Culture and menstruation
Culture and menstruation is about cultural aspects surrounding how society views menstruation. A "menstrual taboo" is any social taboo concerned with menstruation. In some societies it involves menstruation being perceived as unclean or embarrassing, inhibiting even the mention of menstruation whether in public (in the media and advertising) or in private (among friends, in the household, or with men). Many traditional religions consider menstruation ritually unclean, although anthropologists point out that the concepts 'sacred' and 'unclean' may be intimately connected.
Different cultures view menstruation in different ways. The basis of many conduct norms and communication about menstruation in western industrial societies is the belief that menstruation should remain hidden. By contrast, in many hunter-gatherer societies, particularly in Africa, menstrual observances are viewed in a positive light, without any connotation of uncleanness.
The word "menstruation" is etymologically related to "moon". The terms "menstruation" and "menses" are derived from the Latin mensis (month), which in turn relates to the Greek mene (moon) and to the roots of the English words month and moon.
According to the anthropologists Buckley and Gottlieb, cross-cultural study shows that, while taboos about menstruation are nearly universal, and while many of these involve notions of uncleanliness, numerous menstrual traditions "bespeak quite different, even opposite, purposes and meanings." In some traditional societies, menstrual rituals are experienced by women as protective and empowering, offering women a space set apart from the male gaze and from unwanted sexual or domestic pressures and demands.
An instructive example is provided by the anthropologist Wynne Maggi, who describes the communal bashali (large menstrual house) of women in the Kalasha Valley (northwestern Pakistan) as their 'most holy place', respected by men and serving as women's all-female organizing centre for establishing and maintaining gender solidarity and power. According to one body of cultural evolutionary scholarship, the idea that menstrual blood marks the body as periodically sacred was initially established by female coalitions in their own interests, although later, with the rise of cattle-ownership and patriarchal power, these same beliefs and taboos were harnessed by religious patriarchs to intensify women's oppression.
Synchronisation with the moon
Menstruation in synchrony with the moon is widely assumed in myths and traditions as a ritual ideal. The idea that menstruation is—or ideally ought to be—in harmony with wider cosmic rhythms is one of the most tenacious ideas central to the myths and rituals of traditional communities across the world. One of the most thoroughgoing analyses of primitive mythology ever undertaken was that of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who concluded that, taken together, the indigenous myths of North and South America expressed men's worry that, unless women's periods were carefully monitored and synchronised, the universe might descend into chaos.
In Aboriginal Australia, the supernatural being known as the 'Rainbow Snake' has been interpreted as, among other things, an indigenous way of conceptualising the ideal of synchronised tidal, lunar, menstrual and seasonal periodicities whose overall harmony (it is believed) confers spiritual power and fertility.
To many, such cultural associations appear persuasive in view of the fact that in humans, the menstrual cycle quite closely approximates the moon's 29.5-day synodic cycle, unlike in chimpanzees (~36 days) or bonobos (~40 days). Statistical information from hunter gatherers is lacking, but where large-scale western studies focus on women's peak reproductive years—removing outlier values—the cycle length gravitates around 29.1–29.5 days, while the figure for women in their thirties shortens toward 28 days. In no extant human population has statistically significant lunar phase-locking been demonstrated.
Sacred and powerful
In some historic cultures, a menstruating woman was considered sacred and powerful, with increased psychic abilities, and strong enough to heal the sick. According to the Cherokee, menstrual blood was a source of feminine strength and had the power to destroy enemies. In Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote that a menstruating woman who uncovers her body can scare away hailstorms, whirlwinds and lightning. If she strips naked and walks around the field, caterpillars, worms and beetles fall off the ears of corn. Menstrual blood is viewed as especially dangerous to men's power. In Africa, menstrual blood is used in the most powerful magic charms in order to both purify and destroy. Mayan mythology explains the origin of menstruation as a punishment for violating the social rules governing marital alliance. The menstrual blood turns into snakes and insects used in black sorcery, before the Maya moon goddess is reborn from it.
Where women's blood is considered sacred, the belief is that it should be ritually set apart. According to this logic, it is when sacred blood comes into contact with profane things that it becomes experienced as ritually dangerous or 'unclean'.
