Keeping secrets

THE UNIQUELY AUSTRALIAN colloquialism ‘secret women's business' has taken on the character of an incantation, often unrelated to Aboriginal women's secrets. Newspaper headlines declare: ‘And it's not secret women's business as the quest begins to crown a new king, swimming' or ‘Winning trust is the real secret to women's business ...'

The sheer silliness of many of the appropriations diminishes and mocks the original reference, and all that it stands for, in terms of the demands for recognition of respect and trivialises the issue. Yet, to an outsider like me, the uses of the phrase would be as puzzling as the occasional ‘fair dinkum' overheard on the street.

I acquired an interest in the Hindmarsh Island Bridge affair belatedly and from afar after reading George Williams' Griffith REVIEW 19: Re-imagining Australia essay. As my research concerns the social construction of the menstrual period and its media representations, my curiosity was piqued. The richness of the story begs questions that go beyond the particular: whether knowledge of menstruation is a cultural secret or a matter of personal privacy; the difference between ‘secret women's business' and ‘a woman's secret business' and how changes in the general media environment affect contemporary views of secrecy, menses and respect for cultural diversity.

The Hindmarsh Island issue has been thoroughly thrashed in the Australian media, academic settings, political enclaves, courts and everyday conversation. Several books have been published, reviewed and gone out of print. Careers in various fields (particularly journalism and politics) have risen or fallen according to the ebb and flow of the saga's meandering course. Even the lower Murray has changed profoundly as its water has dried up. Perhaps its unique Australian aspects made it too exotic for American consumption, yet the elements concerning race relations, gender, and respect for minority and indigenous cultures might well have proven instructive elsewhere.


ONE OF THE most intriguing elements in the story is the secrecy, the idea that ethnic/cultural groups within a society are entitled to assert a right to confidentiality about a traditional practice, and thereby influence general social policy such as zoning or construction. The concept was built into law by the 1988 Aboriginal Heritage Act, which outlawed dissemination of ‘unauthorised' information about Aboriginal traditions.

To the best of my knowledge, this view of ‘privileged information' has no similar expression in American law or custom. It is truly a ‘foreign' idea. The closest practice might be the way priests, journalists, spouses, doctors, lawyers and therapists are exempt from testifying against a congregant, source, wife/husband or client/patient in legal proceedings. But these cases only apply to unique personal matters, national security, professional privilege and patent protection, not to entire bodies of lore or ritual.

In the case of journalists, ethical questions of privilege mostly pertain to protecting one's source from exposure rather than the piece of knowledge gained in the course of an investigation. In this regard, the secrets usually kept by journalists (how they gained the secret they're publishing) are different from those of priest, therapist, doctor, attorney or mate in that the content of the exchange is protected while the identity of the confidant is known.

Perhaps it might be useful here to draw a distinction between ‘secret women's business' in the plural and ‘a woman's secret business'. A comparison might be helpful. In the United States, one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions in the last fifty years, Roe v Wade, turned on the question of personal privacy - a woman's right to keep to herself not just an exchange of information with her doctor about whether she is pregnant, but her right to act upon that information with a course of physical ‘treatment' that suits her own needs. Although the case is often described as having established a woman's right to an abortion, actually it established the primacy of a woman's right to privacy about having an abortion over the right of the government's access to the information and then the formulation of law about what it knows.

The secrecy issue in Hindmarsh also seems ‘foreign' within the larger media context that is emerging across the planet. In an age of photocopying, the internet, blogging, instant news and YouTube, the preservation of the kind of secrecy at issue in Hindmarsh is almost quaint. In fact, I imagine that would Marshall McLuhan be asked his views of the story, he might point out that it is the last dramatic gasp of a vanishing media ecology, a pre-writing, oral culture, a media environment in which communities could be sustained in relative isolation from each other and maintain their own codes, beliefs and identities with confidence that ‘outsiders' would not know their meanings.

Writing about the difficulty of keeping anything private in the age of the perpetually open microphone, Gary Younge lamented in The Nation in August 2008: ‘There is, in short, no such thing as a discreet conversation anymore. The personal, the private, the privileged and the confidential no longer really exist. The stories you may choose not to share are not yours to keep; the conversations you hope will go no further can just keep travelling.' While Younge was writing about the political climate, he might as well have been describing the media circumstances that led to the explosion of passions and conflict at the heart of Hindmarsh. To put it another way, as Garret Keizer pointed out in Harper's Magazine in August, we live in a Candid Camera world in which our only choice is to smile sheepishly even when we've been ‘tricked, ridiculed' by the ever-present intrusive camera.


