On resisting

By Charlotte Galpin

CW: sexual harassment

This is a story of resisting as a woman, and as a feminist, in a public space. Of being, to use Sara Ahmed’s words, a feminist killjoy.

I gave a public talk at a university and afterwards I was sexually harassed. What followed my talk was a response to the content of my research, punishment for explicitly naming, challenging, resisting toxic masculinity in public spaces.

My talk drew on initial findings from a small-scale, qualitative study of pro-European activism during Brexit using in-depth interviews. I argued that Brexit, and Euroscepticism more broadly, is deeply gendered. It is, amongst other things, underpinned by a highly confrontational, toxic masculinity in British political culture that has not only marginalised women (and of course also many men and non-binary people who do not conform to cis/heteronormative gender norms) from debates about the country’s future but, through violent online abuse, driven female MPs out of politics altogether.

Pro-European activists, I argued, are not merely opposing the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, they are also resisting this gendered dimension of Brexit. By applying a feminist approach to citizenship, I contended, we can understand the way in which the public sphere, the sphere of politics, of national security and the economy, has traditionally been a masculine space, rooted in colonial notions of the “rational man”, while women are confined to the private sphere of emotions and irrationality, of love, family and sexuality.  Pro-European activists, I maintained, contest Brexit in a number of ways that break down the public/private divide.

One way they do this is in their calls for a kinder and more caring society and economy. I told of the women I have spoken to who have been verbally and even physically abused on the street while campaigning but who show a phenomenal resilience and determination to carry on, to continue their resistance. I spoke of activists who campaign in informal, creative, small and personal ways that allow them to fight back and reclaim public spaces for themselves in the name of Europe.

The first comment. A man at the back, a known trouble maker as I found out later, announced that I had confirmed gender analysis is “complete nonsense”, I should focus on the real problems, immigration and EU bureaucracy. The next questions. This time from the front, from two important, powerful men linked to the institution hosting my talk. Pro-Europeans, actually. Powerful men I had been asked to personally thank in my opening remarks. Their comments wilfully misunderstood my arguments, implied I had intentionally misled the audience, discredited my claims. It is not scientific research, one proclaimed to the audience of 120 people, it lacks statistical analysis, it is not representative. This was a demand for “rationality”, the Enlightenment’s assertion of the natural scientific method. A rejection of the 20th century -male- German sociologists who recognised society cannot be studied using the methods of the natural sciences, that social science should explore subjective experience, values, social norms. The personal, the private, the emotional.

These two important men confirmed and legitimised the response of the first. They did not merely criticise my work, they tried to delegitimise it, to discredit me as a scholar. Declaring my work unscientific, they wanted to exclude me from the academic community, to strip me of my qualifications. A denial of my right to the public space of the university. Their comments were a reaction not just to a woman entering into the public sphere, speaking with authority and a platform. Women may be tolerated in public spaces, after all, if they do not kick up too much of a fuss. If they acquiesce, not shake the boat too much, leave masculine structures intact. They were responding, rather, to a woman who was resisting. One who had openly and explicitly challenged male domination in the public sphere. It was an attempt to discipline, to silence. And it created an environment in which I was subsequently sexually harassed.

A man approached me in the crowd of the wine reception as I split off from another group. How can such a young girl could have the title of Dr already, he asked, was I married, did I have children? No, I answered, but I have a partner, they are here in the room. A shame, he said. When will you be back in the city, hopefully you will not be married by then, he pondered, you really have such a lovely figure. Should we go somewhere together afterwards, just the two of us? I walked away.

In this context, I had been given a platform. I had authority, the power to educate. I had been given a formal introduction. My name and photo appeared on the event posters that guided attendees to the room. Like all forms of sexual assault, this incident was not about my relative attractiveness to this man, but about power, about his need to reduce me to my body, to demean me and objectify me in a context in which I was the one holding the power. But that power had already been challenged. My rightful place there as a scholar had been opposed by powerful, important men. What was left for him was a body to be sexualised, to be transported out of public sight to the private sphere of sexuality. Back to bed, back home, back where I belonged. Silent.

But I will not be silent. And after Britain leaves the EU on Friday, pro-European activists will not be silent either.

Charlotte Galpin is Lecturer in German and European Politics at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on the European Public Sphere, European identities, EU citizenship and Euroscepticism. Her monograph, The Euro Crisis and European Identities: Political and Media Discourse in Germany, Poland and Ireland, was published with Palgrave in 2017. Her current research is exploring pro-European mobilisation during Brexit. 