The sociological theorist Emile Durkheim argued that human religion in its entirety emerged originally in connection with menstruation. His argument was that a certain kind of action – collective ritual action – could establish simultaneously totemism, law, exogamy and kinship in addition to distinctively human language and thought. Everything began, according to Durkheim, when a flow of blood periodically ruptured relations between the sexes. 'All blood is terrible', he observed, 'and all sorts of taboos are instituted to prevent contact with it'. During menstruation, females would exercise a 'type of repulsing action which keeps the other sex far from them'. This same blood was thought to run through the veins of women and animals alike, suggesting the blood's ultimate origin in 'totemic'—part-human, part-animal—ancestral beings. Once menstrual blood had been linked with the blood of the hunt, it became logically possible for a hunter to respect certain animals as if they were his kin, this being the essence of 'totemism'. Within the group's shared blood resided its 'god' or 'totem', 'from which it follows that the blood is a divine thing. When it runs out, the god is spilling over'.
In Buddhism (Theravada or Hinayana) menstruation is viewed as "a natural physical excretion that women have to go through on a monthly basis, nothing more or less". However, in Japanese Buddhism, menstruating women are banned from attending temples.
Most Christian denominations do not follow any specific rituals or rules related to menstruation. Some denominations follow the rules laid out in the Holiness Code section of Leviticus, somewhat similar to the Jewish ritual of Niddah.
Some Christian denominations, including many authorities of the Eastern Orthodox Church and some parts of the Oriental Orthodox Church (also known as the Russian, Ukrainian, Greek, and Indian Orthodox Church), distinct from the Roman Catholic Church, advise women not to receive communion during their menstrual period.
Conservative/traditionalist members of the Orthodox Church observe the ancient practice of abstaining from Holy Communion during menstruation. This is a fairly common practice throughout Greece and Russia and other historically Orthodox Christian countries. However, in most non-Orthodox countries—especially in Europe and North America—a sizable majority of women do not practice this ancient rule, although a minority of women still do. In fact, many Orthodox Christian women are unaware of the ancient practice of abstaining from Holy Communion due to menstruation, or merely view it as an "old wives' tale". Many Orthodox Christians in Non-Orthodox countries are advised to disregard this practice, as it is seen as an excuse to not participate in the sacrament of Communion and in fact, discourages laity involvement in the service of Divine Liturgy.
In hinduism, menstruating women are traditionally considered ritually impure and given rules to follow. During menstruation, women are not allowed to “enter the kitchen and temples", wear flowers, have sex, touch other males or females.” Women themselves are seen as impure and polluted, and are often isolated as untouchables, unable to return to their family, for the length of their period.
However, in orthodox or Brahmin Hindu families, menstruating women are asked to stay away from domestic activities for a period of 4 days, and even physical intimacy is prohibited. In very conservative Brahmin households, women have a separate room to stay in, separate plates and cutlery, and do not enter the kitchen or any sacred section of the house. Brahmin women who are into activities such as singing, tailoring or art, do not touch their tools for these three days. Any festival or occasion that comes during the woman's time out of the house, is negotiated discreetly. On the third day, after the Brahmin woman takes a ritual bath, she is considered cleansed and may resume her normal routine. This often described as a spiritual practice, but is usually only found in Brahmin families - most other subcultures require the women to carry on as normal.
In Shaktism the Earth's menstruation is celebrated during the Ambubachi Mela, an annual fertility festival held in June, in Assam, India. During Ambubachi, the annual menstruation course of the goddess Kamakhya is worshipped in the Kamakhya Temple. The temple stays closed for three days and then reopens to receive pilgrims and worshippers. It is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world, attracting millions of visitors each year, particularly for Ambubachi Mela which draws upwards of 100,000 pilgrims per day during the 4-day festival.
