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The First Taboo:
How Menstrual Taboos Reflect and Sustain Women's Internalized Oppression

an undergraduate thesis by Jenn Frederick

Cross-Cultural Examinations of the Menstrual Taboo

When one thinks of menstrual taboos, one often thinks of the customs of traditional cultures that use menstrual taboos to oppress women. There are, however, two problems with this mode of thinking. First, there is the assumption that all menstrual taboos are oppressive to women. Second, there is an assumption that Western societies do not have any menstrual taboos of their own.

Most people associate the word taboo with the forbidden. The origin of the word itself, however, is much more ambiguous. It comes from the Polynesian language, in which the word taboo is a combination of the word ta which means 'to mark,' with the word bu which is simply an adjective of intensity. Therefore, tabu simply means to mark thoroughly. (Buckley and Gottlieb, 1988). Franz Steiner, in his book Taboo, suggests that the concepts of 'holy' and 'forbidden' are inseparable in many Polynesian languages. Therefore, the logical opposite of taboo is neither 'sacred' nor 'defiled' but rather 'profane' or 'common,' (Steiner, quoted in Buckley and Gottlieb, 1988).

One theory on the origin of the word taboo states that the origin of the word is the Polynesian word tupua, which means sacred and magical, and that it was often applied specifically to menstruation (Taylor, 1988; Delaney, Lupton and Toth, 1976). This suggests that menstruation might, in fact, be the first taboo.

A cross-cultural analysis of menstrual taboos shows that this same ambiguity surrounds many of the actual taboos. Ethnographers, especially male ethnographers, have often reported that menstrual blood and menstruating women are viewed as dangerous and/or offensive, particularly to men. They also report that there have always been prohibitions surrounding menstruation aimed at controlling or confining it and that it has always been interpreted as dangerous or offensive (Buckley and Gottlieb, 1988). Part of this view derives from a male-centered view of culture that often fails to take into consideration the lived experiences of women themselves.

A broader interpretation of these customs finds that rather than a single and universal taboo, there is a wide range of distinct rules for conduct regarding menstruation. While some of these rules may have been created to protect men and/or society from the 'feminine evil,' others seek to protect the creative spirituality of menstruating women from others in more neutral states. While some customs may, in fact, isolate menstruating women from those fearful of them, still others may provide women with a means of ensuring their own autonomy, influence and social control. Some taboos surrounding menstruation are defined and enforced by men, while others are enforced by the women themselves (Buckley and Gottlieb, 1988).

Perhaps one of the most familiar menstrual taboos is seclusion, particularly in special housing, often referred to as 'menstrual huts,' (Buckley and Gottlieb, 1988). Some of these seclusion practices are certainly oppressive to women, such as the Kolosh Indians of Alaska who confined girls at menarche in tiny huts with only one air hole through which obtain air or light. Girls were required to stay in these huts for one full year, during which time they were allowed no fire, exercise or company (Delaney, Lupton and Toth, 1976).

Many other seclusion rituals, however, may be seen by the menstruating women in a more positive light. For some women, the time of their menstruation provided a hiatus from their normal domestic labors. Ethnographic research among the Djuka of Dutch Guiana, the Warao of Venezuela and the Kaska of Western Canada, among others, suggest that seclusion rituals may bring autonomy to women's lives, provide solidarity among women and even offer opportunities for illicit love affairs (Buckley and Gottlieb, 1988).

Another assumption often undertaken in ethnographic research is that it is the men who "write the cultural scripts," while women simply follow them (Buckley and Gottlieb, 1988). Further research, however, reveals that in some cultures, it is the women who are the principal actors in maintaining the menstrual taboos. Denise L. Lawrence (1988) describes how this is what, in fact, occurs in one rural village in southern Portugal. In this village, Vila Branca (a pseudonym), the residents believe that the polluting effects of menstruation has the malevolent effect of spoilage on pork. This is most significant during the winter, when most households conduct an annual matança, a pig killing. The matança is generally performed at least once a year to provide meat for sausages. This ritual is viewed informally as having a determinate social status within the community. Its performance involves the entire household, as well as outside assistance, which results in obligations to return the favor as well as causing a drain on household resources. In addition, the more people involved the household's matança, the greater the possibility that gossip about the household will be disseminated among the community. Menstruating women are forbidden rom preparing the sausages or entering a room where the matança is being performed because of a belief that a menstruating woman can cause the pork to spoil through a "fixed gaze" or stare. This is comparable to the belief of the "evil eye and its pervasive association with envy found throughout the Mediterranean (Lawrence, 1988). By limiting the number of women who participate in the matança, it becomes easier for a woman to maintain a certain level of privacy. While these women have accepted an "image of themselves as being occasionally polluted, they have managed to use this image to their own advantage," (Lawrence, 1988, p. 136).