In praise of my local boxing club

Charlotte Godziewski

As a child, sports was always part of my weekly routine. I enjoyed trying out and pursuing a variety of different disciplines, mostly gymnastics and tennis. Doing sports was pleasantly uncomplicated. I was having fun developing skills, improving my body’s abilities and strengths, and I was getting the excitement of competing at a small-scale, ‘no pressure’ amateur level. Growing up, though, I found it increasingly difficult to retrieve the same feeling of satisfaction that sports once provided me. It was when I recently joined the Women’s Boxing Club that I finally found that wonderfully fulfilling way of doing sports again. It dawned on me how challenging it can be, as an adult and as a woman, to find a sport club that is genuinely about learning a new discipline, with the multitude of benefits it entails. Yes, I was moving to different countries fairly often, which made it hard to sustainably join a club or a team. But I’d argue that there’s more to it.

The dominant discourse around ‘sport’ changes as you grow up. Sports changes from being ‘a fun and empowering activity’ to a depressing ‘public health discipline’. Even worse, and especially if you’re a woman, physical activity becomes merely a tool to (try to) improve your appearance.

Governing healthy bodies

Much social science research has drawn on Foucault’s concept of (neo)liberal governmentality to better understand the contemporary shape and discourse of health promotion (Ayo, 2012; Crawshaw, 2013; Mik-Meyer, 2014; Thompson & Kumar, 2011; Warin, 2011). In a nutshell, the act (or the art) of ‘government’ is understood by Foucault as a nexus of practices, institutions, techniques and discourses that construct our expectations of how society and individuals ought to behave and lead their lives. He famously refers to this as the ‘conduct of conduct’ (Burchell, Gordon, & Miller, 1991). Governmentality is liberal insofar as it promotes a society of free individuals operating in free markets. However, there are expectations as to how an individual is to enact and make use of this ‘freedom’. The individual is presented as dual: free to enjoy certain rights, but disciplined into enjoying them in a particular way. This discipline, it has been argued, is reflected in public health messages that tend to emphasise strongly – or even solely – healthy lifestyles as a matter of individual responsibility. Citizens are encouraged to become ‘food smart’, active, responsible ‘entrepreneurs of themselves’.

While it can be argued that of course people are responsible for their actions, there are fundamental issues associated with a discourse strictly limited to individual responsibility. For example, the fact that it neglects, and actively draws attention away from, structural determinants of ill-health and unhealthy lifestyle, including socioeconomic inequalities. This sort of discourse, in turn, can have ostracizing effects on precisely the population groups it is supposed to encourage and help.

Another, perhaps more mundane and definitely subjective consequence (which I don’t intend to generalise here), is that this responsibilisation tends to take all the fun out of sports. Which is a bit counterproductive frankly. Responsibilising citizens into getting physically active may be a good thing in itself, but the way it is done is just so tragically unimaginative! Fitness centres that pop up on every street corner. Sure, many people genuinely enjoy going to the gym, and the fact that they are becoming increasingly accessible is great, but isn’t this trend the quintessence of making sports merely a means to an end, rather than an end in itself? Personally, I always struggled to go to a gym on a regular basis. Children can play, but adults have to go to the gym.

You’re here to lose weight, right?

Wright et al. (2006) have investigated the way in which discourses on healthy lifestyles, nutrition and physical activity were taken up and appropriated by a sample of young men and a sample of young women. Their interviews showed that, when talking about physical activity, the young men would mostly talk about skills, strengths and generally fitness as providing the muscular capacity and stamina to enable them to do things. In the female group, however, physical activity was very often associated with desirable body shape and appearance (Talleu, 2012; Wright, O’Flynn, & MacDonald, 2006). It is true that pressure to conform to physical appearance standards is also increasing amongst men. However, weight loss is still rarely stereotyped as the one and only, obvious reason men work out. I’m not sure I can say the same about how society makes sense of women working out. Of course, there is nothing wrong with working out as a means to lose weight and it is really not my intention to imply any judgment about anyone’s motivations, reasons and goals. What I do bemoan, is the all too common assumption that the only reason an adult woman can possibly work out must be because she wants to look more attractive (subtext: for men) (Maguire & Mansfield, 1998). My point is that women’s sports is too often conceptualised in an androcentric way. This ingrained assumption that female physical activity is reducible to weight loss and toning is only reinforced by the gendered ‘healthism’* trend (whose advocates abound on social media platforms like Instagram and Youtube: #fitness #healthybody). In turn, ‘feminised’ versions of sports facilities targeting purely aesthetic goals are booming (Craig & Liberti, 2007). This goes from sexy women’s sports clothing trends to your famous ‘get-a-nice-booty-like-Beyoncé’ fitness class. Of course, I’d be a hypocrite to deny my own motivation to be, and to look, fit. That’s not where the problem lies. All I’m saying is that ‘women working out’ cannot be systematically reduced to ‘wanting to look good’. Body shape is – if anything – only a small part of a much wider ensemble of motivations for working out.