During menstrual periods, women are excused from performing prayers. They should not fast and left over fasts of Ramadan are to be completed during other days. During menses pilgrimages are allowed; however, circumambulation of the Kaaba is prohibited and is to be performed during other times. Respect for women on their period is valued. They are advised to not enter the praying place of mosque without any important purpose, but are encouraged to be present at muslims gatherings and festivals (Eids). After the period, a bath(Ghusl), which is also required of both partners after sex, is also required before prayer may continue.
And they ask you about menstruation; Say It is harm, so keep away from women during menstruation; And do not approach them until they become pure And when they have purified themselves, then come to them from where Allah has ordained for you; Indeed, Allah loves those who are constantly repentant and loves those who purify themselves. Your women are your tilth, so come to your tilth as you wish and put forth for yourselves; And fear Allah and know that you will meet Him; And give good tidings to the believers. (Al-Quran 2:222-223)
The traditional Islamic interpretation of the Qur'an forbids intercourse, but not physical intimacy, during a woman's menstrual period. The Qur'an explicitly prohibits a menstruating woman from sexual intercourse. If a man is engaged in sexual intercourse with his wife and discovers that her period has started, he must immediately withdraw.
Scholars argue that menstruating women are in a state in which they are unable to maintain wudhu, and are therefore prohibited from touching the Arabic version of the Qur'an. Similarly, other biological and involuntary functions such as vomiting, bleeding, sexual intercourse, and going to the bathroom invalidate one's wudhu. On authority of Urwah:
"A person asked me, 'Can a woman in menses serve me? And can a Junub woman come close to me?' I replied, 'All this is easy for me. All of them can serve me, and there is no harm for any other person to do the same. 'Aisha told me that she used to comb the hair of Allah's Apostle while she was in her menses, and he was in Itikaf (in the mosque). He would bring his head near her in her room and she would comb his hair, while she used to be in her menses.'"
Menstruating women are also prohibited from engaging in tawaf during Hajj. When A'isha wept to Muhammad when she was not able to perform tawaf on her menses, Muhammad responded, "This is a thing which Allah has ordained for the daughters of Adam. So do what all the pilgrims do with the exception of the Tawaf (Circumambulation) round the Ka'ba."
In Judaism, a ritual exclusion called niddah applies to a woman while menstruating and for about a week thereafter, until she immerses herself in a mikvah (ritual bath) which is basically intended only for married women. During this time, a married couple must avoid sexual intercourse and physical intimacy. Orthodox Judaism forbids women and men from even touching or passing things to each other during this period. While Orthodox Jews follow this exclusion, many Jews in other branches of the religion do not.
In the Torah (Leviticus 15:19-30), a menstruating female is considered ritually unclean - "anyone who touches her will be unclean until evening" (New International Version). Touching a menstruating female, touching an object she had sat on or lain on, or having intercourse with her also makes a person ritually unclean. The extent to which these rules are observed in modern Judaism varies depending on the degree of conservatism/orthodoxy.
Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas abolished all forms of ritual impurity of people and things and stressed the importance of cleanliness and spiritual purity. Menstruating women are encouraged to pray and are not required to fast; they have the (voluntary) alternative of reciting a verse instead.
Woman's menstrual blood is considered to be impure in several important Jain texts. The bleeding that occurs in menstruation is thought to kill micro-organisms in the body, making the female body less non-violent than the male body—although that idea does not have any scientific support. Jainism does not permit women to cook or attend temples while menstruating.
In Japan, the religion of Shinto did and still does play a part in their society. The Kami, the spirits they worshiped, would not grant wishes if you had traces of blood, dirt, or death on you. While menstruation is not entirely blood, the ancient Japanese did not know that. As a result, women who were menstruating were not allowed to visit any of the Kami shrines for the duration of their menstrual period. Even today, women are not allowed to enter Shinto shrines and temples during menstruation, and in some instances, women are completely banned from climbing the tops of sacred mountains due to their 'impurity'. Furthermore, the tradition is kept somewhat alive in the belief that the shedding of the endometrial lining is a kind of death. It is theorized that the Kami are the reason Japan is kept so clean and, in many houses, minimalistic.
In Sikhism, woman is given equal status to man and is regarded as pure as man is. The Sikh gurus teach that one cannot be pure by washing his body but purity of mind is the real pureness. They are not called pure, who sit down after merely washing their bodies. Guru Nānak, the founder of Sikhism, condemned the practice of treating women as impure while menstruating.
