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Menstruation – cultural beliefs and practices

21 July 2016 Posted by No Comment

In February 2016, YAMU published The Tampon Traversty: 6 Intriguing Issues About Menstruation. The article underpins how Sri Lankans view menstruation. It seeks to debunk troubling and archaic perceptions of menstruation, and also discusses the limited access to Tampons, which now appear to be no longer available in Sri Lanka (July 2016). Bakamoono will discuss some of the issues raised by YAMU and also the reactions of parents, teachers, students, young people and adults in Sri Lanka, to discussions around menstruation as part of gender sensitization workshops conducted by The Grassrooted Trust.

Menstruation makes women prone to demon possession, which could lead to them being “emotionally unstable.” 

YAMU cites Deborah Winslow’s 1980 paper, Rituals of First Menstruation in Sri Lanka to back up this claim. This paper appears in both National Healths: Gender, Sexuality and Health in a Cross-Cultural Context (2005) and Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation (1988). In discussion with community representatives, the presence of blood is what gives the demon its window to possess the girl/woman. In 2016, while we may presume these archaic beliefs absent, with information more readily available on the function of menstruation, demon possession appears to be a development that is allowed for, even accepted. Arguably, this is based primarily on our limited understanding of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) that may vary in intensity among women, but at no point resemble anything akin to demon possession.

Demon possession, as a patriarchal construct is not limited to Sri Lanka. In fact, apart from cultural and religious beliefs, the association of emotional instability with menstruation appears to be a universal misconception. The popular TV sitcom Modern Family (Season 3, Episode 17) ‘s portrayal of “Monstruation” is an example. One reviewer said –

Monstruating

“The episode was like a ball of tension, under a weight of pressure, occurring during the time of the month for three feisty women. Or Satan’s trifecta, according to Phil. Since the combined levels of screaming between Claire, Haley and Alex have left me with residual anxiety, I would say that Phil was pretty accurate.”Modern Family, Leap Day

Of course, this episode was also critiqued for its take on the menstrual cycle, and accused of reinforcing stereotypes.

“Turning three out of the five women on your show into irrational balls of emotion that screech their ways through life for a week each month is idiotic. Do I even need to explain to you how it reinforces really negative stereotypes about women? How stupidity like that encourages people to make jokes about how women can’t be in positions of power because they turn irrational once a month?”Fem Pop

While you may feel that demonic possession of women during menstruation is a stretch in this new millenia, in a culture that still accepts demonic possession as a reality, this myth still may have more traction than we’d like to admit.

Unclean, Unclean, Unclean

Teachers, parents, adults and young people in Sri Lanka, regardless of an urban, provincial or rural locus and religious beliefs, generally have a perception that menstrual blood is somehow unclean. When asked if menstrual blood differs from blood from a cut finger, menstrual blood is commonly identified as dirty versus clean blood from the cut finger. Menstrual blood is considered waste matter that the body rejects, and has been likened to pus from an infected wound.

The Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions have very specific scriptural instruction on the taboos around menstruation. Concepts such as Niddah – the Hebrew term for a menstruating woman, and Mikveh, a necessary ritual cleaning post-menstruation, have had a lasting influence on Christianity and Islam.

“19 Whenever a woman has her menstrual period, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. Anyone who touches her during that time will be unclean until evening. 20 Anything on which the woman lies or sits during the time of her period will be unclean. 21 If any of you touch her bed, you must wash your clothes and bathe yourself in water, and you will remain unclean until evening. 22 If you touch any object she has sat on, you must wash your clothes and bathe yourself in water, and you will remain unclean until evening. 23 This includes her bed or any other object she has sat on; you will be unclean until evening if you touch it. 24 If a man has sexual intercourse with her and her blood touches him, her menstrual impurity will be transmitted to him. He will remain unclean for seven days, and any bed on which he lies will be unclean.” – Leviticus 15

It is not diffiuclt to understand why religious ritual and regulation around menstruation have often been discussed as patriarchal and/or cultural constructs, that are used to further subjugate and control women. The authors of The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation (1988) discuss how religious taboos with regard to sex and menstruation, in particular, may offer insight into the male psyche.

“[The] primary reason for the dread of intercourse during menstruation appears to be the blood itself, which has associations in the male mind with pain, death, battle, injury and castration. It has been found that in those cultures where the intercourse taboo is most strictly enforced, there is a significant degree of castration anxiety (fear of losing the penis) among the males. But official explanations for the intercourse taboo range from the holy to the hygenic, and they do not acknowledge that the male is afraid of anything. For example, in certain patriarchal cultures, the dread that the male feels toward the menstruating woman becomes part of his worhsip of his gods. In some societies, violations of sexual taboos are seen as sins against god; in ancient Persia, the offence was so serious that it warrented burning in hell until Judgement Day.” –  The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation (1988)

In the end, with most scripture, interpretation is plays a crucial role; understanding contexts, and applying scripture to contemporary life. For example, some women who follow Islam, despite the necessary scrutiny of their menstrual cycle, feel that this is a time they can relax from their duties “We enjoy the break. It makes sense.”   

