While this post is of a political nature, please note that Jasiri Australia is not aligned with any political party. We strive to provide an open and supportive platform for young Australians to share their views.
The current Australian debacle of the tampon tax seems like it has an obvious solution: get rid of it. Decades of political manoeuvring around the issue has produced both feeble excuses and logical plans to deal with a tax that could have been abolished 18 years ago. Rather than producing legitimate political change, the protests and petitions carried out by Australians seems to have done little more than keep the tax in the public eye. So why are politicians so slow to move against the tax? And why do they keep justifying its existence?
On March 7 this year, Tanya Plibersek, Labor's shadow minister for education and women claimed that the tax was a "dumb decision when it was made in 1999." Plibersek's belief that "we can find a solution to this" is promising, but shrinks in power when one considers Labor's opposition to an appeal put forward by the Greens just last year. Today, the Greens gave notice to introduce a bill to the Senate to repeal the tax. Greens senator Janet Rice notes Labor's recent claims and remarks that:
"Labor talks about how they’ll remove the tax on sanitary products only if they win the next election and only if all states and territories agree.
Labor had a chance to remove the tax when they were last in government, but they didn’t act.
The fact is we don’t have to wait until the next election and we should be taking leadership at the federal level to bring the states and territories with us. The tax was introduced by the federal parliament and it can be removed by the federal parliament.”
In a 2016 opinion piece for The Guardian, Gabrielle Jackson puts forward that the tax is simply an example of the structural sexism inbuilt to "what amounts to a tax on being a woman." In 2000, then-prime minister John Howard addressed the issue of the tampon tax, stating it was not a 'women's issue' but one of tax consistency. That same year, Nationals MP Dee-Ann Kelly claimed it was a 'Barbie doll' issue, with more important policies to deal with. While naturally there are pressing problems Australian women battle everyday, such as the gender pay gap, sexual assault and domestic violence, the tampon tax is an example of an ingrained micro-aggression that belies a much larger problem.
The tampon tax is the surface of a deep and underlying issue with the presentation of menstruation in society. A 2016 American study carried out by Timothy de Waal Malefyt and Maryann McCabe considered the nuances behind advertising campaigns for feminine hygiene products. They found that while many women considered their period to be natural processes of their bodies, advertisers maintain a binary view of menstruation and associate menstruation socially with shame and secrecy. The language around menstruation in advertisements and the language used by those who actually experience it vividly contrast each other. De Waal Malefyt and McCabe's research showed that
"Women spoke of their periods in terms of slight starts, early signals of spotting, and variations of flow in rhythms, intensity and movement. Menstrual “flow” that women spoke of was a metaphor observed, which described everyday practices and bodily awareness that women experienced."
The language of menstruation as seen in advertisements, media and politics is " structurally binomial and categorically binary – “on period and off” – with little sense of influence or control, and therefore subject to objective product qualities and branded agendas."
The furore over the tampon tax can be put down to the uncomfortable exhibition of how intertwined women's bodies are with economic motivations. While this relationship is oft seen in cosmetics, clothes and aesthetics, the controversial topic of menstruation lacks the clear cut evidence seen more easily in sexist advertising. As long as menstruation and hygiene products are spoken of in consumerist terms, they will be considered on par with cosmetics and apparel, in other words, as something to consume.
We are so used to the objectification of women's bodies for economic gain that the hygienic necessity of menstrual products is overshadowed by their female categorisation. Since women use them, and women also use makeup and perfume and jewellery, we attach expendability to them all. And yet, as Gabriella Jackson said, "they’re called “hygiene” products for a reason."
Even once the tampon tax is abolished, and in that I am confident, the fundamental issues will remain. Gabrielle Jackson's 'structural sexism' will still be present. Corporations that sell menstruation products will still make millions off items that are essential for women's health. There are three major things that must change.
We must acknowledge that the tampon tax is only the most evident form of a menstruation problem. A change in the language around menstruation will influence popular views.
The 'structural sexism' that Tanya Plibersek has addressed must remain in public eye and must be acted upon by the politicians preaching change.
There must be a push for period products that are both freely available and good for the environment, such as menstrual cups and sustainable pads and tampons.
I urge us all to consider that that the end of the tax is only the beginning - and something we still have yet to achieve. If the end and epilogue of menstruation stigma are both in sight, why is it still such an issue?