Are menstrual taboos simply a form of women’s subordination?

(Author: Anonymous)

Menstrual taboos of various forms occur universally through cultures, but the issue is whether this is a form of women’s increased subordination or if in fact in some situations actually provide relief or even increases freedom. From being referred to as the ‘curse’ or to that ‘monthly bother’ the language that refers to menstruation is always perceived as negative, yet it can also be perceived as a strong sign of fertility and life which throughout cultures is almost something to be revered. In many cultures it seems to indicate that the male has the more power and with power makes the decisions so by taking this standpoint it would be reasonable to suggest that woman are already being subordinated in a comparison to men, yet it would also be unreasonable to include the idea that women are always seen as being less than men, the basic idea is that women are generally subordinated. Therefore it may be the case that through menstruations women are given greater freedom or the chance of escape. However despite the fact that menstruation is a universal factor that practically occurs to every woman, the perceptions of every woman would differ, and it is only through some opinions that the idea of subordination may even exist.

It seems to be a universal fact that it is as much taboo to have sexual intercourse with a member of your immediate family as it seems to be a universal fact that it is taboo or at the very least seen as dirty to have sexual intercourse with a woman whilst she is menstruating. In Mongomery’s survey which interviews 44 societies sexual intercourse during menstruation is seen as an important taboo being ranked as second out of six generalised taboos involving menstruation (Toit 1988-P391) if this is the case then the idea that menstruation is an unnatural and dirty thing then women will continue to almost be punished by its occurrence. If this common theme of taboo is in a large proportion across societies then it does appear that women are being subordinated by the idea that they are dirty whilst menstruating and the idea of sexual intercourse during menstruation is always wrong which seems to suggest fault with the woman.  In Turkey a man who has sexual intercourse with a woman who is menstruating is temporarily defiled as this is due to the Koran forbidding it; however with a cleansing process he is no longer defiled unlike a woman who has sexual intercourse with any man who is not her husband as being permanently defiled, (Delaney, 1988 P 83, Koran, 2:222). This contrast of temporary and permanent defilement seems to suggest that woman are subordinated simply by a form of equality yet by menstruating it is the only way which woman can ever even temporarily defile a man, this could lead to the suggestion that women hold a albeit temporary form of power of man although a man raping a woman imposes permanent defilement. Whilst in the Beng society of the Ivory Coast it is not taboo to have sexual intercourse with a woman whilst she is menstruating but in Gottlieb’s ethnography it was inferred that sexual intercourse did not occur regularly as it ‘would be too bloody’ (Gottlieb 1988- Page 59). This means that whilst it has no taboo it is simply because of preference and a distaste for menstrual sex that it does not occur. This seems to suggest that there is not subordination if the relationship is one of sexual equality because the woman is not subjected to any taboos, simply because of her menstruation and  there is choice if both desire sexual intercourse as there are no social restrictions.

Taboos relating to religion and menstruation can either be subordination or it can be seen as relief depending on the different women’s opinion of the situation. The Koran is very clear that a menstruating woman cannot do several things relating to touching the Koran, going to Mecca, entering the Cami (mosque) or even keeping the fast at Ramadan, (Delaney, 1988- P88). This to individuals may be enjoyable or to many may mean that menstruation is seen as extremely negative, this is apparent in Delaney’s study where she notes that even some pregnant and nursing woman still kept to the fast (despite that they can be exempt from Ramadan) which suggests that still many menstruating woman would be doing the fast. This could lead anthropologists to believe that despite the idea that menstruating should not follow the fast they are not completely subordinated by menstruation as they still decide to fast.  However as a woman whilst menstruating is considered impure the relation to her visiting Mecca means that she cannot be cleaned and the implications are that she is ‘actively discouraged by men’ (Delaney 1988- P89) which shows the control that men wish to have over a menstruating woman.

The knowledge of menstruation is an interesting issue which seems to differ from society to society. In some societies it is natural for the daughter to be aware of menstruation and in some cultures such as the Rungus Society of Borneo she is left to figure it out (Appell 1988 104). The idea where it is not given any special treatment could mean that men and women are seen as almost equal as women are not seen as less worthy simply because they menstruate. Appell suggests that menstruation is simply not discussed which shows a similar idea to the Turkish village where menstruation is not discussed especially amongst both sexes, as the anthropologist Delaney was a female it is unknown to what extent any males may discuss menstruation amongst themselves. The lack of discussion on the issues of menstruation may mean two things; either it allows women to be less subjugated whilst menstruating or it may mean that it simply allows women to be further subordinated in the denial of a natural fact of life. In the Rungus society the almost denial of menstruation  leads to the idea that it does not have any taboos connected with it, and by this logic it is neither negative or positive but simply a bodily function. Appell by this example that it is not made an issue believes that the ‘Rungus have gender symmetry’ (Appell-1988 P112) which clearly seems to imply that there is no subordination in relation to menstruation.