It’s time to challenge these assumptions and redefine physical activity, not just as an obligation to remain healthy, and certainly not just as a tool to become prettier, but as the fun and empowering leisure it used to be when we were kids! Such possibilities exist. I am incredibly lucky to have found a club that enables me to do exactly this. A sports club that does not buy into limiting gendered stereotypes, and that does not believe in adjusting the workout to conform with feminised, patriarchal clichés. And it feels amazing. Not only does the club reject gendered stereotypes, but it also provides an opportunity for women to get involved in a sport discipline that is strongly male-dominated, boxing. And if people asked me why, ‘as a woman’, I like boxing, I’d say it’s pretty much for the same multitude of reasons any man would enjoy it.

*Healthism: “A discourse in public health practice, [which links body shape to good health and] in which individuals are held to be morally responsible for the prevention of illness by knowing and avoiding the risk factors associated with ill-health. Individuals thus have a duty to monitor their own well-being constantly and to mediate and invest in choices and practices that are health enhancing and can prevent illness.” (Wright et al., 2006)


Abrahams, A (2017). Why do people presume I’m at the gym to lose weight? The Pool. Retrieved from: https://www.the-pool.com/health/fitness-honestly/2017/18/amy-abrahams-on-not-losing-weight-at-the-gym

Ayo, N. (2012). Understanding health promotion in a neoliberal climate and the making of health conscious citizens. Critical Public Health, 22(1), 99–105.

Burchell, G., Gordon, C., & Miller, P. (1991). The Foucault Effect. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. The University of Chicago Press.

Craig, M. L., & Liberti, R. (2007). “’Cause That’s What Girls Do” The Making of a Feminized Gym. Gender & Society, 21(5), 676–699.

Crawshaw, P. (2013). Public health policy and the behavioural turn: The case of social marketing. Critical Social Policy, 33, 616–637.

Maguire, J., & Mansfield, L. (1998). “No-Body’s Perfect”: Women, Aerobics, and the Body Beautiful. Sociology of Sport Journal, 15, 109–137.

Mik-Meyer, N. (2014). Health promotion viewed in a critical perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 42(15 suppl), 31–35.

Talleu, C. (2012). Gender equality in Sports – Handbook on good practices. EPAS Council of Europe.

Thompson, L., & Kumar, A. (2011). Responses to health promotion campaigns: resistance, denial and othering. Critical Public Health, 21(February 2015), 105–117.

Warin, M. (2011). Foucault’s progeny: Jamie Oliver and the art of governing obesity. Social Theory & Health, 9(1), 24–40.

Wright, J., O’Flynn, G., & MacDonald, D. (2006). Being fit and looking healthy: Young women’s and men’s constructions of health and fitness. Sex Roles, 54(9–10), 707–716.

Patriarchal entitlements and Western society’s two cents on female bodies

Charlotte Godziewski

I was recently harassed on the street. A few weeks ago, some French cities tried to impose a ban on burkinis. My sister shared her annoyance about feeling judged for having stopped breastfeeding after 2 months. These events are completely unrelated, yet all three are symptomatic – and demonstrate the omnipresence – of an important patriarchal characteristic of Western societies: the entitlement to exert control over women’s bodies.

 Part 1:

Policing motherhood – pregnant bodies as public goods


“Fertility is a common good” Poster produced by the Italian Health Ministry released on the occasion of Fertility Day.

As the Italian Ministry of Health reminded us with its uncalled-for fertility campaign, women’s fertile bodies are often, albeit not always consciously, considered a public good. Society thus tends to feel comfortable to comment on it, criticise, give advice, congratulate and what not. Several studies and testimonies stress the feeling of pregnant women being constantly judged, some also reported having received unsolicited lectures and critiques by strangers (Meneses-Sheets, 2013 ; Longhurst, 2005). How is it that everyone seems to have an opinion on what a pregnant woman should and should not do?

You eat raw vegetables? That is irresponsible!

You don’t eat raw vegetables? Aren’t you a little paranoid?