THE ABORIGINAL NGARRINDJERI culture that developed in the pre-colonial centuries, with all its secret and public rituals and practices, was an oral society whose ways were passed along via example, storytelling and spoken explanations. Once any detail was transcribed on paper, either by someone privy to the secret or as told to an ‘outsider', the secret was bound to be out sooner or later - obviously sooner when it interfered with demands made by a culture shaped and sustained by a belief in the primacy of marks made on paper over one sustained by oral transmission via the shaping of the air we breathe.

In this regard, the clash is not the parochial tale of Australian native peoples versus the descendants of European colonisers, but a global tale of media conflict that has been played out in every setting where the spoken word met the written word. And now, in an updated form, a new version is being enacted globally as image-based media supplant print-based media, sometimes leaping right over print, going from speech to image in one bound. A story told to me by Rachel Field, an ethnographic filmmaker who was doing fieldwork among the indigenous people of Southern Chile, the Mapuche tribe, might illustrate this point.

Field had gained the trust of the tribal leaders who agreed to allow her to film a secret ritual that was conducted on a dark night in a sacred grove up on the mountain near the village. She set up floodlights on high stanchions so that she could record the event and ran power lines down into a gully so the noise of her generator would not drown out the chants, songs and recitations. Halfway through the ceremony, the generator ran out of fuel and the lights went out. Field dashed away to refuel the generator, and as she worked was startled to find that the tribal elder had followed her down into the gully. ‘Please, go on with your ceremony,' she said. ‘Don't worry about me.'

The elder replied, ‘No. The people want the light.'

The Hindmarsh Island Affair resonates with what happened deep in the Andes. Once Hindmarsh Island was targeted as a location of significance to so many important players (real estate developers, the government, opposition, lawyers, broadcast and print media, scholars, activists and self-promoters of every stripe - not to mention factions within the Ngarrindjeri community itself and individuals and groups that aligned themselves according to gender and political philosophy), it took on symbolic meaning far beyond what it held for anyone before the issue was raised. Even if the island was not ‘sacred' before, it surely is now - to everyone. Like Iwo Jima to Americans, it is a site sanctified by travail and by the mediated images that emerged from the battle.

Yet the content at the heart of the secrecy is rooted in menstrual lore and that the depth of feelings about that topic underlies the other issues, complicating everyone's reactions. It is also important to note that, while menstrual lore is deeply embedded in all ancient cultures, new myths continue to be invented and take on nuances in contemporary terms. An apt example is found in David Malouf's Remembering Babylon(Vintage, 1993), with its surreal scene of a young woman being completely covered by bees attracted to her menstrual blood. The scene is described as mystically as any indigenous creation myth of the joining of humans with nature: ‘... the swarm was on her, thickening so fast about her that it was as if night had fallen, just like that, in a single cloud. She just had time to see her hands covered with plushy, alive fur gloves before her whole body crusted over and she was blazingly gathered into the single sound they made, the single mind ... You are our bride, her new and separate mind told her as it drummed and swayed above the earth. Ah, so that is it! They have smelled the sticky blood-flow. They think it is honey. It is.'


GLOBALLY, THE SECRECY surrounding menstruation is just one of the taboos that has been losing its authority, but it is an illustrative one. It turns out that Australian media already played a significant part in the destruction of that taboo.

On January 13, 1993, New Idea, part of Rupert Murdoch's constellation, published portions of the transcript of a phone conversation that had occurred three years earlier on December 18, 1989. The date of publication came to be known within the British Royal Family as ‘Black Wednesday', though Red Wednesday or Bloody Wednesday would have been more apt, given the content. It was a call between Charles, Prince of Wales, and his lover (now wife), Camilla Parker-Bowles, made on a mobile phone whose signal was intercepted. In the course of some banter and light phone sex between these two horny, middle-aged individuals, tampons were mentioned in an erotic context. The tampon detail immediately swept around the globe. Other media outlets had the transcript, but had refrained from publishing it due to legal prohibitions or because they thought the details were in bad taste. These concerns did not inhibit the editors of New Idea.