In Sikhism, the menstrual cycle is not considered a pollutant. Certainly, it can have a physical and physiological effect on the woman. Nonetheless, this is not considered a hindrance to her wanting to pray or accomplish her religious duties fully. The Guru makes it very clear that the menstrual cycle is a God-given process. The blood of a woman is required for the creation of any human being. The requirement of the mother's blood is fundamental for life. Thus, the menstrual cycle is certainly an essential and God-given biological process. In other faiths blood is considered a pollutant. However, the Guru rejects such ideas. Those who are impure from within are the truly impure ones.
Meditating on God's name is of importance. Whether one's clothes are blood-stained or not (including clothes stained from menstrual blood) is not of spiritual importance. Thus, there are no restrictions placed on a woman during her menstruation. She is free to visit a gurdwara, take part in prayers and do Seva. In The Feminine Principle in the Sikh: Vision of the Transcendent, Nikky Guninder Kaur-Singh writes: "The denigration of the female body 'expressed in many cultural and religious taboos surrounding menstruation and childbirth' is absent in the Sikh worldview. ...Guru Nanak openly chides those who attribute pollution to women because of menstruation."
Guru Nānak, the founder of Sikhism, condemned the practice of treating women as impure while menstruating. In Sikhism, the menstrual cycle is not considered a pollutant. Certainly, it can have a physical and physiological effect on the woman. Nonetheless, this is not considered a hindrance to her wanting to pray or accomplish her religious duties fully. The Guru makes it very clear that the menstrual cycle is a God given process. The blood of a woman is required for the creation of any human being. 'By coming together of mother and father are we created, By union of the mother's blood and the father's semen is the body made. To the Lord is the creature devoted, when hanging head downwards in the womb; He whom he contemplates, for him provides.' (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p. 1013).
The requirement of the Mothers' blood is fundamental for life. Thus, the menstrual cycle is certainly an essential and God given biological process. In other faiths blood is considered a pollutant. However, the Guru rejects such superstitious ideas. Those who are impure from within are the truly impure ones. 'Should cloth be reckoned impure if blood-stained, How may minds of such be deemed pure, As blood of mankind suck? Says Nanak: With a pure heart and tongue God's Name you utter: All else is worldly show, and false deeds.' (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, pg. 140).
Meditating on God's name is of importance. Whether your clothes are blood stained or not (including clothes stained from menstrual blood) is not of spiritual importance. Thus, there are no restrictions placed on a woman during her menstruation. She is free to visit a gurdwara, take part in prayers and do Seva. In The Feminine Principle in the Sikh vision of the transcendent, Nikky Guninder Kaur-Singh writes:
In some portions of South Asia, there is a menstrual taboo, with it frequently being considered impure. Restrictions on movement, behaviour and eating are frequently placed. More than one-third of girls across South Asia do not go to school during menstruation. Some of that is due to lack of safe and comfortable toilets at school (lack of water, sanitation and hygiene in schools in developing countries).
Hindus in India tend to view menstruation, especially first menstruation or menarche, as a positive aspect of a girl's life. In South India, girls who experience their menstrual period for the first time are given presents and celebrations to mark the occasion.
In many traditional Hindu homes in India, girls and women face restrictive taboos relative to menstruation, such as being denied entry to the temple and the kitchen. In areas around the Jhabua district, the belief is that "menstruation is a disease and not a normal biological process", and therefore women who are menstruating are not allowed to sleep on beds, enter kitchens, touch male members of their family or eat spicy foods.
In a 2014 study conducted in India, the researchers found that as many as 42% of women who participated in the study did not know about sanitary pads or from where in their anatomy menstruation originated. "Most of them were scared or worried on first menstruation."
In Bali, a woman is not allowed to enter the kitchen to perform her usual duties, nor is she allowed to have sex with her husband while menstruating. She is to sleep apart from the family and has to keep her clothes that she wears while menstruating away from any clothes that she could wear to the temple. One of the most important regulations is that a woman is not allowed to attend temple while menstruating.