Why does society feel entitled to shame a pregnant woman for having a glass of alcohol or smoking cigarettes? Don’t get me wrong – I am not denying the risks of alcohol and tobacco consumption during pregnancy. Information, prevention, advice and help from a gynaecologist or other relevant (para-)medical staff is crucial, it’s often welcome and sought by the women themselves.

What I find disturbing is this widely accepted notion that anyone, including random acquaintances or complete strangers, can feel free to advise and judge pregnant women. As if a healthy pregnant body was “everyone’s responsibility”. This strikes me as odd, particularly in a Western cultural context which usually emphasises individual responsibility.

As Longhurst (2005) explains, pregnancy is a phenomenon conceptualised within a socio-economic, cultural, political and sexual paradigm. In that sense, it is much more than the mere biological process and relates to practices, social norms, believes, emotions, rules, laws and so on. In the Western context, it seems like society is placing itself in a supervising position over the pregnant women and expects to have agency over their body. Pregnant women can sometimes experience the feeling of being under surveillance, or even being objectified as a vessel for a foetus (Longhurst, 2005).

Besides the bulk of unsolicited advice and opinions, a striking example of how pregnant bodies are considered “public” is the classic touching of the belly. Many pregnant women experience people touching their bellies, which is of course not always a problem. However, people that have a relationship with the woman in which physical contact is normally not included (for example: Lecturer/student, Employee/boss or shopkeeper/customer) sometimes still take the liberty to touch the pregnant abdomen without the woman’s permission (Longhurst, 2005).

And after pregnancy, comes infant feeding. Breastfeeding is a case of culture and public health clash, as well as a complex ideological dilemma. With breasts being over-sexualised, breastfeeding in public is sometimes strongly stigmatised, from people insulting the mothers to others ridiculing them for trying to pump milk at work (Feministe, 2012). There is thus a very strong case for promoting breastfeeding, from a health as well as from a feminist perspective.

But this can be a double-edged sword. Nowadays breastfeeding promotion has become very powerful… with the unfortunate consequence of bottle-feeder shaming.

“Oh, so Mummy couldn’t be bothered to continue breastfeeding?” [comment to my sister]

A simplistic but dangerous dichotomy has crystallised from an initially well-intentioned public health message:

  • Breast is best, so breastfeeding mothers are good mothers
  • Formula feeding is “poison”, so non-breastfeeding mothers are bad mothers. (William, Kutz, Summers et al, 2012)

Of course medical professionals such as gynaecologists, who have a nuanced and comprehensive knowledge on the topic do not usually think in terms of such binaries, but very often society at large does. In turn, women who do not breastfeed tend to feel judged, stigmatised, ashamed of being seen as “a bad mother” (William, Kutz, Summers et al, 2012)

The female body ends up being subjectified as a battlefield for societal issues: Public health promotion, the fight against over-sexualisation of breasts, the de-stigmatisation of breastfeeding in public, the fight against “profit-driven pharma industries” …

I do not doubt the evidence that breast milk has many advantages over formula milk, and providing support for women who want to breastfeed, transforming the public sphere into a safe space for breastfeeding is paramount. However, good quality formula feeding with clean water is not poison, nor does it “merely keep the baby alive”; it is actually healthy, too. The advantages of breast milk are real, but they are given proportionally too much weight compared to the importance of mother’s mental and physical wellbeing (British Pregnancy Advisory Service, 2015).

The combination of stigmatising breastfeeding in public and condemning formula feeding as a moral failure implies that women should not expect to enjoy the same access to the public sphere as men. People expect a woman to breastfeed, but it goes without saying that this should be hidden. It is a patriarchal reminder that at least some parts of a woman’s life are socially expected to be confined in the private sphere, at home.

It is unfair of Western society to turn deaf ear to all the reasons why a woman might choose not to breastfeed, and to make any normative judgments on her choice (Dailey, 2012). Society is prompt to declaim its lectures on the benefits of breastfeeding, but few people, other than healthcare professionals and mothers themselves, are much aware of the prevalence and symptoms of plugged ducts, breast engorgement, mastitis, fungal infections, soar or inverted nipples, low milk supply, oversupply of milk, or breastfeeding-induced pain more generally. There are a variety of valid reasons to choose not to breastfeed (work-related, health and pain related, negative lived experience…) (Schmied and Lupton, 2001).

But most importantly, women shouldn’t have to give an account of their reasons to society at large.