Once the Australian publication had broken the story, other outlets had a convenient excuse to tell the tale. They weren't actually reporting the story of the phone call, but instead were reporting about Camillagate, as the scandal was quickly called. They were informing their readers about what some zany Australian magazine had dared to print and, by the way, exposing Prince Charles to ridicule. To make matters even more bizarre, of the hundreds of print reports, the eventual inclusion of the story in biographies of Princess Diana and even a skit on the American comedy show Saturday Night Live, virtually all of them reported the story incorrectly. (The Saturday Night Live sketch depicted Dana Carvey as Prince Charles having himself transformed into a tampon and delivered to Mrs Parker-Bowles in fulfilment of their fantasy.)

The actual transcript reveals that Charles was in a self-pitying mood; his fantasy about becoming Camilla's tampon was anything but positive. Yet the summaries and editorials repeatedly claimed that Charles wished to be reincarnated as Camilla's tampon as though he were some kind of menstrual fetishist and that, worse yet, entertaining such a fantasy was so dire as to make him unfit to ascend to the throne or be shown the least amount of respect. Thus, the recasting of the conversation became a means for a variety of interested parties to score points on their own particular agenda: Royal-bashers could confirm their loathing of the Crown; Diana's coterie could deflect attention from her own affairs; media folks could nurse another juicy celebrity exposé; keepers of the public morality could rail against the tawdriness of the elite. The basis for all of the drama and hand-wringing lay in the deep-seated anxieties surrounding the existence of menstruation and, most deeply held of all, the taboos against male contact with menstrual blood - especially in any kind of sexual activity. While the Camillagate story found first expression in an Australian publication, the emotional and social responses to it seem to be based in nearly universal responses to the mysterious facts of the menstrual cycle. Anthropologists from Margaret Mead in Male and Female (Perennial, 1949) to Buckley and Gottlieb in Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation (University of California Press, 1988) or Chris Knight in Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture (Yale University Press, 1991), and hundreds more in between and since, have documented the myriad ways that peoples far and wide have, with few exceptions, tended to isolate or restrict the activities of women during the bleeding portion of their cycles.

However, there are also ample reports of the ways women have turned the taboos to their own good ends by exploiting the restrictions as opportunities for bonding with other women, getting rest from the routines of their lives or otherwise elevating their status or authority as a result of their biological uniqueness. Across cultures, tribal women have sometimes managed to leverage the taboos and the secrecy surrounding them into acquisition of power.

The earliest recorded example of this symbolic ju-jitsu is found in the Biblical book of Genesis, which tells in Chapter 31 how Rachel turned the menstrual tables on her father, Laban. Having stolen her father's household gods and in peril of her life if the theft were discovered, Rachel kept Laban from finding the objects by hiding them in her saddle blankets and sitting on them. As he approached, Rachel stopped him cold, saying, ‘Let my lord not be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me'. The severity of the rules against menstrual contamination was so great that Laban abandoned his search, conceding defeat at the hands of his daughter in what is the earliest recorded incident of a woman ‘playing the menstrual card'. Rachel managed to turn male superstitions and fear about the period, one of the deepest sources of misogyny, back against the patriarchy (and the patriarch). And, by the way, she struck a blow against polytheism as the many teraphim that Laban worshipped were powerless against the menstrual magic that Rachel wielded.


BUT CIRCUMSTANCES HAVE changed over the millennia from Rachel's menstrual defiance of Laban to the days of Doreen Kartinyeri's claims on behalf of secret women's business on Hindmarsh Island. While details about one's period are still not considered appropriate for polite dinner conversation and some men are squeamish about the subject, preferring to maintain their ignorance and even avoid sexual relations during ‘that time of the month', the period has become an ‘open secret' - or perhaps it has simply moved from the category of ‘secret' to that of ‘private'.

An example of a modern-day Rachel whose behaviour is in sharp contrast to the sense of menstrual privacy that prevailed in traditional societies is found in a story told by Georgia Blain about Germaine Greer. In 1972, Greer was touring Australia to promote one of her books and during an interview noticed a menstrual stain on her skirt, which she proudly pointed out to everyone present. In fact, she repeated the act later in the day during another interview, this time with a male she wished to discomfort.

