First Taboo: How
Menstrual Taboos Reflect and Sustain Women's Internalized Oppression
thesis by Jenn Frederick
Examinations of the Menstrual Taboo
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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,
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
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).
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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).
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).