Culture and menstruation

Culture and menstruation

The relationship between culture and menstruation is expressed in many ways. A variety of menstrual-related traditions exist. One group of authors has even theorized that menstruation may have played a key role in the development of symbolic culture in early human society.[1]



Menstruation appears in or is the topic of many works of literature including:

  • Maria Edgeworth, "The Purple Jar" (1786)[2]
  • Alberto Moravia, Time of Desecration (1980)[4]

Social anthropology

In hunter-gatherer cultures that do not use birth control (other than breastfeeding), menstruation is quite a rare event and a woman's menstrual status is loudly signalled, so that everyone in the locality knows that this is her 'sacred' or 'special' time. Typically, she must neither cook nor permit marital sex to occur for several days until her period ends.[6][1] A young woman's menarche is often a time of special celebration and ritual in hunter-gatherer societies.[1][7] In some cultures, such as that of the Dogon, women stay in a special hut during their menstrual period.

While these restrictions on menstruating women have been interpreted by some as evidence of male sexual dominance in these groups, other authors interpret these traditions as empowering to women.[6] One example given is Khoisan women in the Kalahari, who are ritually most powerful when menstruating. In her special hut, the 'New Maiden' is thought to be inviolable – having only to snap her fingers to bring down lightning on any disrespectful male.[8][9] As evidence of the respect given to menstruation, cultural instances of male induced genital bleeding are offered. Such male bleeding is mythically held to be 'stolen' from women, and is practiced on ritual occasions,[10] including in male initiation rites.[11]

Mystics have sometimes elaborated "equivalencies", analogising the waxing and waning of the moon with influences on human menstruation. In this spiritual, moon goddess, or astrological context some women call menstruation their "moontime". Some ancient views also regarded menstruation as a cleansing of the body: compare bloodletting as a major medical treatment of pre-modern times.


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.[12]

The history of Nepal’s virgin cult is ancient, and the practice of the revering little girls as goddesses there dates back to before the thirteenth century. Kathmandu’s Royal Kumari is a manifestation of the deity Teleju, who, centuries ago, played dice with Nepal’s king. Until he offended her with his lust-filled glances, and she vowed never to return, except in the guise of a young girl. A Kumari is believed to be the bodily incarnation of the goddess Taleju until she menstruates, after which it is believed that the goddess vacates her body. Serious illness, a major loss of blood from an injury or even a small indication of laughter are also causes for her to revert to common status.



Most Christian denominations do not follow any specific rituals or rules related to menstruation. Some Christian denominations, including many authorities of the Eastern Orthodox Church (also known as the Russian, Ukrainian, or Greek Orthodox Church, distinct from the Roman Catholic Church), advise women not to receive communion during their menstrual period.[13] Other denominations follow the rules laid out in the Holiness Code section of Leviticus, somewhat similar to the Jewish ritual of Niddah.

The traditional Islamic interpretation of the Qur'an forbids intercourse, but not physical intimacy, during a woman's menstrual period.[14] During menstrual period, women are excused from performing prayers and fasting. There is no restriction on their entering the mosque or even be present at religious services other than mandatory prayer service. After the period, a spiritual bath required of both partners after sex, Ghusl, is required before prayer and fasting may continue.

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). 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.

Orthodox Christianity

Conservative/Traditionalist members of the Orthodox Church observe the ancient practice of abstaining from Holy Communion during menstruation.[13] 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.

Dharmic religions

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 this special occasion,[15]. However most of the Hindu girls refrain from visiting temples during their cycle. Also in orthodox families, the menstruating women are asked to stay away from domestic activities for a period of 4 days , indirectly a form of rest during the blood loss period.

Hindus in Nepal have a more negative view, traditionally keeping women isolated during menstruation, when women who are menstruating are not allowed in the household for a period of 3 nights. A recent court ruling in Nepal has abolished this practice[16].

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 [17] menstruating women are banned from attending temples.[17]

Guru Nānak, the founder of Sikhism, condemned the practice of treating women as impure while menstruating.[18] 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, pg. 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 Gods’ 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 the 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 child-Birth” is absent in the Sikh worldview. … Guru Nanak openly chides those who attribute pollution to women because of menstruation’. [19]

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 doesn't have any scientific support. [20] 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. Today the tradition is kept somewhat alive in the belief that the shedding of the endometrial lining is a kind of death. Shintoism is no longer widely practiced but the evidence of the Kami's influence is everywhere. It is theorized that the Kami are the reason Japan is kept so clean and, in many houses, minimalistic.


