Anthropology: Understanding our Contrasted Views on Menstruation

Menstruation: the victim of a false dichotomy

As an essential function of the female procreating body, but also a token of womanhood, menstruation has always been interpreted as more than a mere biological phenomenon. People either portray it as extremely negative, or extremely positive. Even when trying to empower women, we often still end up defining period as more than a period, hence the extreme opinions that have surfaced on the topic. For some, periods should be totally suppressed. For others, women should accept periods completely, even if they cripple them with pain.

Rock art of two menstruating women dancing, Pilbara, Western Australia.
Rock art of two menstruating women dancing, Pilbara, Western Australia.

So in the end, what should we really aim when discussing the complex issue of menstruation? It seems that we should attempt to let women (and other people who have periods), as individuals, decide what is best for them when it comes to their periods. But first, it is absolutely necessary to make sure all women have access to proper sanitary equipment, mobility and a positive view of their feminine health.

Menstruation and spirituality

Menstruation and the importance of fertility

In many cultures, menstruation is considered as the first step into womanhood for a young girl. Indeed, a girl’s menarche – the very first period – indicates that she now has the ability to bear children. Thus, certain cultures will celebrate menstruation as a sign of fertility and prosperity for the community. Due to its relation to bearing children and giving life, menstruation tends to be associated to the figure of Mother Nature. In fact, some cultures believe that Nature herself also menstruates when she fertilizes the Earth and allows plants and animals to thrive. The importance of fertility has made menstruation a very significant part of life not only for women, but for entire societies. Hence why so many cultures organize rituals to celebrate menstruation.

Sometimes, such an emphasis on female reproductive health can lead to rather harmful effects. Because in a way, defining a woman by her ability to bear children, or lack thereof, can end up reducing women to their reproductive organs. Yet, womanhood does not necessarily start or stop with fertility. Having fertility issues, or refusing to become a mother, does not make a woman any less of a woman. So even in a celebratory context, menstruation can be framed in an othering way. To be clear, that is not to say periods must not be celebrated, or that we should not see beauty and force in female fertility. But, the point is that menstruating or having children do not have to define women.

The power of blood: supernatural interpretations of periods

Some cultures use period blood in witchcraft as they believe it has supernatural properties. Many around the world view period as a powerful substance that can cause great harm if used correctly. Others also believe that women become more spiritually awaken during their periods. Their senses become more accurate, they dream more vividly and get psychic abilities. Also, many culture have drawn a parallel between menstrual cycles and moon cycles. Supposedly, menstruation allows women to be more in tune with their supernatural powers. Here again, the framing of menstruation seems poetic, and all the more enticing due to its authenticity.

Artwork by Martin Clark Bridge
Artwork by Martin Clark Bridge

But associating periods to a supernatural power can also be harmful. Essencially, this vision dehumanizes women as it portrays them as mystical creatures, not humans going through a natural part of life. Also, this particular interpretation of menstruation buys into the belief of sexual determinism. It implies that women can only amount to a certain vision of humanity – the nurturer, the sexual partner, the witch; nothing else. Mystifying women and their body parts, or body functions, usually ends up framing women as one dimensional beings, like archetypes of femininity.

Menstuation rituals as a celebration of womanhood

In northwest California, the Hupa tribe performs a flower dance to celebrate a girl’s first period (also known as mernache). More than a regular coming-of-age ceremony, the flower dance, or Ch’ilwa:l, stands as a celebration of female strength. During several days, the menstruating girl, called kinahldung, wears a blue jay feather covering while fellow Hupa members perform traditional songs and dances.

In the city of Guwahati, India, during the Ambubachi festival, hindus celebrate the menstruating abilities of Mother Earth. The festival spans over three days and devotees gather to the Kamakhya temple to worship Mother Earth and offer her red silk clothes.

Young woman in a ritual during the Sunrise Ceremony.
Young woman in a ritual during the Sunrise Ceremony.

In parts of Arizona and Mexico, the Apache community has preserved their coming-of-age tradition of the Sunrise Ceremony. That vibrant ceremony, celebrating the menarche of young girls, also honors an important figure of Apache cosmogony, the “Changing woman”. For four days, women dance, eat and observe several rituals.