In Sumba, women keep their cycles secret, which makes men see them as deceitful. Women from Sumba believe that because of their secrecy, they will always have control of the men. "Men will never know how much we really can do to control these things. We have all kinds of secrets, and they should always believe that we can control even more than we really can".
Women are supposed to avoid intercourse while menstruating. It is believed that sexually transmitted diseases are the results of women deceiving men and having intercourse while they are menstruating. Gonorrhea translates as "disease you get from women" in Sumba; it has become a social problem. When a man would get this disease, the only way they believed he could rid himself of painful sores was to pass it to a woman. The reasoning was that a woman's body can absorb infection and purge it during a cycle.
Hindus in Nepal traditionally keep women isolated during menstruation, when women who are menstruating are not allowed in the household for a period of 3 nights. This practise was banned by the Nepalese Supreme Court in 2005 but still continues. Chhaupadi is a social tradition associated with a menstrual taboo in the western part of Nepal. The tradition prohibits Hindu women and girls from participating in normal family activities while menstruating, as they are considered "impure". In some parts of western Nepal, the custom of chhaupadi requires menstruating girls and women to sleep in a hut called Chhau Goth some distance from the family home
The Yurok in North America practiced menstrual seclusion. Yurok women used a small hut near the main house.
A survey conducted in 1981 showed that a substantial majority of U.S. adults and adolescents believed that it is socially unacceptable to discuss menstruation, especially in mixed company. Many believed that it is unacceptable to discuss menstruation even within the family. Studies in the early 1980s showed that nearly all girls in the United States believed that girls should not talk about menstruation with boys, while more than one-third of girls did not believe it appropriate to discuss menstruation with their father.
Society and culture
Menstruation education is frequently taught in combination with sex education in the US, although one study suggests that girls would prefer their mothers to be the primary source of information about menstruation and puberty. A Nigerian study showed the following breakdown in menstruation education: “parents of 56%, friends of 53%, books of 46%, teachers of 44%, internet of 45%, and health centers of 54” held the most influence in terms of menstruation education. Information about menstruation is often shared among friends and peers, which may promote a more positive outlook on puberty.
The quality of menstrual education in a society determines the accuracy of people's understanding of the process. This is in part due to the segregation of male and female peers during educational sessions. Failure to teach an accurate understanding of menstruation to students of all genders has social implications for gendered relationships and the objectification of women’s bodies. Discomfort arises when students do not have access to the same information, reinforcing the belief “that menstruation is gross and should be kept hidden”. Girls are encouraged to conceal the fact that they may be menstruating in order to be considered desirable. Sexual harassment and teasing about menstruation cause girls anxiety as they must struggle to ensure that they give no sign of menstruation.
Effective educational programs are essential to providing children and adolescents with clear and accurate information about menstruation. Several education and sexual health experts have studied the key features necessary for such programs. Some experts maintain that schools are an appropriate place for menstrual education to take place because they are an institution that young people attend consistently. Schools are intended to expand students’ knowledge and thus serve as an appropriate site for conveying menstrual education.
Other experts argue that programs led by peers or third-party agencies are more effective than those taught in the school classroom. This may be due to the use of small group interactions, the ability of these programs to target specific populations, or the possibility that many teenagers choose to participate voluntarily in these programs, rather than being mandated to attend school programs.
One common way that sanitary-product advertising avoids depicting menstruation is by pouring a blue, rather than red, liquid on the sanitary product to demonstrate its absorptivity. Further evidence of the taboo is the creation of a variety of euphemisms for menstruation, including "Aunt Flo", "on the rag", "my friend", or even "the curse".
In 2010, the "Always" tampon brand created the first feminine hygiene ad to ever feature a tiny red spot, representing blood. The ad was created by an intern who was working at Always' advertising agency, Leo Burnett. Originally the ad was created for the intern's personal portfolio, but then it caught the attention of the chief creative officer at Leo Burnett, and was subsequently published as an actual ad. There was some controversy when the ad was first released. In June 2016 the presence of red blood in a UK Bodyform commercial was greeted with approval in social media for its attempt to challenge the stereotypical menstruation ad, by showing women who struggle despite bleeding from cuts, blows and bruises they receive while playing various sports.
