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.
Sacred and powerful
Historically, a menstruating woman was considered sacred and powerful, with increased psychic abilities, and strong enough to heal the sick. According to the Cherokee, menstrual blood was a source of feminine strength and had the power to destroy enemies. In Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote that a menstruating woman who uncovers her body can scare away hailstorms, whirlwinds and lightning. If she strips naked and walks around the field, caterpillars, worms and beetles fall off the ears of corn. Menstrual blood is viewed as especially dangerous to men's power. In Africa, menstrual blood is used in the most powerful magic charms in order to both purify and destroy.
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.
In Judaism and Christianity, the latter derives from the first, it is of the punishment for the disobedience of Eve who would eat of the Forbidden Fruit to know of the difference between good and evil. "For in suffering and pain she shall bring forth her children", this would appear to be a prelude to the act of giving birth.
The history of Nepal’s virgin cult is ancient, and the practice of the revering little girls as goddesses there dates back to before the thirteenth century. Kathmandu’s Royal Kumari is a manifestation of the deity Teleju, who, centuries ago, played dice with Nepal’s king until he offended her with his lust-filled glances. As a result, she vowed never to return, except in the guise of a young girl.  A Kumari is believed to be the bodily incarnation of the goddess Taleju until she menstruates, after which it is believed that the goddess vacates her body. Serious illness, a major loss of blood from an injury or even a small indication of laughter are also causes for her to revert to common status.
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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, Ukrainian, or Greek Orthodox Church, distinct from the Roman Catholic Church), advise women not to receive communion during their menstrual period. Other denominations follow the rules laid out in the Holiness Code section of Leviticus, somewhat similar to the Jewish ritual of Niddah. Healthy women have adequate outflow during this cycle, which renders them impure for sacred devotions, even more so in public.
The traditional Islamic interpretation of the Qur'an forbids intercourse, but not physical intimacy, during a woman's menstrual period. Judaism does likewise. During menstrual periods, women are excused from performing prayers and fasting. In the Qur'an it is considered a "harm" or a nuisance, and women should not be pestered during this time. Respect for women on their cycle is valued. They are advised to not enter the mosque without any important purpose, but are encouraged to be present at religious services such as Eid Al-Adha or Eid Al-Fitr. After the period, a spiritual bath, which is also required of both partners after sex, Ghusl, is also required before prayer and fasting may continue.
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 which is basically intended only for married women. During this time, a married couple must avoid sexual intercourse and physical intimacy. Orthodox Judaism forbids 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.
Conservative/Traditionalist members of the Orthodox Church observe the ancient practice of abstaining from Holy Communion during menstruation. This is a fairly common practice throughout Greece and Russia and other historically Orthodox Christian countries. However, in most non-Orthodox countries—especially in Europe and North America—a sizable majority of women do not practice this ancient rule, although a minority of women still do. In fact, many Orthodox Christian women are unaware of the ancient practice of abstaining from Holy Communion due to menstruation, or merely view it as an "old wives' tale". Many Orthodox Christians in Non-Orthodox countries are advised to disregard this practice, as it is seen as an excuse to not participate in the sacrament of Communion and in fact, discourages laity involvement in the service of Divine Liturgy.
Hindus in India tend to view menstruation, especially first menstruation or menarche, as a positive aspect of a girl's life. In South India, girls who experience their menstrual period for the first time are given presents and celebrations to mark this special occasion.
However, in orthodox or Brahmin Hindu families, menstruating women are asked to stay away from domestic activities for a period of 4 days, and even physical intimacy is prohibited. In very conservative Brahmin households, women have a separate room to stay in, separate plates and cutlery, and do not enter the kitchen or any sacred section of the house. Brahmin women who are into activities such as singing, tailoring or art, do not touch their tools for these three days. Any festival or occasion that comes during the woman's time out of the house, is negotiated discreetly. On the third day, after the Brahmin woman takes a ritual bath, she is considered cleansed and may resume her normal routine. This often described as a spiritual practice, but is usually only found in Brahmin families - most other subcultures require the women to carry on as normal.
Hindus in Nepal have a more negative view, traditionally keeping women isolated during menstruation, when women who are menstruating are not allowed in the household for a period of 3 nights. A recent court ruling in Nepal has abolished this practice.