Western societies often claim that, unlike traditional societies, they do not hold "primitive" notions of taboos surrounding menstruation. However, the stigma and shame surrounding menstruation and the practices Western women undertake to hide their menstruation point to a great number of implicit taboos that do in fact exist in these societies.

In Western cultures, it is often believed that there are no seclusion rituals in place in which women are expected to partake. However, in attempts to avoid letting other people know they are menstruating, many women may avoid participating in activities such as sports and sexual intercourse (Britton, 1996). In addition, these women may avoid other activities such as concerts, camping, picnics, or any other activity that may limit their access to a bathroom for fear of leaking and letting out their 'secret.'

These taboos, while not explicitly enforced, are reiterated to women over and over again, not only by other women, but also by the mainstream media and the advertising industry that promotes the image of menstruation as polluting by pushing the image of women needing feminine hygiene products.

Other taboo rituals/superstitions that are performed in Western cultures are often not recognized as relating to menstruation, although that is the origin of these rituals. For example, while many people today hang on the superstition that to walk under a ladder will bring bad luck, very few realize that this superstition originated from a menstrual taboo (Delaney, Lupton and Toth, 1976). In medieval times, there was a belief that if someone was to walk beneath a menstruating woman (i.e. under a bridge, under a window, etc.), some of her blood or mana (negative energy) could fall on the person below, thus causing bad luck to befall the person.

In many traditional cultures, it is believed that menstruation is a sign of readiness for childbearing (Montgomery, 1974: 143) that focuses on the positive aspects of menstruation. Some cultures, such as Lepcha, the Pukapukans, the Tanala and the Ashanti believe that to some degree menstrual blood itself plays a role in conception and formation of the child (Montgomery, 1974: 158). However, in the Western medicalized view of menstruation, it is generally viewed in a much more negative light, as a failure to become impregnated.

The concept of menstrual blood as evil is strongly associated with patriarchal cultures. Men fear and are in awe of this cyclic bleeding, recognizing that it is associated with cosmic, and specifically lunar rhythms. The bleeding is especially awesome to men insofar as its agents do not die; further, men sense that it is associated with the ability to give and take away life. As a response to this experience, which is entirely alien to men, they suppress, isolate, control and even kill the women who bleed (Taylor, 1988).

In their book The Wise Wound, Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove (1978) go so far as to assert that the fear and awe of menstruation was partly what led to the persecution of thousands of women during the great "witch trials" of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries:

It seems likely that the persecution of witches in the Middle Ages was an enormous menstrual taboo. How strange and pitiful it is that of all the ways it is possible to execute a person, those that were chosen by the witch-persecutors observe the one law: thou shalt not spill a witch's blood. The reason? The power was in the blood. (p. 62).

The negative ideology surrounding menstruation can also be seen in the type and amount of research that has been done on menstruation. Research done in the past was often conducted with a preconceived bias against menstruation held by the researcher. For example, in 1924, David Macht conducted experiments, which allegedly showed the existence of menotoxins in menstrual blood, which destroyed plant life. This research, however, has never been replicated, and in fact, in an attempt to replicate this experiment, researchers in 1934 found that non-menstruating women give off more of these toxins then menstruating women do (Taylor, 1988). Despite this, Macht's original research is still used as a basis in some current research. Another problem with research on menstruation is that most of the research done up to this point has focused on the physical and emotional symptomology in relation to cyclic hormonal changes. The research regarding pre-adolescent and early adolescent girls' response to the experience of menstruation has been particularly limited (Williams, 1983). The research that has been conducted is inconclusive and in conflict. While some research indicates that postmenarcheal girls are at ease with the experience of menstruation, other research indicates that postmenarcheal girls feel more negatively toward menstruation than premenarcheal girls (Williams, 1983).