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

by Samragnee Chakraborty

Menstrual blood is a taboo, expected to be concealed and kept private. However, its public showcase by the female inmates of Armagh prison took everyone by surprise and the event turned into a spectacle.

Introduction: 

Elie Wiesel once said, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice but there must never be a time when we fail to protest”. From the Berlin Wall Protest of 1989 to the Orange Revolution of 2004, the world has witnessed innumerable protests at different time frames and at different places. However, one of the protests that took everyone by surprise and garnered an unbelievable amount of attention nationally as well as internationally as the

‘No-Wash protest’ of Northern Ireland. Also known as the Dirty Protest, the female prisoners of the Armagh Prison went on a hygiene strike, in order to protest against the British authorities. They chose to live in absolute filth as they refused to wash and smeared their urine and feces on the walls of the prison. However, it was not the urine and feces that gained the protest its intention, but also the use of menstrual blood by the women. 

What made the dirty protest receive this amount of attention was the use of menstrual blood as an instrument of resistance. Because menstruation is mostly taboo and expected to be concealed, the public showcase of menstrual blood made this incident a spectacle. This article chooses menstruation as the broader theme to understand how the same was employed by both, the state as well as the prisoners, to negotiate their respective positions and relationships. The paper puts forward two claims. Firstly, it claims that the British state employed menstruation as a weapon to control certain bodies, in this case, that of the Republicans. Secondly, in the no-wash protest, the women used their menstrual blood to challenge the existing gender norms. The paper aims to analyze the protest within the larger diaspora of gender politics within the British state by delving into the works of other authors. Firstly, it charts how the British state does not provide equal protection to the Republicans and how, in the same process, menstruation acts as an instrument. Secondly, it highlights how women use menstrual blood to negotiate with and challenge gender norms. In order to elucidate better, the paper uses Frances Hasso’s Discursive and political deployments by/of the 2002 Palestinian women suicide bombers/martyrs and Iris Marion Young’s The logic of masculinist protection: Reflections on the current security state to analyse the case study. 

Background of the No-Wash Protest case:

In order to maintain its hold over Northern Ireland, the British employed various techniques to control the state subjects- punishing and disciplining through prisons was one of the most important techniques. Most of the Republicans would be detained there as they were seen as a threat to internal security and peace. According to the Emergency Provisions Act, “terrorism is the use of violence for political ends.”. Prisoners were granted political status because of their respective political beliefs, and thus they were not required to wear prison clothes or do any prison work. However, the British government formulated the Criminalisation policy in 1976 that denied political status to the prisoners. Being asked to wear prison clothes soon spurred the ‘Blanket Protest’ among the male prisoners as they used the blanket to cover themselves. As an act of punishment, the guards forced them to get naked and did not always empty the chamber pots of the inmates. As a form of resistance, the latter would throw their faeces and urine on the walls or floor of the cell. 

The women soon joined the protest after an incident that took place on February 7th 1980. About thirty male officers violently entered the cells of the women, physically assaulted them and forced them to get out of the cells, in order to allegedly conduct a search. When the women prisoners came back to their cells, they found all their belongings completely destroyed. Moreover, they were locked up for more than twenty-four hours and were denied washroom facilities as well as food. Even though the prison officers started providing the inmates with food on the second day, the washroom facilities were continuously denied. Such a treatment pushed the women to go for the no-wash protest. Not only did the women refuse to wash their bodies, but also decorated the walls and floors of the prison cells with their urine, faeces and menstrual blood.

Northern Ireland has witnessed very few numbers of literary sources not just on the women of Armagh prison, but also on Irish women in general. Most of these sources either completely omit women or perceive the latter only in relation to men. Even though scholarly works have increased in the past few years, the field remains extremely male-dominated. For an instance, Richard English in his book Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, completely ignores the fact that women were also a part of the dirty protest. Similarly, Tim Pat Coogan in the book On the Blanket, focuses on all the measures that the British administration took against the Republican prisoners like intensive interrogations, denial of the political status to the prisoners and violence carried against them. However, Coogan lives in complete denial that even women lived in the Armagh prison. 

Check out part two of this article. 

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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