Meet the Swiss Collective Fighting Sexism, Silence & Menstrual Stigmas

We talked to Aktivistin, the collective that’s #happytobleed and happy to protest social inequality and period shame.

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Aktivistin, a group of gender-equality activists based in Switzerland, have organized various campaigns in their homeland to protest sociocultural and legal inequalities before. However, when they dyed the water of Zurich fountains red to protest the comparatively higher taxation of menstrual products (colloquially called a “pink tax” or “tampon tax”), they attracted worldwide attention and shocked millions.

Aktivistin’s campaign, called #happytobleed, publicly decried the fact that tampons and sanitary towels are taxed at a rate of 8% rather than the 2.5% applied to most daily items (even Viagra!) More generally, however, their campaign aimed to reduce the stigma surrounding menstruation: even though it’s 2016, menstruation – a benign and natural process – continues to shock and disgust many people. The marketing of menstrual products alone contributes to the stigmatization of menstruation, emphasizing secrecy, shame and freshness—such as in the all-too-typical example of menstrual product marketing below:

In addition to perceptions that women are less “fresh” during menstruation, one peer-reviewed research study summarized that visible signs of signs of blood can indicate “a state of tainted (idealised) femininity, because of the potential for the menstrual silence to be shattered by people finding out.” Notably, menstruation’s association with tainted femininity even leads to the perception of inherent contamination: as another peer-reviewed study found, 75% of young women interviewed for the study were afraid of experiencing leaks during menstruation—indicating that “visible signs of menstruation represent emblems of girls’ contamination.”

As menstrual taboos are transmitted through media, family and peers, and are perpetuated indirectly through silence, menstruation as sociocultural stigma not only reflects women’s lower social status but also contributes to it – leading to “more negative reactions to her and increased objectification of women in general.” Rather than being seen as merely a natural biological occurrence, its stigmatization becomes a source of inequality and oppression for women. We decided to talk to Aktivistin about their fight against the problematic legal and tax statuses of menstrual products, and how we can combat stigmas and silence.

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Your recent #happytobleed campaign seemed to have a bit of the same vibe as some 70s feminist protests did, especially with the “blood” in the fountain. What have some of the creative inspirations been for Aktivistin, and are there any other groups now who inspire you?

That’s an interesting interpretation of our protest. To be honest with you, we didn’t think of it as a 70s thingy since blood is what we all think of when it comes to menstruation. And this was the inspiration for this specific protest: We wanted to do something with blood, but not in a martial way—so we had lots of stickers with messages on them like “wet red pussies” or “gender pricing sucks” or “Zurich is bleeding every month”.

You received a lot of media attention for your #happytobleed campaign. Did you find most of it to accurately represents your intentions, or was a lot of the response misconstrued?

In our press release we stressed the fact that we want to activate a discourse about the female body and sexuality, with the aim to make menstruation more visible as a natural part of female biology and to fight for the right of self-determined sexuality for all genders. Most of the media honed in on the fact that in Switzerland, tampons and other menstruation products are taxed with 8% instead of 2.5%, which is the tax percentage for products of daily use. Without question, this is an issue which is very important. But it wasn’t our main focus.

An interesting anecdote: Tampons are higher taxed than Viagra (2.5%) in Switzerland, which makes them products for daily use. There is no scientific concept to discriminate between 8% and 2.5% products; it’s randomly chosen. Besides tampons and sanitary pads, toothbrushes or toilet paper are also taxed at 8%, which is obviously ridiculous for those products as well.

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You mention that most media attention focused primarily on the tax disparity issue, and point this out as an example of how menstruation itself is still a big taboo. To what extent can legal changes help destigmatize the female body, and feminism more generally?

Legal changes can change standards and help normalize the handling of certain issues in public, as well as in private.

Apart from protesting specific political issues (such as the wage gap and the “tampon tax”), are there other ways to help change societal taboos around menstruation? When mainstream media often avoids directly discussing it, how can we ourselves help to destigmatize it?

Besides raising awareness through protests and demonstrations, from time to time we need a reminder that menstruation is not a topic concerning solely a minority, but half of humanity! A free discussion, talking openly with friends and family about the female body, female sexuality and menstruation is the first step to remove the stigma from the topic and allow for a relaxed handling.

Social media can clearly create more possibilities for open discussion around menstruation, and likewise naturalizing/destigmatizing it. You used this potential with your hashtag (#happytobleed) as well. How do you see social media as a tool in this movement?

Social media is a perfect way for us to reach a broad spectrum of people, on a national as well as international level. We are aiming on forcing feminism and equality between all genders back into the center of society, and social media is a great tool for creating attention.

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On a local level, what has the reaction been to your collective in Switzerland? Have you seen any impact on Swiss politics?

Overall the reactions to our actions and the collective aktivistin.ch in general have been positive. But of course you’ll find haters everywhere. We have support from local politicians for our concerns and we are in dialogue with them.

What can someone from another country do to help support Aktivistin?

Spread the word! No, seriously. Shouldn’t the question be about what each of us can do to get closer to a gender-equal world and how we can improve life for the girls and women around us? Take action, stand up for your beliefs and never surrender.

Thanks so much!! ?

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