Movies and television also reflect the taboo nature of menstruation. Typically menstruation as a topic is avoided, except for scenes involving menarche or the first period. For example, as Elizabeth Arveda Kissling explains in her article, "On the Rag on Screen: Menarche in Film and Television", the early 1991 movie My Girl contains a scene where the main character, Vada, experiences her first period. The explanation given to her by a female role model of what is happening to her is done off-camera and the subject is never mentioned again, save when Vada pushes Thomas across the porch telling him, "Don't come back for five to seven days."
In the movie Carrie, the title character has her first period in the school gym shower, and the other girls tease her by throwing tampons and sanitary pads at her. The gym teacher tries to calm Carrie down, and eventually must explain the concept of menstruation to Carrie (because Carrie's mother had never done so). When Carrie returns home, her fanatically religious mother yells at her and throws her into a closet because menstruation is apparently a sign of sin. Later in the movie, her classmates mock her menarche again by pouring pig's blood on her at the prom.
In Only Yesterday, one of the girls is found to be going through menstruation and is later teased about it, especially when a group of boys tell the others not to touch a ball she had touched by saying, "You'll catch her period".
In the 2007 movie Superbad, Seth discovers menstrual blood on his jeans after dancing with a woman. He reacts with disgust, as do other men in the scene.
With the recent FDA approval of menstrual suppression medications, researchers have begun to shift their focus to the attitudes of American women toward their periods. One study in particular found that 59% of the women they surveyed reported an interest in not menstruating every month. Of these, 1/3 said they were interested in not menstruating at all anymore.
Anthropologists, Lock and Nguyen (2010), have noted that the heavy medicalization of the reproductive life-stages of women in the West, mimic power structures that are deemed, in other cultural practices, to function as a form of "social control". Medicalization of the stages of women's lives, such as birth and menstruation, has enlivened a feminist perspective that investigates the social implications of biomedicine’s practice. "[C]ultural analysis of reproduction…attempts to show how women…exhibit resistance and create dominant alternative meanings about the body and reproduction to those dominant among the medical profession."
Menstrual activism (otherwise known as radical menstruation, menstrual anarchy, or menarchy) is a movement that addresses menstrual taboos. Overcoming this taboo is a point of contention amongst feminists. The primary argument behind this movement is that if menstruation is normal, there is no reason why the topic should be avoided: "After a while it becomes psychologically disorienting for women to look out at a world where their reality doesn't exist."
Menstruation can be conceptualized as a stigmatized condition that both reflects and reinforces women’s perceived lower status in relation to men. Feminist scholars extend this theory to explain negative attitudes towards women's bodily functions. Such stigmatization occurs when menstrual blood is viewed as one of the "abominations" of the body and reflects a gendered identity among women, which leads to consequences for women's psychological and sexual well-being.
Feminists such as Chella Quint have spoken against the use of shaming in advertising for feminine hygiene products. She created a zine, Adventures in Menstruating, to "help alter the visibility of menstruation, so that it's at least normal to talk about it. Because, right now, it's not". Other menstrual activists include Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, who published My Little Red Book; filmmaker and academic Giovanna Chesler, who created the documentary Period: The End of Menstruation; and artist Ingrid Berthon-Moine, who exhibited a video and series of photographs at the Venice Biennale.
Blood from female menstruation has been used in medicines. In Chinese Daoist alchemy, menstrual blood from females who had not had sexual intercourse was used to make a substance to prolongue an individual's life, called red lead (Chinese: 红铅; pinyin: hóng qiān). The substance was taken by the Ming dynasty Jiajing Emperor and the abuses inflicted on the palace women to ensure the blood's "purity" led to the Renyin palace rebellion.
Menstrual synchrony is an alleged process whereby women who begin living together in close proximity experience their menstrual cycle onsets (the onset of menstruation or menses) becoming more synchronized together in time than when previously living apart. A 2013 review concluded that menstrual synchrony likely does not exist.
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