Breaking the silence on menstruation

Photographer: Maria Zakaryan

Topic: Women Health

Twenty-year-old Emma Vanetsyan was just nine when her period started. "It was very strange: my grandmother came to congratulate me. She said I was a big girl now. Since nine is quite early, I was terribly ashamed." 

She started hiding her pads and not talking about menstruation near male members of the family.

"I was somewhat prepared for my first experience because my mother's period also started early… But I thought that was a one-time thing; I didn’t know that it would be happening every month,” Emma says.

Sona Baldryan, a researcher, notes that girls and women have long grappled with shame—and a lack of information—around menstruation in Armenia and elsewhere.

“Throughout history, menstruation has been a source of shame and a reason for segregating women and girls from public life,” she says. “These attitudes persist alongside the absence of comprehensive sexuality education in schools, leaving students uninformed about these natural processes. Consequently, teenagers and young adults, lacking proper guidance, often panic when experiencing their first period.”

That was the case for 22-year-old Vika Nersisyan, who identifies as nonbinary and uses she/they pronouns. The first time they got their period, it was a scary experience—in part because their mother did not prepare them. 

"I thought I was sick; that I had a terribly serious illness. During that time, I remember that we were talking with my friends about it, without using the word menstruation. We were using other words like 'these days,’” Vika says. “It was still taboo, and we knew that men should not know about it.”

Researcher Baldryan notes that patriarchal norms in Armenian culture “transforms ‘feminine’ concerns into solely personal matters, discouraging open discussion or acknowledgment about them.”

“I remember my school days when they used to tell us that boys would sneak into girls' bags and make fun of them when they  found a ‘package’ as soon as they found them,” she says. “These stories left a lasting impact on my consciousness, and we grew up in an atmosphere of fear and shame.”

In a society where conversations about menstruation are often cloaked in secrecy, language becomes a powerful tool that reflects the underlying stigma. There is a long list of coded words in the Armenian language that have perpetuated silence. For example, "these days," "mejks bacvec" (my back is opened), "aunt who came from Krasnodar," "relative who came from Karmir," among others. 

Baldryan says that the use of “coded language” is problematic.  “Before I began working in a human rights organisation, I myself used to refer to menstruation as ‘being sick,’” she says. “Associating menstruation with illness and considering menstrual blood as ‘dirty blood’ perpetuates a dehumanising narrative. When your humanity is undermined, your entire reality becomes devalued.”

Vika says they try to speak openly about menstruation, but that is still not the norm in Armenia. “Most people in Armenia are still very conservative regarding it, and I remember in school once I asked my teacher about tampons, and she got very angry and told me I should never use a tampon and didn’t explain anything,” they say.

"There are two realities in Armenia where blood is problematic, and another reality is the tradition of 'the red apple,' where you take the white sheet with bloodstains on it after the first night of marriage, show it to all the neighbours, hang it on the door. Why is that normal and menstruation abnormal?”

Tigran, a trans man, says the monthly period makes him feel “abnormal.” 

“I love being different because of my presentation or my actions, but being different simply because I was born that way has never been something easy to be proud of for me. I tend to prefer to be stealth with people who aren't close friends, and periods make that harder than it already is,” he says. “I often must sneak around, plan ahead for specific bathrooms or ways to change toiletries without anyone realising, and I'm constantly paranoid that someone will notice.”

Researcher Sona Baldryan notes that for individuals who identify outside the gender binary, menstruation can be a source of trauma. 

“It's crucial to acknowledge that not all cisgender women and girls experience menstruation, while also recognizing that trans women, for instance, might use pads post-surgery,” she says.

“The experiences of women are diverse and not uniform; these differences extend beyond gender identities, and it's essential to steer clear of oversimplification.”

That also extends to the level of pain or discomfort menstruation can cause—and doctors do not always take concerns seriously. 

“We still encounter healthcare professionals who hold troubling beliefs,” Baldryan says. “There have been instances where individuals present with severe cases of conditions like endometriosis, and instead of receiving appropriate medical attention, they are met with dismissive responses. For instance, a doctor might say to a woman, ‘If you get married, your condition will improve.’ Such instances highlight the prevalence of discriminatory attitudes toward reproductive and sexual health within the healthcare system, ultimately detrimentally impacting public health as a whole.”

Lilit has premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). At first her periods were painless but overtime, it became unbearable. "I found out about it two years ago…it turned out that I have only two weeks of the month when I feel okay, and two weeks when I am very bad,” she says.

“The problem is that there is very little talk about menstruation, and there is no normal research, and the psychology and psychiatry that we are looking at was all about cis men PMDD is very little studied.”

Emma has also been on medication since she was 15. "There are months that it is very painful, and I am not able to work, for example, and it should be okay not to go to work or class on those days, because you are not able to stand."

Unfortunately, in Armenia, there is no possibility to take a paid day off during menstruation. 

"Recently we were discussing this topic with my friends, and an opinion was voiced that if cis men had menstruation, they would make it a cult,” Emma says. “They would say that it shows masculinity, but they shame us for it.”

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