Meeting Report: Breaking the Taboo: Menstruation in Maïssa Bey’s Bleu blanc vert and Marouane’s La Jeune fille et la mère

University of Reading teaching fellow Maria Tomlinson gave a talk on the 23rd January at the second meeting of the GSRN this term on two Francophone Algerian novels Bleu Blanc Vert (Maïssa Bey, 2007) and La Jeune Fille et la Mère (Leila Marouane, 2007). Both novels centre young women growing up in Algeria, Maria focusing on the aspects of the narratives that offer a mediation on some of the domestic and social tensions that arise though reactions to menstruation. In particular, she suggested that the novels offer a critique of  menstruation currently characterised as a cultural taboo in the region by anthropologists, and indicate that education and self-reflection independent of familial circles are potentially crucial factors in establishing generational changes of attitude.

Maria began by discussing the fact that some media and social media outlets (such as the Huffington Post) described 2015 as the ‘Year of the Period’, after hastags such as #happytobleed and #periodsarenotaninsult were widely shared. In the summer of 2014, however, French photographer Marianne Rosenstiehl had helped to blow the cover of societal silence around menstruation in France with her daring Paris exhibition La Malédiction, which included multiple images of models on their period with visible blood. Maria suggested that the range of images and emotional tones suggested an affinity with Gayatri Spivak’s critiques of second wave feminism’s supposed universalities of the menstrual experience.

This trend itself was partly a response to high-profile instances of derogatory and discriminatory comments and actions directed at menstruating women: Maria highlighted the fact that in 2015 several Hindu temples in India banned women from entering during their menstruation period to avoid the holy sites becoming ‘polluted’. Maria suggested that in addition to the stigma of ‘dirtiness’, the ‘shame’ of menstruation is powerfully linked to the fact that in many cultures period blood is what Jane Ussher calls ‘the great unseen’, whose visible presence confers a sense of guilt.

In the Maghreb, where these novels are set, menstrual anthropologist Nadia Guessous’ research has shown that this ‘pollution’ is specifically associated with a concept of ‘dishonour’. Fascinatingly, her research also suggests that this ‘dishonour’ can come from other sources of flowing blood – particularly when associated with the loss of virginity. In Bleu Blanc Vert, Lilas is a young woman living in Algeria who at one point in the book’s 30 year chronology (1962-1992) goes through puberty and shares the experience of her first period with her mother. These first few drops of blood are seen by the mother as a traumatic event: the mother does not explain the significance of the blood, but instead uses the opportunity to issue a warning about the dangers of sex and the shame that comes with the loss of virginity. This conflation is more dramatic in La Jeune Fille et la Mère, as the mother of this novel’s female protagonist, Djamila, has been training her daughter to be resistant to attempts on her virginity from a young age.

The role of the extended families in these menstrual narratives is crucial in framing female sexuality as an inconvenience that needs to be tackled and hidden, especially when compared to young boys. Any discussions of periods or menstrual blood in Bleu Blanc Vert must be done solely in the presence of women, and Maïssa Bey has set out these dialogues in a cold and pragmatic manner. However, when the rite of passage concerns male sexuality, such as when the boys are circumcised at a young age, the entire household erupts into unified celebration. Maria suggested that certain impersonal French constructions found in the scenes of female sexuality, though not the male may be seen as evidence that this divide is a wider societal one in the Francophone world, beyond the book’s narrative of the experiences of a particular Algerian family.

Maria concluded by suggesting that a role is partially mapped out for secular education as a ‘way out’ of controlling family structures. Djamila in La Jeune Fille et la Mère has competing plans for her sexual life mapped out for her by both parents, with her father arranging a young marriage for her (that she does not want), and her mother trying to expose her to a wider education (which she is also uneasy with) to allow her to experience a supposedly better life than she herself read. However, Lilas in Bleu Blanc Vert finds a medical book about menstruation and therefore accesses knowledge about herself from an outside source, and via her own agency, suggesting that this independence may be a key factor for a young woman’s engagement with potential processes of de-stigmatisation.

It was very good to have Maria, who founded this network, back in the seminar and presenting, and be exposed to such an important topic through a non-anglophone lens. We thank her for her excellent talk and look forward to perhaps one day reading her translations of these novels, which some of those attending would no doubt love her to do!

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