Longhurst R (2005) Pregnant Bodies, Public Scrutiny. In: Embodied Geographies – spaces, bodies and rites of passage. (2005 Edition) Edited by: Kenworthy Teather E. Routeledge Taylor and Francis Group. London

British Pregnancy Advisory Service (2015). Breastfeeding and formula feeding. Retrieved from: https://www.bpas.org/get-involved/advocacy/briefings/breastfeeding-and-formula-feeding/

Feministe Blog, Guest “Blue Milk” (2012) Why Breastfeeding Is A Feminist Issue. Retrieved from: http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2012/08/26/why-breastfeeding-is-a-feminist-issue/

Dailey K (2012) Formula v breastfeeding: Should the state step in? BBC News Magazine, Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19054045

Meneses-Sheets M (2013) Pregnancy, Politics and the Policing of Women’s Bodies. Truthout Op-Ed Retrieved from: http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/16243-pregnancy-politics-and-the-policing-of-womens-bodies

Schmied V, Lupton D (2001) Blurring the boundaries: Breastfeeding and maternal subjectivity. Sociology of Health and Illness Vol. 23 p.234 – 250

Williams K, Kutz T, Summers M et al (2012) Discursive constructions of infant feeding:
The dilemma of mothers’ ‘guilt’. Feminism & Psychology 0(0) 1–20



Thank you to my sister for sharing her experiences and allowing me to mention her.



Protecting abusive academic men because of their ‘genius’ must stop

Jemima Repo


In the last two weeks, we have seen gender, higher education and celebrity revolving around one issue our news feeds. No, I am not referring to Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s appointment as Visiting Professor at the LSE, but rather the series of revelations relating to violence against women in academia and the celebrity-verse. First, on 20th May, Buzzfeed broke the story about two allegations against renowned Yale professor Thomas Pogge for sexual misconduct. Then, on 28th May, global news outlets reported that the Los Angeles Superior Court had issued Johnny Depp with a restraining order in response to his wife Amber Heard’s evidence of a history of domestic violence during their relationship. Finally, on 30th May, one of the world’s best-known feminist scholars, Sara Ahmed, resigned from her professorship at Goldsmiths University due to the institution’s failure to tackle sexual harassment. Brought side by side, three separate events speak volumes about how the obsession with male genius and creativity continues to sustain rape culture.

Ahmed’s bold move to give up her position in protest of her university’s  failure to protect its young female students is rare in academia. As we know, the prevailing response to complaints of sexual harassment received by universities is to hush it up. This was the case at Yale as it has been and continues to be at countless other universities in the UK, US, and beyond. Virtually all academics have heard familiar anecdotes or first-hand accounts about male professors who sleep with or pursue their graduate students, or proposition early career female academics. These are stories often shared in whispers, in jest, or through off-the-cuff remarks at the workplace, over a pint, or at a conference. Yet, as soon as such misconduct is acknowledged, it subsequently gets explained away as harmless, a private affair, or with that awful quip: “boys will be boys”. In addition, the “naïve” young student will be blamed for being foolish enough and not knowing better than to become involved with her professor. Given the power imbalance within institutions between faculty and students, this kind of victim-blaming is deplorable. When the accused is someone like Pogge, the head of an Ivy League Global Justice Programme with world-leading research credentials in ethics, global health, poverty reduction, and, troublingly, gender equity, or any other “progressive”, liberal, left-leaning academic male, the veracity of such accusations becomes virtually inconceivable. It is precisely the mirage of untouchability produced through the idolisation of male genius that enables predators to do what they do and continue to get away with it.

The Pogge case has obvious parallels with the way in which Amber Heard’s allegations have been received. While it would be a big stretch to call academics and celebrities comparable professions, it is not uncommon to refer to some academics as celebrities in their fields and to treat them as such, attending their conference talks or guest lectures just to see what they are like in person, asking for their autograph or a photograph to be posted on social media. Also, like actors, academics tend to see themselves as (intellectually) uniquely gifted and creative. As feminists have argued, those seen as gifted and creative are usually men, while women have achieved their status through hard work. This gives men certain advantages over women, such as being able to pass as the neutral, unembellished embodiment of knowledge and experience, and hence more entitled to benefits, praise and idolatry.

