Karen Zivi, Grand Valley State Week – Menstrual Activism

On Grand Valley State University Week: Menstruation is still a taboo subject.

Karen Zivi, associate professor of political science, looks into how this affects women in daily life.

Karen Zivi is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Frederik Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan where she teaches courses on human rights, modern political thought, and feminist politics. She is the author of Making Rights Claims: A Practice of Democratic Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 2012) as well as articles published in journals such as Journal of Human Rights, Philosophy and Rhetoric, Contemporary Political Theory, and Gender & Politics. She is an editor at Contemporary Political Theory and serves on the editorial board of Citizenship Studies.

Menstrual Activism


We don’t like to talk about periods. We don’t like to know people have them or to deal with the consequences. As a result, millions of women and girls face humiliation, violence, and hygiene challenges on a daily basis. They miss school, avoid work, are sequestered by their families, blocked from participating in the public sphere. Some even die. All because they have their periods. All because menstruation is a taboo subject.

But this is changing. A new breed of transnational activists have taken periods public, challenging period shaming in creative ways, developing innovative educational programs, designing affordable hygiene products, working to repeal the “tampon tax.” These activists have put menstruation on the human rights agenda. And they have done so, in part, by employing the language of human dignity.

As a political theorist, I am fascinated by this relatively new form of democratic engagement because it challenges conventional accounts of human dignity and illuminates the political power of the concept. It calls into question the assumption that menstruation is at odds with dignity or is evidence of a lack of dignity, and rejects the idea that periods disqualify someone from participating in the public sphere.

This is particularly evident in activism involving bleeding in public, literally, as Kiran Gandhi did during the 2015 London Marathon or figuratively as water activists did in South Africa in 2009.

In such cases, activists invoke the language of human dignity as they seek to bring attention to the plight of menstruating individuals. In the process, they reveal conventional norms of human dignity to be gendered and show us that human dignity need not be defined in terms that deny the realities of human embodiment. The results of such activism can be life-affirming and life-saving.