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The politicization of menstruation: The case of Armagh Prison’s No Wash Protest

by Samragnee Chakraborty

As a part of the No-wash protest, women in the Armagh Prison of Northern Ireland used their menstrual blood as a mode of resistance against the British authorities. While the British state used menstruation to control the bodies of women, the latter used it to challenge the existing gender norms. 

Over the past few years, there has been a substantial increase in the number of scholarly works on the dirty protest, in terms of both, written by women and focusing on women. Sinead Gough in the essay Gender Trouble(s): Women Expressing Agency in their Everyday Lives during the Northern Irish Troubles (1969-1998) highlights the ways in which women of Northern Ireland enact their agency by resisting and challenging state as well as non-state actors. The author uses

the case of Armagh prison as an example to support the main argument. At the same time, Christina Loughran in the essay Armagh and Feminist Strategy: Campaigns around Republican Women Prisoners in Armagh Prison tries to analyze the no-wash protest among women mainly through the historical lens. 

Apart from unpacking the events during the no-wash protest through the lens of agency and historical events, some others like Theresa O’Keefe tried to center the paper around menstrual blood. In the essay Menstruation as a Weapon of Resistance, the author discusses how the female inmates made use of menstrual blood to challenge the British authority’s subversive manner. Paula Burns in the essay Rethinking the Armagh Women’s Dirty Protest highlights the ways in which menstrual blood is employed by the female prisoners to question existing hegemonic images of femininity. Another author Leila Neti in the chapter Blood and Dirt: Politics of Women’s protests in Armagh Prison Northern Ireland, talks about how menstrual blood, an emblem of pain and violence is not only used by women to support the movement by men, but also as a means to claim their own agency. 

The amount of attention garnered by the no-wash protest had a lot to do with the use of menstrual blood. Menstrual blood was not only used as a tool by the British to establish their hegemony in Northern Ireland. It was used to bring the bodies of women under control. However, the women also resisted state control by reclaiming their bodies through the use of menstrual blood. At the same time, it also enabled the female prisoners to question gender norms. 

Menstrual blood as a hegemonizing tool:

According to Foucault, “power is not discipline, rather discipline is the only way in which power can be exercised”. Throughout the twentieth century, Northern Ireland witnessed different means and ways through which Catholics were tried to be made disciplined. Such frictions between the Republicans and the British state are deeply rooted to the differences between the Protestant Unionists and Roman Catholics or Republicans. The former wanted Northern Ireland to be a part of the United Kingdom, while the latter wanted Northern Ireland to be a part of the Irish state. From 1922 when Northern Ireland became a self-governing region of the United Kingdom, the differences increased, therefore leading to the Protestants and the British teaming up against the Republics. 

This is a clear example of how the state does not provide equal protection to all the citizens. There are certain ascribed roles to deserve protection. The idea of a good or expected identity is a prerequisite to ensure protection. Here, the identity of the Republicans or Catholics does not get along with the concept of a good citizen, thus leading to them being subjected to discipline and violence on part of the British state. In this process of disciplining and controlling the bodies, menstruation is employed as one of the core instruments. 

Because of its association with dirt and pollution, the British state used menstrual blood to extend their control over the bodies of women. The very fact that the prisoners had to ‘ask’ for extra pads and the authority could deny the demand, itself shows how the state tried to control the bodies of women through menstruation. For another instance, if a woman got her periods at the time of her interrogation, she would have to apply the pad under the supervision of the male officer, keeping the door wide open. Moreover, the Republican female inmates had to undergo strip-searching, in which they were required to remove their pads and show the same to the

prison officers. Strip-searching was applied also to all the women who came to visit their relatives in prison. 

Menstruation as a tool to challenge the existing gender norms: 

The women were not only subjected to power domination by the state, but they rather negotiated with the structure. Once the Dirty Protest started, the prison officers almost stopped maintaining contacts with the prisoners and invading their space, thus allowing the latter control over their own bodies. Apart from acting as a counter-hegemonistic tool, the women also challenged traditional gender norms through the use of menstrual blood. It is interesting to see how menstruation, one of the main bodily functions related to femininity, is itself used to challenge ideas around femininity. 

Like many other societies, in Catholic society too, menstruation is seen as polluting, dirty and impure. Brenda Murphy writes “In Ireland, you don’t speak about your period. You don’t even mention the word. My mother hardly ever mentioned it to us and we were a family of eight girls and one boy. You get your period, but you just don’t talk about it. It’s taboo.”. In such a case, the public showcase of menstrual blood reflects the way in which female inmates challenged notions around an ‘ideal Irish woman’. 

Traditionally, the Catholic, as well as Protestant women, have been assigned the role of managing the household. Women are seen as subordinate human beings responsible for nurturing the family and ensuring its well-being. Her role would only be to support the male members during revolts and protests. In the case of the Armagh Prison, the very participation of women to the no-wash protest challenges these gender norms.

Just the way suicide bombers take part in missions that have been traditionally considered as a man’s domain, the women of Armagh Prison broke gender norms by participating in protests. In both cases, it is quite interesting to see how the body has been put to use for a larger political cause. Moreover, blood is associated with childbirth, virginity and menstruation in terms of women. But in the case of Armagh Prison, women challenge the notion of blood as they shed it to ‘protect’ their community, and protection always being considered as the duties of men. 

Author’s Bio: 

Samragnee Chakraborty is a 4th year undergraduate at Ashoka University, Sonepat. She is majoring in Sociology and Anthropology, and minoring in International Relations.

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