If you live in the West you’re probably very used to menstruation being normal and acceptable in society – I mean, why wouldn’t it be? Half the world has periods, right? Sure, your cycle may not be an ice breaker when it comes to conversation with a stranger on the bus, but there are still television commercials and bill boards advertising feminine hygiene products everywhere you go. This however is not the case in all of the world’s countries.
I mentioned in a previous blog post that I was unable to find tampons in Cambodia and Vietnam, and they were pretty hard to come by in Thailand also, so let’s take a look at how different countries perceive menstruation, and what ‘taboos’ you may need to be aware of.
Historically, menstruation has been a thing of mystery, for better or for worse. In Ancient Rome the female period was thought to be sacred and powerful, with the ability to ward off whirlwinds, hailstorms and lightening.
Unfortunately however the majority have world’s major religions regard menstruation to be ‘unclean’ and ‘impure’, with many of these ancient stigmas still present in religious practices today.
In Judaism and Christianity menstruation is considered to be unclean; “anyone who touches her will be unclean until evening”. Furthermore any person who touches the woman, or any object she has sat on, is likewise to be considered ritually unclean.
In Islam menstruating women are not allowed to pray, go to the mosque or take part in religious activities as blood of any kind is considered to be unclean. Sexual intercourse is also strictly forbidden but the women may perform all other social activities as normal.
Hinduism is perhaps the most harsh when it comes to the stigmatism of menstruation. In the Hindu faith when a woman has her period she is prohibited from practicing normal life and must be “purified” before returning to her family. Not only are menstruating women not allowed to go to temple but restrictions are even placed on the family home. During her cycle a woman may not enter the kitchen and in some cases she would not be allowed to enter the house at all. In such extreme circumstances she would be required to live in a separate building or different wing of the house.
The winner here in terms of female equality appears to be Sikhism, under which women are given equal status to a man and are seen as being as pure as a man. The Guru emphasizes that a woman’s menstrual cycle is a God-given process and that menstrual blood is required to create life. In Sikhism it is those who are impure WITHIN who are truly impure.
The religion of a country can have a huge influence over the way in which menstruation is perceived in that country, be that influence positive or negative. Tradition and historical custom can also play a factor in how menstruation is perceived in that county or community.
In Africa, menstrual blood is used in the most powerful magic charms for both purification and destruction. In some tribes however a woman is thought to have a ‘polluting presence’ when menstruating, which can affect her husband’s ability to hunt.
In Bali, Indonesia (Hindu), a woman must separate any clothes worn during menstruation from any garments that she would wear to temple. In Sumba, Indonesia, quite shockingly, it is believed that sexually transmitted diseases are contracted as a result of women deceiving men and having sex whilst on their periods. The word Gonorrhea even translates to “disease you get from women”. Even more terrible is that many men are lead to believe that the only cure for the painful sores of an STI is to pass that disease onto a woman, as her body can absorb the infection and purge it during menstruation.
In India (Hindu), women are considered to be “untouchable” when menstruating and isolated from friends and family. At its most extreme a women may be considered to be filthy, sick or even cursed! It is common practice for women to hide blood-stains cloths and rags underneath other clothes after washing, to hide them from the sight of men. Because of this the rags rarely dry properly and can smell terribly and are very unhygienic.
However to some Indians, a girl getting her period for the first time is seen as a positive occasion in a young woman’s life. In South India and in the Assamese community girls are given gifts and there is a celebration to mark this momentous occasion.
For the most part menstruation is socially and culturally acceptable in the West and most of Asia, but it may be a good idea to research local customs before traveling to a new part of the word. Hopefully someday all countries will come to accept something with is a perfectly normal and natural part of life as a woman.
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