In Bali, a ceremony was observed of a lower caste women whose periods had coincided with a religious ritual in 1998. A woman who had started her cycle was brought outside of her home, to a large pile of garbage and forced to walk on it with her aunt. While on the top of the garbage, she was sprinkled with holy water. “Once a month, during menstrual time, a wife’s life is not a happy one”. This expresses that in Bali, they believe that because of her “condition”, it belongs on top of the filth. Along with Bali viewing menstruation as a condition that belongs on top of filth, they have many taboos about menstruation. In Bali, women are 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 taboos is that the woman is absolutely not allowed to attend temple while menstruating. [21]

Sumba, Indonesia

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”. [22]

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, they only way they believed a man could rid himself of painful sores was to pass it to a woman, the reasoning being that a woman’s body can absorb infection and purge it during a cycle.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Chris Knight (1991), Blood relations: menstruation and the origins of culture, New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-04911-0 
    Knight, Chris; Camilla Power & Ian Watts (1995), "The Human Symbolic Revolution: A Darwinian Account", Cambridge Archaeological Journal 5 (1): 75–114, doi:10.1017/S0959774300001190,, retrieved 2006-12-13. 
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b Buckley, T; Gottlieb, A (1988), Blood Magic. The anthropology of menstruation, Berkeley: University of California Press 
  7. ^ Watts, I. (1999), "The origin of symbolic culture", in R. Dunbar, C. Knight and C. Power, The Evolution of Culture, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 113–146 
  8. ^ Lewis-Williams, J.D. (1981), Believing and Seeing. Symbolic meanings in Southern San rock paintings, London: Academic Press 
  9. ^ Power, C.; Watts, I. (1997), "The woman with the zebra's penis. Gender, mutability and performance", Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 3, No. 3) 3 (N.S.): 537–560, doi:10.2307/3034766, JSTOR 3034766 
  10. ^ Montagu, M.F.A. (1974), Coming into Being Among the Australian Aborigines. The procreative beliefs of the Australian Aborigines, London and Boston: outledge and Kegan Paul 
  11. ^ Hogbin, I.A. (1970), The Island of Menstruating Men, Scranton, London and Toronto: Chandler 
  12. ^ Braakhuis, H.E.M.(2005), Xbalanque's Canoe. The Origin of Poison in Q'eqchi'-Mayan Hummingbird Myth, Anthropos 100: 175-185
  13. ^ a b Patrick Barnes. "Menstruation, Emissions, and Holy Communion". Orthodox Christian Information Center. Retrieved 2006-04-02. 
  14. ^ "2.222", Koran, 
  15. ^ Supriya, Sharon (2007-11-23). "Celebrate Womanhood". OneIndia. Retrieved 2007-12-28. 
  16. ^ Women hail menstruation ruling
  17. ^ a b Dharmacari Jnanavira, "A Mirror for Women? Reflections of the Feminine in Japanese Buddhism", Western Buddhist Review 4,, retrieved 2006-05-28. 
  18. ^ Singh, Kanwarjit (1989), "Chapter V - Human Rights", Political Philosophy of the Sikh Gurus, Atlantic,, retrieved 2006-06-12 
  19. ^ Template:Http://
  20. ^
  21. ^ Pedersen, L. “Ambiguous Bleeding: Purity And Sacrifice In Bali” Ethnology 41.4 (2002): 303-15. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 May 2011.
  22. ^ Hoskins, J. “The Menstrual Hut And The Witch’s Lair In Two Eastern Indonesian Societies” Ethnology 41.4 (2002): 317-33. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 May 2011.

External links

Further reading

  • Bailey, RC; Jenike, MR; Ellison, PT; Bentley, GR; Harrigan, AM; Peacock, NR (1992), "The ecology of birth seasonality among agriculturalists in Central Africa", Journal of Biosocial Science 24 (3): 393–412, PMID 1634568 
  • Dornan, Jennifer (2004), "Blood from the moon: Gender ideology and the rise of ancient Maya social complexity", Gender and History 16 (2): 459–475, doi:10.1111/j.0953-5233.2004.00348.x 
  • Foster, Johanna (1996), "Menstrual time: The sociocognitive mapping of "the menstrual cycle"", Sociological Forum 11 (2): 523–547, doi:10.1007/BF02408391 
  • Stevens Jr, P (2006), "Women's aggressive use of genital power in Africa", Transcultural Psychiatry 43 (4): 592–599, doi:10.1177/1363461506070784, PMID 17166948 
  • Menstruation, A Cultural History ed. by Andrew Shail and Gillian Howie. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005 ISBN 978-1-4039-3935-7

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