Social media has been rife with people saying Depp should be given the benefit of the doubt, or even calling Heard a liar, including Depp’s industry peers, even though Heard was photographed leaving the court with a bruise on her cheek. At the same time, others pointed out that liking someone is not a good enough reason to make excuses for them. The list of Hollywood men accused of violence against women is long, but these accusations (and in some cases, convictions) have rarely been an impediment to professional success. The catalogue includes Chris Brown, Nicolas Cage, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Sean Connery, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Dennis Rodman, Steven Seagal, Mickey Rouke, Bill Cosby, Christian Slater, James Brown, James Caan, Josh Brolin, Mike Tyson, Enimem, Bill Murray and Michael Fassbender. Sean Penn stands out here as someone who like Pogge has been at the forefront of left-wing celebrity do-gooding, criticising the last Bush administration, rubbing shoulders with Hugo Chávez, defending same-sex marriage, and assisting relief workers in New Orleans and Haiti. Penn exemplifies the sort of prominent male figure, whether academic or artistic, who is always forgiven because of his art, and whose past wrongs are outright forgotten, without being righted, because of his philanthropic work.

The Pogge story is representative of an equivalent trend in academia. The sexual harassment and abuse of female students and colleagues that goes on is an open secret, but one that rarely damages the perpetrators, even when accusations reach public knowledge. And even then, even when someone speaks out, institutions will go out of their way to suppress and silence the issue, as it is not only professorial but institutional reputations that are at stake. When faced with a choice between pursuing disciplinary action that may bring the university into disrepute, or doing nothing and carrying on as before as if the problem did not exist, the careers of young female academics are the cast-away by-product of the latter choice. This would not be the case if women’s intellectual contributions were not seen as somehow expendable in the first place. What’s worse is that female students and academics know this, having been reminded of it daily in the classroom, the meeting room, the staff room, in job hires and promotions, conferences, and citations. Thus, women tend to know the price of speaking out against inequality, and the Depp-Heard case is yet another depressingly predictable case in point.

This is why Sara Ahmed’s resignation is particularly poignant. It sends a powerful signal to universities that there are also prominent figures in the profession who refuse to accept sexual harassment in their workplace. It also challenges all academics to acknowledge that their silence equals complicity in keeping rape culture alive. Ahmed’s privileged position may have enabled her to protest in ways that others cannot, but there other avenues of action for staff that cannot afford to give up their jobs. An important part of this is, as Ahmed suggested last year, finding a way to spread the cost of bringing the problem to attention. This includes naming the behaviour as harassment or abuse, proactively supporting students and colleagues subjected to it, sharing experiences with colleagues and friends that we trust, gathering a record of evidence of abuse in our circles as well as refusing to cite, invite, or share a platform with those who are yet to face disciplinary measures. Only then can we begin to stop the damage being wrecked on women’s personal lives, intellectual growth and careers.

The banalisation of female suffering: pain as a feminist issue

Charlotte Godziewski

I started thinking about endometriosis when one of my friends was diagnosed with it, about a year ago. The monthly pain she was going through was so atrocious it became impossible for her to lead a normal life during her period. She told me she was relieved to finally get a medical diagnosis for what was happening to her, yet remained frustrated by the lack of detailed information provided by her gynaecologist. We thus did what any modern person looking for answers would do, we googled the term. Basically, endometriosis is defined by an abnormal proliferation of the intra-uterine tissue (endometrium) outside (mostly around) the uterus, where it normally doesn’t belong. The endometrium, however, is the tissue that grows, breaks down and bleeds out before getting regenerated every month, and having it grow and bleed outside the uterus can cause abnormal, absolutely disproportionate menstrual pain. Around 10% of all women experience endometriosis to varying degrees, at some point in adulthood (Endometriosis.org, 2011). Besides the intolerable pain, endometriosis is associated with, among others, higher rates of infertility, although evidence on the mechanisms relating the two is still unclear.

Finding a balance between over-medicalization and negligence

Generally, there is a lack of awareness regarding this condition, and it is not systematically considered a disease, even by physicians. As a matter of fact, I had a conversation about this with my gynaecologist. Her opinion was that a condition as common as endometriosis and with no solid evidence for any major and systematic complication should not be medicalized and depicted as a serious “illness”. On the contrary, “taking the drama out of it” would help the women cope with it, she argued. This left me thinking about what underlying assumptions she was making; did she, as a practitioner exposed to this on a regular basis, consider these women to be making mountains out of molehills, or was she genuinely concerned about over-medicalization of common biological traits? When it comes to some other societal trends, obesity for example, I absolutely agree that conceptualizing it as a disease often has negative consequences. The nature of discourses shaping our conceptualisation of fat bodies as being “an abnormality, thus a disease” is certainly constructed and strongly subjective.

