Culture and menstruation

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The relationship between culture and menstruation is expressed in many ways. A variety of menstrual-related traditions exist. One group of authors has even theorized that menstruation may have played a key role in the development of symbolic culture in early human society.[1]

Social Anthropology

In hunter-gatherer cultures that do not use contraception (other than breastfeeding), menstruation is quite a rare event and a woman's menstrual status is loudly signalled, so that everyone in the locality knows that this is her 'sacred' or 'special' time. Typically, she must neither cook nor permit marital sex to occur for several days until her period ends.[2][1] A young woman's menarche is often a time of special celebration and ritual in hunter-gatherer societies.[1][3] In some cultures, such as that of the Dogon, women stay in a special hut during their menstrual period.

While these restrictions on menstruating women have been interpreted by some as evidence of male sexual dominance in these groups, some authors who interpret these traditions as empowering to women.[2] One example given is Khoisan women in the Kalahari, who are ritually most powerful when menstruating. In her special hut, the 'New Maiden' is thought to be inviolable – having only to snap her fingers to bring down lightning on any disrespectful male.[4][5] As evidence of the respect given to menstruation, cultural instances of male induced genital bleeding are offered. Such male bleeding is mythically held to be 'stolen' from women, and is practiced on ritual occasions,[6] including in male initiation rites.[7]

Mystics have sometimes elaborated "equivalencies", analogising the waxing and waning of the moon with influences on human menstruation. In this spiritual, moon goddess, or astrological context some women call menstruation their "moontime". Some ancient views also regarded menstruation as a cleansing of the body: compare bloodletting as a major medical treatment of pre-modern times.


Mayan mythology explains the origin of menstruation as a punishment for violating the social rules governing marital alliance. The menstrual blood turns into snakes and insects used in black sorcery, before the Maya moon goddess is reborn from it.

The Great Religious Traditions


Most Christian denominations do not follow any specific rituals or rules related to menstruation. Some Christian denominations, including many authorities of the Eastern Orthodox Church (also known as the Russian, Ukraine, or Greek Orthodox Church, distinct from the Roman Catholic Church), advise women not to receive communion during their menstrual period.[8] Other denominations follow the rules laid out in the Holiness Code section of Leviticus, somewhat similar to the Jewish ritual of Niddah.

The traditional Islamic interpretation of the Qur'an forbids intercourse, but not physical intimacy, during a woman's menstrual period. During menstrual period, women are not required to perform prayers and fasting.[9] Some scholars believe that women are not authorised to enter mosque during this period. And, after the period, a spiritual bath is required to be able to perform prayers, fasting, and to enter the mosque - the same type of bath required of both men and women after sexual intercourse.

In Judaism, a ritual exclusion called niddah applies to a woman while menstruating and for about a week thereafter, until she immerses herself in a mikvah (ritual bath). During this time, a married couple must avoid sexual intercourse and physical intimacy. Certain Jewish groups forbid women and men from even touching or passing things to each other during this period. While Orthodox Jews follow this exclusion, many Jews in other branches of the religion do not.


In Hinduism, a woman having periods cannot be part of religious ceremonies for the first 4 days of the cycle.

Almost all the practices of women during their menses in Hindu culture were also practices in Ayyavazhi society. However, they did enter the kitchen and bathe on each day of their menses.

In Buddhism (Theravada or Hinayana) menstruation is viewed as "a natural physical excretion that women have to go through on a monthly basis, nothing more or less". However Hindu belief and practice carried over into Thai buddhist culture.[10] Furthermore some state that some sects of "Japanese Buddhism, in particular, has been characterised by a persistent anti-feminism" with menstruating women banned from attending temples.[11]


Nānak, the founder of the Sikh faith, condemned the practice of treating women as impure while menstruating.[12]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Chris Knight (1991). Blood relations: menstruation and the origins of culture. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-04911-0.
    Knight, Chris (1995). "The Human Symbolic Revolution: A Darwinian Account" (PDF). Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 5 (1): 75–114. Retrieved 2006-12-13. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  2. 2.0 2.1 Buckley, T & A Gottlieb (1988), Blood Magic. The anthropology of menstruation, Berkeley: University of California Press
  3. Watts, I. (1999), "The origin of symbolic culture", in R. Dunbar, C. Knight and C. Power, The Evolution of Culture, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  4. Lewis-Williams, J.D. (1981), Believing and Seeing. Symbolic meanings in Southern San rock paintings, London: Academic Press
  5. Power, C. & I. Watts (1997), "The woman with the zebra's penis. Gender, mutability and performance", Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 3(N.S.): 537-560
  6. Montagu, M.F.A. (1974), Coming into Being Among the Australian Aborigines. The procreative beliefs of the Australian Aborigines, London and Boston: outledge and Kegan Paul
  7. Hogbin, I.A. (1970), The Island of Menstruating Men, Scranton, London and Toronto: Chandler
  8. Patrick Barnes. "Menstruation, Emissions, and Holy Communion". Orthodox Christian Information Center. Retrieved 2006-04-02.
  9. "2.222". Koran.
  10. Buddha Dharma Education Association (2004). "21: It is commonly believed that women are unclean. How true is this belief?". Women in Buddhism: Questions & Answers. BuddhaNet. Retrieved 2006-05-28.
  11. Dharmacari Jnanavira. "A Mirror for Women? Reflections of the Feminine in Japanese Buddhism". Western Buddhist Review. Volume 4. Retrieved 2006-05-28.
  12. Singh, Kanwarjit (1989). "Chapter V - Human Rights". Political Philosophy of the Sikh Gurus. Atlantic. Retrieved 2006-06-12.

Further reading

  • Bailey, R.C. & others (1992), "The ecology of birth seasonality among agriculturalists in Central Africa", Journal of Biosocial Science 24(3): 393-412
  • Dornan, J. (2004), "Blood from the moon: Gender ideology and the rise of ancient Maya social complexity", Gender and History 16(2): 459-475
  • Foster, J. (1996), "Menstrual time: The sociocognitive mapping of "the menstrual cycle"", Sociological Forum 11(2): 523-547
  • Stevens, P. (2006), "Women's aggressive use of genital power in Africa", Transcultural Psychiatry 43(4): 592-599
  • Museum of Menstruation.