All of this brings us back to Hindmarsh, but with a modern, mediated turn that is full of irony. Here we find two sets of women laying claim to the Biblical Rachel's heritage: one, known as the protesters, claiming that the secret (menstrual?) business must be respected and developers kept at bay; the other group, the dissidents, claiming that there is no secret (menstrual?) business to protect. Though one group, the protesters, lost their cause (the bridge has been built), both managed to draw considerable attention to the issue, inadvertently inviting the larger public to find the whole matter of ‘women's secrets' risible.

Remarkably, the exact contents of the two notorious envelopes labelled ‘Secret Women's Business' have been kept secret. Even Margaret Simons, the author of what is likely the definitive book on the subject, The Meeting of the Waters (Hachette Livre, 2003), says she has not read the documents herself. But it seems clear from the anthropological literature and the description of the tribal customs Simons reports that the claims had to do with reproductive ritual and surely menstruation. Simons retells a story from the anthropological records about mythic characters named Waiyungari and Nepeli that is steeped in menstrual symbolism and the taboos surrounding the period. The story is set in the lower Murray River basin and is the kind of traditional tale that the Heritage Act might have been expected to protect from divulgence.

Although men are the probable originators of the menstrual taboos due to the frightening incomprehensibility of the phenomenon - how could a human bleed for days and not die? - they have traditionally tended to mock the period, and the women experiencing it, by claiming that it causes emotional instability or irrationality, thereby diminishing women: ‘She must be on the rag!' Marketing a biscuit labelled ‘Secret Women's Business', naming a recreational boat ‘Secret Men's Business' or otherwise trivialising the period are ways of ventilating anxiety while making light of the whole mystery.


ANOTHER MANIFESTATION OF male reaction to secret women's business came in the form of a clever, award-winning TV ad for tampons that appeared on Australian television in 2001, the same year that the Hindmarsh Island Bridge finally opened. It seems like yet another sideways dig at women's (secret) menstrual business as it emerged in the context of Hindmarsh.

The thirty-second ad was developed by the Young & Rubicam Agency in Melbourne and is called ‘Sympathy Pains'. The opening shot is a wide view of a city construction site on what looks like a traffic island. The sounds of traffic and a pneumatic drill are heard. The second shot closes in on a young, stringy-haired man operating the drill who stops and mutters, ‘I don't think I can do this much longer.' The foreman, a big-bellied older fellow with a walrus moustache, growls, ‘What the hell is it now!?'

The young worker sheepishly says, ‘I've got cramps. I've got my period.'

Suddenly concerned, the foreman replies, ‘Oh, OK. Alright, better relax then. Sit down for a moment. Big breaths ... You know, I always use a hot water bottle.'

A workmate calls from the side, ‘Want a herbal tea, Pat?'

‘No, no, no, I'm alright.'

The boss continues, ‘Put it across the tummy. Just relaxes, takes the pain out. It's brilliant. It's really good.'

Another worker chimes in, ‘My Dad did the same thing.'

‘It's great ...' continues the boss.

The young man then mutters that's he's OK and resumes his work with the drill but the boss assures him, ‘If it gets too much again, we'll put someone else on it.'

The scene fades to a black screen with the title, ‘IF ONLY', followed by a brief shot of the product, a box of Cottons tampons.

This entertaining ad efficiently captures details associated with women's tribal lore: conversations and practices known to and shared orally by women across ages and classes but about which men are commonly kept in the dark - that is, ‘secret women's business'. The bonding the men express, the sharing of lore (hot water bottles, ‘My Dad did the same thing', herbal tea), the caring for one another, are all common expressions of women's experience that are usually kept within the ‘tribe'. The fact that the director of the piece and the two producers were women (Vikki Blanche, Helene Nicole and Leanne Tonkes) subverts potential charges that the ad is hostile to women.

Coincidental or not, the airing of this ad and the opening of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge represented two turning points. One had to do with nearly a decade's struggle over how to better define Aboriginal rights within a European-based notion of government as well as different views of secrecy within a modern media ecology. The second turning point is the gradual shift in the menstrual ecology, the ways men and women - both individually and collectively - conduct their menstrual encounters. Here too, notions of secrecy - whether to expose or withhold information thought to belong exclusively to one tribe or a subset of a tribe - are evolving as the media we create and employ have their way with us.'

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