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, in Japanese Buddhism, menstruating women are banned from attending temples.
Guru Nānak, the founder of Sikhism, condemned the practice of treating women as impure while menstruating. In Sikhism, the menstrual cycle is not considered a pollutant. Certainly, it can have a physical and physiological effect on the woman. Nonetheless, this is not considered a hindrance to her wanting to pray or accomplish her religious duties fully. The Guru makes it very clear that the menstrual cycle is a God given process. The blood of a woman is required for the creation of any human being. ‘By coming together of mother and father are we created, By union of the mother's blood and the father's semen is the body made. To the Lord is the creature devoted, when hanging head downwards in the womb; He whom he contemplates, for him provides.’ (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p. 1013).
The requirement of the Mothers’ blood is fundamental for life. Thus, the menstrual cycle is certainly an essential and God given biological process. In other faiths blood is considered a pollutant. However, the Guru rejects such superstitious ideas. Those who are impure from within are the truly impure ones. ‘Should cloth be reckoned impure if blood-stained, How may minds of such be deemed pure, As blood of mankind suck? Says Nanak: With a pure heart and tongue God's Name you utter: All else is worldly show, and false deeds.’ (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, pg. 140).
Meditating on God's name is of importance. Whether your clothes are blood stained or not (including clothes stained from menstrual blood) is not of spiritual importance. Thus, there are no restrictions placed on a woman during her menstruation. She is free to visit a gurdwara, take part in prayers and do Seva. In The Feminine Principle in the Sikh vision of the transcendent, Nikky Guninder Kaur-Singh writes:
- ‘The denigration of the female body “expressed in many cultural and religious taboos surrounding menstruation and child-Birth” is absent in the Sikh worldview. ... Guru Nanak openly chides those who attribute pollution to women because of menstruation’.
Woman's menstrual blood is considered to be impure in several important Jain texts. The bleeding that occurs in menstruation is thought to kill micro-organisms in the body, making the female body less non-violent than the male body - although that idea does not have any scientific support. Jainism does not permit women to cook or attend temples while menstruating.
In Japan, the religion of Shinto did and still does play a part in their society. The Kami, the spirits they worshiped, would not grant wishes if you had traces of blood, dirt, or death on you. While menstruation is not entirely blood, the ancient Japanese did not know that. As a result, women who were menstruating were not allowed to visit any of the Kami shrines for the duration of their menstrual period. Even today, women are not allowed to enter Shinto shrines and temples during menstruation, and in some instances, women are completely banned from climbing the tops of sacred mountains due to their 'impurity'. Furthermore, the tradition is kept somewhat alive in the belief that the shedding of the endometrial lining is a kind of death. It is theorized that the Kami are the reason Japan is kept so clean and, in many houses, minimalistic.
In Bali, women are not allowed to enter the kitchen to perform her usual duties, nor is she allowed to have sex with her husband while menstruating. She is to sleep apart from the family and has to keep her clothes that she wears while menstruating away from any clothes that she could wear to the temple. One of the most important taboos is that a woman is not allowed to attend temple while menstruating.
In Sumba, women keep their cycles secret, which makes men see them as deceitful. Women from Sumba believe that because of their secrecy, they will always have control of the men. “Men will never know how much we really can do to control these things. We have all kinds of secrets, and they should always believe that we can control even more than we really can”.
Women are supposed to avoid intercourse while menstruating. It is believed that sexually transmitted diseases are the results of women deceiving men and having intercourse while they are menstruating. Gonorrhea translates as “disease you get from women” in Sumba; it has become a social problem. When a man would get this disease, they only way they believed a man could rid himself of painful sores was to pass it to a woman, the reasoning being that a woman’s body can absorb infection and purge it during a cycle.
In Shaktism the Earth's menstruation is celebrated during the Ambubachi Mela, an annual fertility festival held in June, in Assam, India. During Ambubachi, the annual menstruation course of the goddess Kamakhya is worshipped in the Kamakhya Temple. The temple stays closed for three days and then reopens to receive pilgrims and worshippers. It is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world, attracting millions of visitors each year, particularly for Ambubachi Mela which draws upwards of 100,000 pilgrims per day during the 4-day festival.
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