However, in the case of endometriosis and pelvic pain, the situation is more delicate and I disagree with downplaying it. Whether medicalized or not, awareness and acknowledgement, and I would even add respect towards it, should be increased. The problem is that endometriosis related pain is often considered drama and not taken seriously. It is indeed a shame that pelvic pain has to be officially baptised as “a disease” in order to slowly start being acknowledged as a reality, and attempted to be understood. Many girls and women come to think that their pain is no different from other women’s pain – that they are responsible for not being able to cope with it properly. It is common that people in their surrounding don’t understand why they cannot put up with “regular” menstrual pain and may even tacitly judge their apparent squeamishness. Unspecialised doctors are ill-equipped to deal with an endometriosis patient and often tend to exacerbate their feeling of inadequacy (Albee, 2013).

Strong women “remain tender, unforgettable and full of charm” in their pain

I recently came across a testimony (in French) of a young woman describing her agony and the frustration of not being understood and properly diagnosed, constantly facing her social and medical entourage’s fatalist mantra “It’s all normal, this is part of what being a woman means”. So clearly there is a recurrent trend suggesting that being a woman and suffering goes hand in hand (Ballard, 2006). Experiencing pain is portrayed as being (at least part of) a woman’s fate. Judging by President Putin’s last speech on International Women’s Day, for whom being a woman means having “a mysterious power” and the ability to “keep up with everything, juggle a myriad of tasks, and yet remain tender, unforgettable and full of charm” (Dockterman, 2016), women are expected to balance all sorts of challenges without ever complaining.

Do these unrealistic expectations explain the taboo around pain experienced by women, pelvic pain in particular? Interestingly, the Global Forum for News and Information on Endometriosis, “Endometriosis.com”, displays a list of expert recommendations. Out of all the statements, the one made by Professor Stacey Missmer, from the Boston Centre for Endometriosis, USA, caught my attention: 

“We need to shout from the rooftops that pelvic pain matters!

We need to make this clear in medical school education, for general and family practitioners, for school teachers and parents. We need to make this clear by focusing in our research on patients who present with pain as often if not more than we focus on patients who present with infertility.”

Infertility versus pain – What drives general concern

This statement hints towards the problematic nature of a certain form of hierarchization of complications, according to which infertility is seen as an important complication, whereas a condition involving merely pain (however extreme it may be) is not deemed worth caring for and spending research money on. Have medical researchers started to show an interest for this condition only once associated with infertility? Does infertility have a greater externality compared to pain? Surely, pain alone does not seem to be enough to catch public attention.

Maybe this difference lies in the fact that infertility upsets the “normal” (the socially expected) course of life? Most websites on endometriosis list “Not Having Children” as a risk factor (HealthLine, Endometriosis-Surgery.com, womenshealth.gov…), but how exactly is this meant to be understood? Not having children…by when? Not having children by the time society expects you to? This could be seen as subtly contributing to the strong societal pressure establishing norms for a woman’s life.

Back to the reality of a woman’s body

Women’s menstrual pain is with no doubt poorly understood, and the issue of endometriosis is starting to gain momentum only through the “risk of infertility discourse”, leaving the problem of pain itself unaddressed (even though the latter is far more frequent). There remains a strong taboo around menstruation, even in gender progressive countries. While there is a struggle to achieve gender equality, bio-physiological realities of genders, such as menstruation are being deliberately silenced. In a society where porn, sex and nudity is displayed quite straightforwardly, how is it possible that a picture (Photo by Rupi Kaur) of a blood stained pyjama unleashes vehement attacks and gets temporarily banned from Instagram for being too “provocative” (Saul, 2015)? In a world of sterile aesthetics, where “plasticized” beauty is glorified, especially with respect to women, one does not talk about a bleeding uterus! Menstruation is simply not glamourous. But “glamour” is expected to be present in most parts of a woman’s life, even in illness. Take breast cancer, for example. Breast cancer, affecting mostly women, has been extensively marketed using the colour pink. From mediatised celebrity mastectomies to pink goodies and CSR endorsements, breast cancer has been transformed into a girly commodity, taking the focus miles away from any authentic empathy for suffering cancer patient and their loved ones (Smith, 2012, Kolata, 2015).

Let’s look at pain from a feminist perspective. Menstruation related pain is conveniently dismissed, considered unimportant compared to “serious” problems affecting lifestyle norms, such as infertility. This can have a strong effect of stigmatisation and victim-blaming. Additionally, menstruation and pelvic pain is not easily commodifiable, which could be another reason for the lack of public concern. Menstruation can hardly be associated with an image of glamour and sexiness as expected nowadays. Rather, it brings us back to the crude biological reality of the body, around which a taboo persists. What is needed to break the taboo? No judgements, no soppiness, no pink glitter. Just the acknowledgment of what menstruating means, how it looks like, how it feels, and how it can sometimes be related to intolerable suffering.



