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In Blood Magic it says “The “menstrual taboo” as such does not exist. Rather, what is found in close cross-cultural study is a wide range of distinct rules for conduct regarding menstruation that bespeak quite different, even opposite, purposes and meanings. . . . “The menstrual taboo,” in short, is at once nearly universal and has meanings that are ambiguous and often multivalent. (Buckley and Gottleib 1988: 7)”. There have however, been new approaches to studying menstrual taboos by anthropologists.
Although there is still a lot of ambiguity regarding menstrual symbolism, its functions and origins, there have been advances in trying to understand the considerations needed to understand menstruation in a cultural context.
These considerations include the possibility of intracultural diversity in its meanings, the varying contexts of menstrual symbolism, and the interface between biological and cultural systems in the making of human society. La Fontaine describes how women of the Gisu tribe (of the Masaba nation of Eastern Uganda) are treated during menstruation.
“They are to be kept away from certain activities in case they somehow spoil them.
“She may not brew beer nor pass by the homestead of a potter lest his pots crack during firing; she may not cook for her husband nor sleep with him lest she endanger both his virility and his general health. A menstruating woman endangers the success of rituals by her presence. (La Fontaine 1972: 164)”. It is also apparent in this particular tribe that a menstruating woman must not come into contact with food, a similarity shared with the Mehinaku tribes mentioned above.
Many anthropologists have fixated upon the idea of menstrual taboos being universally oppressive towards women. So in a lot of ethnographic studies these findings have become truisms in popular culture. Paula Weideger says “generally, the object of a taboo may be a source of good or evil, but in the case of menstrual blood the ascriptions are almost universally evil. (Weideger 1977: 89)”. Studies by such people as Weideger have been prominent in popular imagination, and like so much else in popular wisdom, they are only partially true and quite simplistic.
So it is difficult to effectively define what a ‘menstrual taboo’ really is because the meanings of such can be quite different, even opposite in their nature and meanings. For some women these ‘menstrual taboos’ may in fact be beneficial to them, as it allows them time away from society and able to converse with other women, which is not necessarily a bad thing. So in some cultures, rather than subordinating women to men fearful of them and their ‘contamination’, it provides women with means of ensuring their own autonomy, influence, and social control.
One interesting point surrounding menstrual taboos is the effect it has on the behavior of others in the society. It is quite possible that it affects them more than it does the women being ‘oppressed’. It may not be useful to collapse all taboos into one single category as there may be wider cosmological ramifications to consider. Young says: “menstrual taboos that often apply to native women throughout their middle years may function as a mechanism for reducing the status of women in contrast to that of men. (Young 1965: 155)”.
The use of the word ‘may’ here is evident of his presupposition of the link between menstrual taboos and the lower status of women. If these correlations did not exist then how could the taboos function as mechanisms to reduce status? He supposed that these taboos are put in place to assure men of their dominance over women in society. This viewpoint shows a disregard for certain analytical distinctions. One thing that is important, is to distinguish between two varieties of menstrual taboos that are commonly incorporated together.
In some cultures, menstrual taboos restrict the behavior of women themselves, whereas others restrict the behavior of the people around them. The rituals that occur between different cultures, although similar in nature, have different outcomes for the women. Sri Lankan Catholics show that there are signs of vunerability for women posed by cosmos and society. With some Buddhists in Sri Lanka, there is more of a threat directly targeted at the cosmic purity and thus to society. These two particular societies show that there is a distinct difference in status of the women involved.
William Stephens identifies five classes of taboos: “those against menstrual blood as itself dangerous; those that require the isolation of menstruous women; those that prohibit menstrual sex; those that prohibit menstruous women’s cooking, especially for their husbands; and a general category of ‘other’ taboos. (Buckley and Gootlieb 1988: 11)”. From these categories Stephens suggests that in societies where women make significant economical contributions, that menstrual taboos are not as commonplace.
He places many taboos into the ‘other’ category which have an underlying presence of oppression against women, but this can be problematic. It can be argued that menstrual taboos in some instances actually enhance the power of women, even if some may view them as oppressed in general. In some situations, women may be excluded from certain prestigious activities such as hunting, and may therefore not be allowed to come into contact with a man’s hunting gear. This can be viewed as a male dominance over women as they are not allowed to become involved with ‘important’ affairs.
But in some cultures, where it is forbidden for men to come into contact with things in the female domain, menstrual taboos can be understood in the opposite manner. Although these differences may seem parallel, the anthropological interpretation of them has been binary. So the possibility that these taboos actually enhance a woman’s power rather than suppressing it, has been largely ignored by people investigating. Other approaches have been taken to try and explain menstrual taboos. There is the psychoanalytic approach which has been carried out by a few researchers over the years.
William Stephens is an interesting case who believed that men possessed a “castration anxiety” that was responsible for menstrual taboos because he presumes that “the sight or thought of a person who bleeds from the genitals (a menstruating woman) is frightening to a person who has intense castration anxiety. (Stephens 1962: 93)”. He therefore thought that if a society had stronger menstrual taboos, then that society possessed a stronger sense of castration anxiety. This seems like quite a controversial claim that he admits is untestable, due to it being unconscious or subconscious in nature.
Stephens however, still tried to gather evidence for his theory, looking for correlations between taboos and strict paternal authority, maternal seduction of sons and strong punishment for masturbation. His statistics however, are quite weak in nature and are more suggestive rather than conclusive. I do not believe Stephen’s case to be a strong one, as it seems to suggest that menstrual taboos have been created purely for the benefit of males, and that men write the cultural scripts and women simply have to be subordinate and follow the rules.
So, women in varying cultures and societies do seem to share the cross-cultural occurrence of menstrual taboos. However, not all of these are necessarily based on the oppression of women. In some cases the separation of women can be liberating for them and allow them time away with social support from their female peers. There have been flaws in the examinations of such taboos that throw together all such things under one umbrella. These phenomena should be studied independently across different cultures and religions to provide useful information for anthropologists.
Works Cited Buckley, Thomas C. T. , and Alma Gottlieb. Blood Magic: the Anthropology of Menstruation. Berkeley: University of California, 1988. Print. La, Fontaine Jean De, and Marianne Moore. The Fables of La Fontaine;. New York: Viking, 1972. Print. Stephens, William N. The Family in Cross-cultural Perspective. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962. Print. Weideger, Paula. Menstruation and Menopause: the Physiology and Psychology, the Myth and the Reality. New York: Knopf, 1977. Print.
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