Unfortunaly, though traditional rituals which honor the power of menstruation exist, the opposite extreme tends to be even more common. Indeed, while some believe menstruation should be honored or even worshipped, others see it as a phenomenon that warrants shaming, punishments and exclusion.

Menstruation: a period of shunning

In Nepal, the practice of Chhaupadi

Many cultures view menstruations as a taboo: they perceive periods as simultaneously impure and sacred. The “sacred” dimension, in this context, designates something that must not be touched. The combination of impurity with sacredness gives a powerful, but dangerous dimension to periods. Hence why some cultures have a tradition of banishing menstruating women out of the house. This extreme practrice is very prevalent in rural parts of Nepal, and goes by the name of chhaupadi. Not only does chhaupadi prohibits women from doing regular acts, like touching their family or looking in the mirror. The practice also provides for a set of extremely serious punishments for each of these acts. For instance, menstruating women must not sleep in the family home, lest the gods curse their family. They must not not cross a river or the river will dry up.

Nepalese woman in a menstruation hut.
Nepalese woman in a menstruation hut.

Menstruating women are not just shameful: they bring upon doom and death. By doing any of these actions, they become guilty of bringing a curse on themselves and their family. This line of thinking completely and utterly demonizes women and their reproductive health. It forces them to carry a sense of guilt for not wanting to be excluded during their periods and accept that their bodies are inherently evil and impure. To make matters worse, when banished to their huts, many women and girls are sexually assaulted or raped, as they are alone and unprotected. If they become pregnant, they have no other option but to give birth to that child and raise them.

Restricted mobility and forced seclusion

In many cultures, girls grow up ashamed of their menstruation, as the community teaches them early on that their periods are impure in nature. As they are perceived as tainted, they can no longer enter certain places, like the kitchen, the bedroom, sacred temples – or sometimes the entire house, when on their menses. One can observe these practices in places like Bali (Indonesia) and numerous parts of India. The abysmal management of menstruations in some developing countries also brings another issue: menstruating girls tend to avoid going to school. Since they do not have access to proper sanitary equipment, they prefer to stay at home and avoid uncomfortable situations. Therefore, lack of proper menstrual management leads to reinforcing gender inequity.

Fortunately, in certain parts of India, women have brought positive changes to feminine hygiene management. For instance, in Jharkand, a group of women took the initiative of building toilets in the area to put an end to open defecation. The female builders, called rani mistris, ended up shifting their focus towards giving girls and women easier access to sanitary equipments. The rani mastris have brought a wave of empowerment over Jharkand by building bathrooms, but also by organizing weekly discussions on menstrual hygiene management.

Menstruations as a mark of impurity: an instrumentalization of feminine health?

The sign of a fault in nature?

In religious beliefs

When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening…” Leviticus 15:19 – 30

Biblical teachings have contributed to instilling a sense of shame in us in regards to periods. According to the Book of Genesis, menstruating women are impure and must refrain from doing certain activities. Judeo-christian beliefs tend to paint female fertility as cursed, as it is sullen by Eve’s original sin. Due to their history, most Western countries are influenced by Judeo-Christian values, so even if such societies are more tolerant of menstruations, they still promote an unhealthy vision of periods.

The Creation of Eve, from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, by Michelangelo.
The Creation of Eve, from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, by Michelangelo.

The christian faith isn’t the only religious system with a history of associating periods to an original curse. Chhaupadi, the nepalese tradition of banishing menstruating women, originates from a very similar superstitious belief. Indeed, it is based on the myth that the deity Indra created menstruation as curse. Likewise, in the Jhabua district of India, some believe that menstruation is not a normal part of feminine health, but a disease.

In the field of gynecology

A small part of gynecologists belong to a rather singular school of thought. According to them, women should not naturally have menstruations. Fritz K. Beller, a german gynecologist, held this exact belief. In fact, he claimed that suppressing menstruations would relieve women of their negative physical and psychological side-effects and consequently, positively impact the economy. Furthermore, this gynecologist believed that instead of being a natural function of the female human body, periods were a result of evolutionary adaptations to modern society. But Beller’s theory quickly proved to be riddled with falsehoods. Oddly, he seemed to have a misconstrued view on menstruation, as he wrongly asserted that periods only lasted on average for several hours in certain human communities.

