Even without the cloud of superstition and stigma that surrounds menstruation in many parts of the world and especially developing countries, periods and activities relating to them are shrouded in silence. Communities conceptualize periods differently with both women and girls facing negative social norms which range from being prohibited to engage in sexual intercourse, to being banned from places of worship. There are some places where they are segregated in special huts because of the belief that menstrual blood carries toxic bacteria, that the blood triggers castration anxiety in men, while some say that the smell of periods disturbs animals and interferes with hunting.
Sex with a woman menstruating is prohibited in the Bible. “If a man lies with a woman during her menstrual period and uncovers her nakedness, he has made naked her fountain, and she has uncovered the fountain of her blood. Both of them shall be cut off from among their people”. Furthermore any person who touches the woman, or any object she has sat on, is likewise to be considered ritually unclean and should therefore “wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until evening “.
Hindus are perhaps the most harsh in terms of the stigmatism of menstruation. When a woman has her period she is prohibited from practicing normal life and must be “purified” before returning to her family. Not only are those menstruating not allowed to go to the temple but also entering the kitchen and in some cases she would not be allowed to enter the house at all. In extreme circumstances she would be required to live in a separate building or different wing of the house.
Muslims believe that a menstruating woman is impure. They are not allowed to pray, go to the mosque or take part in religious activities as blood of any kind is considered to be unclean. Women are allowed to eat during the fasting period but may not partake in the pilgrimage to Mecca, a spiritual act prescribed to all muslims. Sexual intercourse is also strictly forbidden but the women may perform all other social activities as normal.
Sikhs seem to read from a different script and can be termed as champions for female equality. Women are given equal status to a man and are seen as being as pure as a man. The Guru emphasizes that a woman’s menstrual cycle is a God-given process and that her blood during this time is required to create life. Sikhs are tolerant to women menstruating which is not considered to be a hindrance to her wanting to pray or accomplish her religious duties fully. Impurity in Sikhism comes from those who are impure within.
In Nepal, menstruating women are sent away to live in huts outside their villages or in forests where they have to endure with minimal access to food and water (yet these are the very facilities they need the most during this time!) leading to illnesses and even deaths. Some of these huts are dilapidated and leak during rainy seasons making it difficult to stay inside. Since they are not allowed to cook, the banished girls and women rely on family members to bring them food and other essentials. They are not only exposed to attacks from wild animals and snakes, but also miss school while they are in these huts. The worst fear for some girls is staying alone in the huts. At the end of her period, a woman should perform a ritual to leave behind her uncleanliness. Despite the practice being banned in 2005, many women are still being sent to these menstrual huts.
The Dogon women of Mali in West Africa also have special huts where women stay during menstruation. They are required to sleep in these huts for five nights, during which time, they carry out their duties normally unlike the Nepalese women. They get no reprieve from agricultural and other labor and spend most days working in the fields. However, the village streets, interactions with society and family compounds are off limits. Sexual intercourse and cooking for a husband are strictly forbidden.
For the Igbo of South East Nigeria, menstruating women in some villages were not allowed to visit a particular section for fear of contaminating the village stream. They couldn’t attend traditional gatherings especially where village court trials were in session and judgment was pending. This was in order to deter the evil spirits in menstruating women from influencing the judgment. In other villages, menstruating women were barred from sleeping in the same room with their husbands especially in the polygamous settings. It was believed that menstrual blood was toxic to sperm leading to infertility not only to the woman but also to other wives of the man. They were also forbidden from carrying female newborn babies as this was believed to attract heavy menstruation to the growing girl in later life.
The Daba of Kenya are semi nomads living near Tana River. They didn’t and still don’t allow women to walk near cattle, enter the cattle pen nor participate in milking. Doing so would lead to the death of all the cattle in the homestead if a woman is menstruating. They were not allowed to drink milk or eat meat for the same reasons. Doing so would not only render her barren, but also sick. They were considered dirty and one would be cursed by going near these women.
South Africa and Namibia
The Zulu ethnic group of South Africa, have a special ritual for the girl who starts menstruating. She takes a blanket and covers her head, then she finds a place to hide till sunset. The girl is then secluded from her friends and a goat is slaughtered. After a sleepover with her female friends, she’s bathed then smeared with red clay and receives motherly advice from her elders. This is the same for the Himba of Namibia who gather in a small structure for an initiation ceremony to introduce a girl into womanhood at the start of her menstrual cycle. As part of this ceremony, and on regular occasions, the women burn various roots and herbs to create aromatic smoke that is used to perfume their body.
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. 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.
It’s fascinating that although there are such negative views of menstruation, there are several cultures, myths and religions that attribute great power to women, especially when they are having their period! The Khoisan women just like the sikhs are revered during their menstruation and are thought to be powerful at this time. So powerful are they that a menstruating maiden need only to snap her fingers to bring down lightning on any disrespectful male.
For some, menstruation as a rite of passage and was met with celebration. In a few different regions of Ghana, girls get a full blown party when they have their first period. They get to sit under beautiful, ceremonial umbrellas while their family showers them with gifts and dedications.
The Cherokee Native Americans sent away the women on their periods to huts built for this purpose. They were to avoid men and weren’t supposed to be upstream or upwind from them. Contrary to other communities, this was not done out if disrespect but rather in reverence of the menstruating women who were believed to be powerful, holy and that their bodies were purifying during this time. This was the time to be careful with the string energies they exuded from their bodies. Menstrual blood was a source of feminine strength and had the power to destroy enemies, something valuable if a tribe was going into battle!
Today marks menstrual hygiene day in celebration of menstruation which is a natural act in post puberty girls and women. This phenomenon has been happening for millions of centuries now so we shouldn’t be mystified by it. Ignoring this issue due to cultural taboos and ancestorial beliefs can only lead to serious health related consequences. As individuals and a community, we need to address this issue to support safe health practice and women empowerment.