they accepted that as part of what Hinduism means to them, and their identity, their community, their understanding of their place, and in Trinidad, as part of the Hindu diaspora.

Inga Winkler
And I think listening to kind of those interviews and what the what the women shared, I mean, really made me ask myself: well, who am I to question how other people understand their religion? And it was really fascinating to to see that and a real inspiration, kind of how they reflected on their religion. And I think we need a lot more of that, to really center the voices of people who have the actual lived experience of -people who kind of talk about what menstruation means to them in the context of their community, their religion, their culture, rather than going in from the outside with these preconceived notions of what women’s rights, what gender justice should look like. So I really appreciated that. And I think we need to kind of nuance our understanding in many different ways.

Jessica Williams
I love the way you talk about this. And I feel like we could talk for hours, oh my gosh. So much fun. But one of the things that I’m interested in having you talk about is that many people, you know, listening in this conversation, maybe are realizing for the first time as you speak that there’s an entire movement out there to shift the way our structures and institutions consider menstrual health and how that relates to the equality of women. So can you talk about how menstrual equity at the structural level has evolved in the last decade – everything from laws and policies and taxes to the collection of data? Maybe give us some examples to kind of break that down?

Inga Winkler
Yeah, and I mean, I share your excitement, because I think all that it’s relatively recent. We see changes in laws and policies, changes in taxation and budgetary allocations – that menstruation has become a matter of public policy, I think, is a huge step forward and really moving menstruation into that public sphere. So there’s a lot that has changed, and I think hand in hand with with kind of what’s happening at a structural level, policy level, through through governments. There’s also so much more media attention. There’s really a burgeoning menstrual ad movement. I mean, we see shifts in advertising for menstrual products. Just the fact that we are talking, and that there are podcasts that are entirely devoted to menstruation. I think that’s really exciting.

Inga Winkler
And it’s certainly true to say that menstruation has become a lot more more public. But let me talk a bit about menstruation really, as an issue of policymaking. And there we’ve seen, we’ve seen a huge rise of over the last decade, starting with many countries… I mean, Kenya was one of the first countries to to get active in menstrual policymaking. Similarly, India was one of the really early adopters. But also many, many other states. And I did a project together with the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, and number of students at Columbia University where we looked at policymaking specifically in Kenya, India, Senegal, and the US. And that’s not to dismiss other countries. I mean, there’s a lot happening in the UK, and particularly Scotland and South Africa, and Nepal, and Argentina and many other Latin American countries, but we had to make some tough choices. So we looked at those four countries. And what we’ve seen was that there were in all countries – all those four countries, I mean – there were several policies that had been adopted, specifically dealing with different menstrual needs. What we found is that most policies really focused on kind of what’s tangible. So they focused on menstrual materials, menstrual products, that provision that’s like taxation, to some extent their safety, to provide access for specific groups and specific contexts, such as schools or prisons, or jails. And I certainly don’t want to want to dismiss that. I mean, when I menstruate, I certainly want something to bleed on. So I think that’s a great, great starting point.

Inga Winkler
But I think we also need to acknowledge that menstrual needs go further than that. And when we think about all the insidious impacts of menstrual stigma, it’s not just these tangible, product based solutions that focus on products and facilities that we need. But we also need to shift how we actually think about menstruation, how we perceive menstruation. And then we saw a lot of shortcomings.There were many policies that had kind of objective of raising awareness, of breaking the silence around menistruation, of improving menstrual education. But overall, what we found is that the focus was very much on menstrual hygiene education. So the message that, menstruators get is this message of staying clean, of staying fresh, of managing menstruation and managing it away – so that a good period is still the period that’s not visible, that we don’t know about. And I think that is what we need to challenge. And I think without challenging that, we might be able to put some layers on it and to address those immediate needs. But in the end, we will cover up menstrual stigma in some layers of fluffy cotton or fluffy cellulose, but won’t really address the the stigma as such. And I think we need to challenge that feeling of embarrassment and really make clear that menstruation is nothing to be ashamed of. Going back to the beginning, that it really is a natural process, and not have this message that that we need to get our messy bodies under under control.