For, to support his thesis, Beller used so-called “natural peoples”, as in supposedly primitive indigenous tribes, as an example. Indeed, he argued that since the observed indigenous women were most often pregnant during their lives (before menopause), they rarely experienced periods – which he affectionately nicknamed “monthly plagues”. Therefore, long and frequent periods were not a natural occurence. However, this misrepresented the reality of these tribes, who actually used their own contraception methods. Given that Beller has never experienced periods himself as a man, and he seems to hold very one-sided, pessimistic views on the topic, one could definitely question his desire to rid the world of the “monthly plague”.

The ambivalence of menstruation suppression

I believe that the attempts to suppress menstruations are very significant, because I think that the menstrual cycle is one of the rare mistakes of nature.” – Fritz K. Beller

Beller’s theory made it seem like the female body was inherently wrong, without taking into account the ways in which society stifles women’s ability to deal with their periods in more positive and intimate way. Nevertheless, it remains important to point out that some feminist scientists have also looked into suppressing menstruation in order to make women’s life easier. The research for menstruation suppression is not all black and white and usually stems from a variation of reasonings, whether periods are deemed natural or not, or seen as beneficial or burdensome.

The demonization of female sexuality

Why do so many cultures demonize menstruation? Well, one very unique human trait might have turned this normal phenomenon into a sinister omen: the need for interpretation. Understanding the relation between menstruation and fertility didn’t make menstruation less intriguing. Thus, in all times, humans must have questioned its spiritual purpose. By attributing powers to it, or making it a punishment, the phenomenon became controlled.

To add to that, most societies follow a patriarchal and patrilineal system. This means that men have control over most aspects of society. So, consequently, they also control the family unit. In very machist societies, the female womb is seen, in a way, as the property of men. Hence the desire to police female sexuality. In many cultures, when girls start menstruating, it signals to the community that she can now bear children. Thus, to establish control over women’s bodies, leaders of the community could have resorted to using superstitions or shaming practices.

Lastly, practically all human cultures (past or present) view blood as a powerful fluid. The mere act of bleeding could trigger a sense of fear or distress, which in turn has lead to demonizing menstruations.

Perception of menstruations in the West

An insidious taboo

In western countries, the way the media represents menstruation reflects our societal tendency to period-shame. For instance, commercials usually represent period blood as a blue liquid, instead of red. Furthermore, lack of access to sanitary products also causes issues in the West. Indeed, many women complain about the “tampon tax” issue. They argue that since periods are an integral part of feminine health, access to feminine hygiene products should be a right. Some countries have tried addressing that issue: India scrapped its tampon tax in July 2018. And in 2020, Scotland became the first country to make period products free. Lastly, many women in the West strive for the medical recognition of certain menstruation-related ailments.

Photo of a protest against the tampon tax in France. ("Let us bleed without taxing us")
Photo of a protest against the tampon tax in France. (“Let us bleed without taxing us”)

Radical feminism and gender-inclusive vocabulary

Some feminists have encouraged women to try free-bleeding during their periods. The controversial practice consists in not using any type of menstrual protection and letting the body bleed freely. Such a radical movement aims to confront society with something that it has strived to hide and repress for ages: period blood. Evidently, very little people have embraced free-bleeding, but it has contributed in opening the conversation on period-shaming. Also, recently, debates on gender-exclusive vocabulary used in the discussion on menstruation have been causing some controversy. Indeed, transmen and non-binary people also have periods, yet they tend to be erased from the discussion as they often go unmentioned in menstruation-related literature. Using terminology such as “people who menstruate” could make discussions on menstruation more inclusive.

Menstruation is not a “one-size-fits-all”

Human societies usually interpret periods as either extremes of a spectrum. In the realm of spirituality, periods appear as either holy or evil. In the eyes of society, they can be either shameful or a source of pride. And, in the medical field, they act as an invisible issue or a dreadful curse. Pushing views on people who menstruate about their own anatomy can be ostracizing, and lead them to feel distanced from their own bodies. Everyone should have the choice to experience and interpret their menstruation as they see fit. Meaning that, whether they believe their menstruation should be medicated, or on the contrary, that they should learn to utilize their pain to understand their body, both choices are okay, as long as it fits their state of mind and beliefs.

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