Some theories suggest that it is through fear and loathing of menstruation that has led to taboos of menstruation, and some other theories suggest a desire of males to want the same as women which is menstruating. Examples of this is Knights ethnography into a common Aborigine practise of cutting along the penis with the more blood produced being the considered as more taboo to women and more empowering (Knight 1988 247). The women are forbidden to see this as the belief is that men cannot see the women’s bleeding therefore the women have no right to see the men. This seems to strongly imitate the desire of men to wish to have the power of women, the power which is to produce life in a direct manner. It may be deemed that fear and the fact that no man can menstruate or create a life means that as a form of control men created taboos as a way to reinforce the power. The idea that men hold a small part in the reproduction means that as a way of regaining a form of power they change the idea of a natural thing to one which is regarded with disgust. It seems part of human nature that the reaction to the unknown or a fear is an attempt of control, but through this control it seems to be beneficial for the woman, as almost a form of respite, in many cultures where woman are generally assumed to be property of a man, and even in western cultures where it is still almost perceived as questionable to why a woman is not with a man then the chance for a woman to be on her own could be seen as beneficial and therefore not subordination.  The example of men trying to recreate menstruation seems to imply the desire showing if there is a wanting then any reaction cannot truly be subordination.

Pre-menstrual-Syndrome (PMS) is an issue that is a common theme especially amongst western Women with many males and females blaming their tempers and any moodiness on the fact that they are close to menstruation. Recent studies have been trying to see if this is the case or if it is a modern idea. In the ethnography into Indian South Africans by Toit he gains reports of women having similar syndromes to those of western women, such as feeling bloated and irritable which leads to the suggestion that PMS is most probably an actual factor relating to menstruation (Toit 1988 P399). In America and the UK the mentioning of PMS is a common occurrence and is well known but can often be a cause for blame for any bad moods that a woman may be in, whilst other cultures may not have the language to describe a change in mood it does not mean that it does not exist. However if it is assumed that PMS is a universal factor whether a society accepts or does not accept it then this could lead to a form of discrimination of women who are treated differently simply because they are menstruating, it could become an excuse and could lead to women being further subordinated for raising an opinion. This could lead to women being considered unable to work as efficiently during her menstruation which is a strong form of subordination especially in societies which appear to be working towards equality between men and women (Martin 1988- 172).

An important question is whether woman see their bodily process of menstruation as being a disadvantage, in Toit’s ethnography he suggests that the majority of woman see menstruation as beneficial yet the majority of woman do not believe that men are lacking by not menstruating as they are seen as having the greater freedom (Toit 1988).  If women see their menstruating as a disadvantage then this means that they are being subordinated because it is as if they believe there is something wrong with their bodily processes. In Buckley’s ethnography of the Yurok women in California the aboriginal people the reasoning towards isolation of women during their menstruation is not because they are seen as having a negative influence it is quite the reverse as she is said to be ‘ at the height of her powers’ which is why she does not take part in duties such as cooking and cleaning or the ‘concerns with the opposite sex’ (Buckley 1988 P190). Due to the women’s increased power they became dangerous to men which was why the men and women were separated, this seems to indicate that these women perceive themselves as not needing the men because they have the power and therefore implying that subordination is not occurring as they are in fact in control despite their menstruation taboos.

Menstrual taboos perhaps came to be because naturally menstruation cannot be controlled and is yet a frequent occurrence with woman from menarche to the menopause. In Delaney’s ethnography it is suggested that women are ‘not self contained’ ‘but is instead open is interpreted as a sign that she must be socially controlled’ (Delaney- 1988 Page 81). Whilst this seems to prove in one case that through menstruating women are subordinated it also seems to appear that she is only being subordinated due to the fear of menstruation. The unpredictability of menstruation leads to the idea that subordination is taking place although it also seems to show that because of menstruation total subordination can never truly take place. Women somewhere will always be subordinated in some aspects of their lives, but men too can be subordinated but in subtle ways expectations where men have to achieve certain things in their lives to be considered complete could be seen as a terrible form of emotional subordination. Men will never give birth to life but whilst men and women will never be the same, an appreciation of both male and female values could lead to neither sex being subordinated, whether they bleed or not.