Inga Winkler
Because I think in the end, menstrual stigma is so invisible and so insidious, it’s so ingrained, that it continues to constrain policymakers. Even when they seek to advance solutions for menstruation and seek to make menstruation an issue of public policymaking. These constraints are still there. And I think becoming aware of them, and then thinking about, how do we actually use those tangible solutions as an entry point to then think about what else do we need? How do we comprehensively address menstrual health? How do we reform curricula to make sure that that anyone working in the health care sector really has the information to address anything related to mental health? How do we create menstrual literacy that people actually understand what’s going on with with their bodies and know what’s normal for them? I mean, know what level of pain is normal and when to seek out health care providers? That we really accommodate menstrual needs at the workplace? So that’s something that I mentioned earlier with someone being fired basically, because they’re menstruating. I mean, [how do we] get to a point where that is simply unthinkable – where we actually provide the accommodations for people who menstruate, wherever they are, without having to hide it?

Jessica Williams
Absolutely. Oh, my gosh, you have so much to offer. It’s incredible. And I hope that those of you who are interested in learning more about all of this work and diving deeper into what we’re talking about today, that you’ll check out the Palgrave Handbook. If people want to, you know, check that out, where can they go? And then where can they also connect with you to learn more about your work and follow you?

Inga Winkler
I think the beauty of the of the Handbook is that it’s open access, so anyone can freely download it, freely access it online. It’s on the Palgrave website. I think as soon as you Google the link, it has a lot of weird stuff in it, but as soon as you Google “Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies,” it’ll take you to that website. I mean, as I said earlier, just start wherever you want to. There’s so many interesting, interesting chapters, so many interesting contributions. And really, depending on what you’re interested in. If it’s trying to understand better how menstrual stigma works, there are chapters on that, a lot on menstrual education, there’s a lot on trying to understand how culture shapes the experience of menstruation. There are quite a few chapters on advocacy, activism and policymaking.

Inga Winkler
And I think what brings all the all the chapters together is not necessarily to provide all the answers – because I don’t think there are easy answers to any of those questions – but really inviting the reader into the conversation, considering different perspectives, thinking about the apparent contradictions and tension and taking that work forward. I think that’s the that’s the beauty of it. So even though there are more than 1000 pages, we certainly don’t consider the handbook kind of to be the definitive answer. I mean, think of it as as an invitation to join this menstrual scholarly advocacy activist community, contribute to that conversation, and really take it forward. Because I think there’s lots and lots of open questions that we haven’t even thought about yet. So there’s a lot to find there. And a lot to think about. And then to find me, I mean, I would say I’m semi-active on social media. So on Twitter, it’s simply @Inga_Winkler, and then on my website, that’s where most of my work is available, that’s simply ingawinkler.com. So feel free to reach out. I’m always happy to talk about menstruation and to talk about the various different facets offered. So I’m always happy to hear from people who like to do the same.

Jessica Williams
Awesome, thank you. And I will put all of those links in the show notes for anybody who’s interested in checking them out. And I really appreciate your time. Thank you for coming on the show.

Inga Winkler
Well, thanks so much for having me and providing the space to connect more people interested in menstruation. Thank you!

Jessica Williams
The Days for Girls Podcast is produced by Days for Girls International. For show notes and resources mentioned in this episode, visit daysforgirls.org/podcast. If you’d like to support the work we do on the show, leave a rating or a review wherever you listen, subscribe to the show, and share our episodes on social media or with your friends. To learn more about Days for Girls and to join our global movement, please visit daysforgirls.org. Thank you for listening. See you next time.

Jessica Williams
Jessica Williams is Chief Development & Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. She is also the host of The Days for Girls Podcast. Jessica holds a Bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University in Communications and a Master’s degree in Strategic Communications from The University of Oregon. She is also an adjunct instructor for the University of Portland’s Pamplin School of Business Nonprofit MBA program.