Sri Lanka is no stranger to cultural and religious taboos associated with menstruation. In 2012, during a discussion with the leader of Sri Lanka’s indigenous community, we learnt that women still spend the period of their period in a seperate dwelling, made similarly of wattle and daub, and only return to the household once their period is done.

UVA & HB Mahiyangana 2012

Current Buddhist practice prohibits women from certain spaces of worship, regardless of whether they’re menstruating. This practice is based simply on the fact that because they do menstruate, or have menstruated (post-menopause), they are unclean or kili. Ask a woman if she’s worshipped at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, or the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhiya, two of Sri Lanka’s holiest sites, and she would probably say yes. Ask if she’s even been to the spaces considered most sacred, and her answer may be different.

දැන් ලංකාවේ ඉන්න බහුතරයක් බෞද්ධයන්ට තියන ලොකුම ප්‍රශ්නය ඇයි මුස්ලිම් ජාතික කාන්තාවන්ට ඔඋන්ගේ අදාල වතාවත් සදහා පල්ලියට එන්න බැරි කියලා. එහෙම අහන එතුමන්ලා දන්නවද දන් නැහැ බෞද්ධයන්ට තියන පුජනීයම වස්තුන් වන ජය ශ්‍රී මහ බෝධියේ උඩ මලුවටයි, දන්ත ධාතුන් වහන්සේ වැඩ සිටින කුටියයි, සද්දාවන්ත උපාසිකාවකට තබා මෙහෙණින් වහන්සේ කෙනකුටවත් ඇතුල් වෙන්න බැරි බව. මට තියන ගැටලුව ඉහත කි පුජනීයම වස්තුන් දෙකම ලංකාවට රැගෙන ආවේ කාන්තාවන් වීමත්, දැන් පමණක් එය කාන්තාවන්ට අකැප වීමත්ය. මම ඔය ගැටලුව ගැන බෞද්ධ ධර්ශනය පිළිබද දැනුමැති පුද්ගලයෙකුගෙන් ඇසුවහම ඔහුගේ පිළිතුර වුයේ ” කාන්තාවන්ට එවැනි තැන වලට යන්න බැහැ ඔඋන් කිලි කියාය”  – Rasthiyadukaraya

[Most Buddhists in Sri Lanka are concerned that Muslim women are not welcome to worship with men in a mosque. Do they know that women, and even female monks, don’t have access to the two most sacred Buddhist spaces, the inner sanctum that holds the tooth relic and the upper shrine (Uda Malluwa) of the Sri Maha Bodiya Tree. The problem I have is that both these were brought to Lanka by women, and only now is prohibited for women.  When I asked a Buddhist scholar why, he replied “Women can’t access those spaces because they’re unclean (kili).”]

This religious concept of kili extends, for some, to even the wick of an oil lamp in the temple. We were told at a workshop on gender in Dehiattakandiya that even the sari of a grandmother’s isn’t suitable to fashion a wick. They must be made of male clothes. The religious application of kili is present in Hinduism too. We have spoken with young women in Jaffna and Vavuniya who purchase “hormone tablets” to delay their period in the event their menstrual cycle lines up with a religious festival, given that it unacceptable to worship God while menstruating. In 2015, the Happy to Bleed Campaign in India was a reaction to comments made by Prayar Gopalakrishnan, head of the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, dedicated to Lord Ayyappa.

“A time will come when people will ask if all women should be disallowed from entering the temple throughout the year… These days there are machines that can scan bodies and check for weapons. There will be a day when a machine is invented to scan if it is the ‘right time’ for a woman to enter the temple. When that machine is invented, we will talk about letting women inside” – BBC News, 23rd November 2015

HTB 2

The use of the period delay pill extends beyond religious festivals. If a special night, or honeymoon lines up with the menstrual cycle, or even a sports competition, a day out at the beach or the community pool – the period delay pill does offer women options. It doesn’t have to be associated with religious concepts of kili.

We do, however, need to have access to right kind of period delay pills. The Centre for Family Health at the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka, is best placed to advise you. The pill they recommend will be a version of Norethisterone, available in Sri Lanka. This can be prescribed by any General Practitioner. Like any pill or tablet however, they could have side effects, so ensure that you communicate openly and regularly with your doctor in the event side effects do occur.

Norethisterone (The Period Delay Pill) Side Effects

Period delay pills can cause side effects and they are not suitable for everyone. You  CANNOT take tablets containing norethisterone if you:

  • are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • are allergic to norethisterone or any similar hormone
  • suffer or have suffered from unexplained vaginal bleeding (other than a period)
  • have a family history of blood clots or have had a blood clot in the past
  • have liver problems
  • have ever had a heart attack or suffer from angina
  • have every had an itchy rash called pemphigoid gestationis or jaundice during pregnancy
  • have the blood disease porphyria
  • have severe itching called pruritus

Norethisterone tablets can cause side effects when taken to delay your period. Side  effects are less likely to occur if the tablets are only taken for a short period of time  and most women do not encounter any problems during treatment. Possible side  effects include bloating, stomach problems and changes in libido. For more  information about side effects, read about the norethisterone tablets Utovlan or read  the patient leaflet supplied with your medication in Sri Lanka.