Albee, R (2013). Is endometriosis all in your head? Opinion piece retrieved from: http://endometriosis.org/news/opinion/albee-is-endometriosis-all-in-your-head/

Ballard, KD, Lowton, K, Wright, JT (2006). What’s the delay? A qualitative study of women’s experiences of reaching a diagnosis of endometriosis. Fertil Steril 86:1296-1301.

“Caillou”. (2016) Tribune: atteinte d’endométriose comme une femme sur dix, elle témoigne. Kobini. Retrieved from: http://www.konbini.com/fr/tendances-2/tribune-endometriose-femme/

Dockterman, E (2016). Putin Salutes the ‘Mysterious Power’ of Women. The Times 08th March 2016.

Endometriosis.org (2011). About endometriosis. Website consulted on 29. March 2016: http://endometriosis.org/endometriosis/ )

Kolata, G (2015). A Growing Disenchantment with October ‘Pinkification’. The New York Times, 30th October 2015.

Saul, H (2015). Menstruation-themed photo series artist ‘censored by Instagram’ says images are to demystify taboos around periods. Independent 30th March 2015

Smith, SE (2012). Pinkification: how breast cancer awareness got commodified for profit. The Guardian, 3rd October 2012.




“I thought you were doing feminist stuff?”

Sara Salem

I recently gave a presentation on my PhD work, and found some of the questions afterwards fascinating, especially the one I seem to get every time I mention what I’m doing my PhD on: “Oh but I thought you were doing feminist stuff?” Because my PhD is on the 2011 Egyptian revolution and political economy in general, there is always the assumption that it has nothing to do with gender, and that by extension I am not doing anything on feminism. This seems to surprise people because they know me as someone who “does feminism/gender” or who at least has written on those subjects before (Facebook rants included).

When this question comes at me, I find myself pausing. Should I take the easy route and answer that no, my PhD is not on feminism or gender; or take the difficult route and point out that everything is gendered, that no piece of writing can really exclude gender, even if it technically excludes it by not mentioning it. I could point out that my PhD, while not explicitly on feminism or gender or women as a lone subject of analysis, actually uses quite a bit of theory that comes from feminism and feminists. I could also point out that any analysis of the 2011 Egyptian revolution should and has to look at how gender and gendered bodies were part and parcel of events that we usually assume as only political or economic. In other words, the political and the economic are always gendered.

When I first started out my PhD, I was dying to do something “on gender.” But I also wanted to do something on the revolution itself, and thus found myself at a crossroads. I eventually realized that gender is everywhere, that any good feminist will “do gender” even if her (or his!) topic of research is not a glaringly obvious gender topic. And that is exactly what I hope I end up doing – incorporating feminist tools and theory into areas of analysis that usually pretend they are not gendered (ahem, political economy, ahem).

All of this raises the important point that understanding feminism as a field or discipline has also had the side-effect of isolating it, making it easier for other disciplines to ignore what feminists are saying, as well as to ignore the methodologies and tools being developed by feminists. On the other hand, there are clear benefits of understanding feminism as a discipline – it provides a much-needed “safe space” for feminists as well as the kind of solidarity needed to develop the research that has been so important to the development of social science in general. And yet I wonder if the price has not been very high; that the ease with which feminism-qua-discipline has been isolated has made the process of bringing critical gender analysis to other disciplines much more difficult.

It seems to me one way out of this is to apply the research and tools developed by feminists to other disciplines, to questions that may not appear to be the normal topics of feminist research, to research problems that have usually ignored the question of gender. Certainly not an easy task, but I have found that using feminist IR scholars, for example, has been invaluable to my own research on how global capitalism operates, how women and men are made part of this system on different terms, and how gender has been instrumental in creating an international division of labour. I have also found feminist work using intersectionality (as problematic as the concept remains) to be useful in conceptualizing gender in the Egyptian context as not simply being about men and women, but about multiple social categories that are always intersecting. Finally, I have found Marxist feminist work extremely enlightening in showing the ways in which class and wealth are not only gendered, but that the coercion that is part of the capitalist system also plays out in gendered ways.

So to answer the question about me not doing feminist stuff? Everything a feminist works on is “feminist stuff”!