Doctors at the Centre for Family Health warn against the use Emergency  Contraceptive Pills (Postinor One & Postinor 2), as a means to delay one’s period.  Emergency Contraceptive Pills are meant specifically to offer women choices and  options with regard to their bodies in the event they want to prevent a pregnancy due  to unprotected vaginal sex.

Period Shame

Regardless of religious and cultural affiliation, period shaming is a reality. Ask any school girl who has witnessed or experienced a red flecked white school uniform in Sri Lanka. We’re just not comfortable with discussing our natural bodily functions, especially menstruation. This extends to the carefull wrapping up in newspaper of most sanitary napkin purchase in general stores across the country. The layer of newspaper somehow prevents people from knowing that either you, or a woman in your life has been visited.  The various euphamisms we have for menstruation in our different languages in Sri Lanka, is further proof of our need to somehow santize the discussion.

HTB 1

Why is a young girl, soon after her first menstrution, encouraged in this projection of – “Aunty Flo has come for her monthly visit.” Would it not be better to discuss the function of menstuation and teach her words like –   “womb” “lining” “natural” “life”, even “endometrium”? Perhaps we could advocate with sanitary napkin companies to change the refreshing blue liquid to warm tones of red, when simulating how their sanitary napkin absorbs period blood so effectively?  The 2016 Body Form ad “No blood should hold us back.” begins to break away from the mold. And has been well received

“No more soft-focus white-clad women strolling over beaches, no more vials of unidentified blue liquid. This ad shows female athletes powering through workouts on the running trail, the rugby pitch, the boxing ring, the ballet studio and the skate park while getting bloodied and bruised. Grazed knees, cracked toenails, split lips and bashed noses run gleefully red. Women bleed in sport all the time, but it doesn’t hold them back, the spot-on spot says. Why should periods be any different? Why indeed?”  – Period ad gets real with women bleeding red, not blueIFrame

In 2015, Kiran Gandhi ran the entire London Marathon, visibly menstruating, choosing to neither delay her period, or use any form of sanitary device, such as a tampon. In an article in The Independent, a week after the event, she defended her decision to run free –

finish-line-kiran

“Consider how women in developing nations are affected by period secrecy and taboo. Our culture tells them to hide their monthly flow, despite the fact that the ways to clean it up are either unsustainable or unaffordable. Even women who are able to use pieces of cloth to absorb blood don’t always have private places at school or at work to change them out. As a result, they choose skipping school or work as a better, less shameful alternative. If women continue not to participate in public spheres of life in the developing world, they will continually be put at an economic disadvantage. Secrecy prevents real change by hampering the ability to vocalise innovative solutions.”The Independent, 14th August, 2015

The First Period

Cultural practices with the first period vary in Sri Lanka based on religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Regardless, this can be an extremely confusing time for young girls.

“Rituals of first menstruation are found in most of Sri Lanka’s many ethnic groups. The rituals are similar and appear to be variants of a common South Asian ceremony… At least in this case what appears to be a common ritual is not as unchanged from one group to the next as it seems: differences in the way in which the ritual is seen or understood in the various ethnic communities are related to various religious notions of womanhood.”  –  Rituals of First Menstruation in Sri Lanka (1980)

Common practices across ethnic groups involve restrictions on food and drink, for example eating meat appears to have a connection to demon possession; ritual cleansing including tales of Cleopatra-like bathing in milk; often prolonged seclusion from the outside world – One young lady in Anuradhapura claimed she was not allowed out of her room for 21 days. Another young girl in Vavuniya claimed to be confined for 40 days. Others speak of a week, and some insist that seclusion was for less than a day; there were also discussions around celebrations, with one male respondent from Colombo recalling that the celebration in honour of their friend “growing up” was had without her.

“Everyone had  a party. But i remember thinking about where she could be, because it was her party. When I asked, I was told not to ask unnecessary questions and to enjoy myself. I did.”  

This concept of growing up, or becoming a big girl (ever heard of a big girl party?) are common across all ethnicities and cultures in Sri Lanka, and involve careful instruction on how a young girl must behave. This includes the need to avoid boys and/or not play with boys, as may have been the practice before growing up and becoming a big girl. Climbing trees and riding bicycles, are similarly discouraged. When parents are pushed on why these restrictions are necessary, they speak of the value of preserving virginity.

Menstruation and the hymen appear to be intrinsically linked and regulalrly influence discussions on sex and sexuality of women in Sri Lanka, and also sexual violence.

One community representative spoke of a time when seclusion following the first period, was an opportunity for grandmothers and mothers to instruct the young girl on being a woman in their society, to share and pass down wisdom. She rued that now little girls are just locked up with no explanation as to what is happening to their bodies, or what they can expect in the future. Perhaps, the sharing of wisdom and experience in this manner could be strengthened by simplified science and the need to challenge patriarchy at every turn.

Happy to bleed

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