Showing posts with label Menstruation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Menstruation. Show all posts

Saturday, 16 October 2010

only women bleed*

well, since periods have been so much the topic of discussion lately, i thought to myself that it must be time to do a post about them. mostly from the point of view of the cultural differences around periods, and the restrictions that have built up over different traditions.

i'll start with the traditions i know best: my own. for muslim women, periods are a time when we are excused from worship. so we don't have to pray or fast - the latter being sensible for me at least, cos i'm anaemic & really couldn't cope with fasting at the time we have our period. i guess that these 2 restrictions aren't seen as a kind of relief from our point of view, so i've not really heard any muslim women complain about them.

there are a few others though. one is that we shouldn't touch the qur'an. this is one where people have developed "fixes" for, so that i have heard one scholar say that women should read a qur'an with translation when they have their periods. this is on the basis that the words that aren't the actual arabic of the qur'an are greater portion of the book, so it's all ok. another that i've heard is the expedient of touching the qur'an while wearing gloves or using a cloth**. i find this interesting in terms of the way people want to get around the restriction, but don't want to challenge it.

another is that we don't have intercourse when we have our periods. i can't say i've ever heard anyone complaining about that one, and my own personal reaction is basically "yucky, why would you want to?"

the most contentious restriction, though, is the one of not entering the mosque when menstruating. well, more precisely, the restriction is to not sit at the place of prayer, so if there are parts of the mosque that aren't used for prayer, they are fine. most muslim women will abide by this restriction without a problem, mostly because they aren't praying at that time so there's no point going to the mosque anyway. i'll go if there's a public lecture, but sit in the foyer which is just as comfortable as inside the prayer area.

it becomes an issue when we want to have mosque open days though. we've had many debates about that in nz, because the conservatives will be all like "how can you let non-muslim women come through the mosque, they might have their period and we certainly can't police it in anyway". luckily, the majority of mosques have taken a much more liberal line & open the mosque to everyone.

so that's us. hinduism has more severe restrictions. since i don't know so much about it, i'm going to quote from a comment put up on AEN by dr sapna:

I come from a culture with similar beliefs. I have cousins back in India who are not allowed to live in their own house when they menstruate. That means they cannot go into the kitchen or the bathroom or do regular normal things. This is because they are 'impure'. What started out as a social concept-that menstruating women in the old days needed to rest from their daily hard routines (in the days when household chores were difficult and most women were anaemic, they never got to rest, this was a good excuse to make them take time out). However as is the case, explaining such things to a largely illiterate and superstitious population is hard. So it is intertwined with some spirituality and some superstition. But then such attitudes are hard to wipe away. Confronted by colonisation and Westernisation, such 'traditions' resist change. They become deeply embedded in cultures and then in the name of political correctness, acceptable. Never mind if it is degrading to women and very patriarchal.

As a doctor back in India I have prescribed hormones to women who wish to postpone their periods in order to fit in religious festivals, including fasting during Ramadan and the Jain festival of Paryushan.(Although the Koran is very specific about menstruating and lactating women going on a fast. The Jain scriptures must be too.) As a woman I have been told not to go into temples when I menstruate and places that are taboo for me.

How does this fit into our lives in this current world? Indian women resist such social attitudes now. They work, they are independent, they live in nuclear families. Many even go to temples.


she thinks such practices can and should be challenged from women living within the culture/faith tradition.

i can't say i know anything much about the christian tradition. i only recall reading a verse of the bible when i was young, which seemed to imply that menstruation and labour pains were a curse on all women, in punishment for eve causing the whole fall from grace thing. i'm sure others will correct me if i'm wrong about this, and if there are any other traditions or restrictions around menstruation.

i found something about jewish restrictions at wikipedia. here's an article that goes the menstrual taboos among major religions, and who knew that there is even a museum of menstruation. woohoo!!

there is the one thing that seems to be common amongst all cultural and religious traditions when it comes to periods: that it is hidden from the public discourse, that it is hidden from the private sphere as well. other than their husbands, most women will not reveal in public that they have their periods. they'll be happy enough to mention to other women (though not always, in parts of the world even that seems to be a no-no). but no way will they mention it in a mixed gathering.

i accept that it is a personal event for most women, and i'm not saying that it's something we should have to share. but wouldn't it be nice if we could share it without having to feel embarassed? wouldn't it be nice if you could casually mention at your workplace or any social setting that you had your period, and it would be no big deal? well, i may be the only one, but i think that would be a great state of affairs.

i hate how issues of menstruation and childbirth have been treated as "women's issues", which men are supposed to keep well clear of and know nothing about. yes, that is changing somewhat, especially because of the advertising industry and the greater tendency of fathers to be present at the birth of their kids. but there's still a lot of cultural baggage there. it would be nice if the functioning of women's bodies could be treated as a normal, natural & openly-discussed thing.

*ETA: as maia points out in comments, this title is exclusionary, and my apologies for that. i took it from the alice cooper song, which is actually about domestic violence but has a double entendre that i thought fit the topic at hand. obviously i didn't think it about it enough.

**ETA2: i thought i'd put this comment into the post as well as in comments, as it pertinent to my understanding of the restrictions:
I liked your post about this, but I don't think you should make a blanket statement that women are not allowed to touch the Quran during menstruation. This isn't a universal position - many scholars say that there is no problem with touching the Quran while menstruating, while even the most conservative on this point make exceptions for women who are teaching or studying the Quran.

Similar disagreements exist in relation to women being in the masjid while menstruating - it's not a universally accepted restriction.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

negotiating a way forward

so i've been avoiding the discussion here regarding the whole te papa issue - well, not so much avoiding it as not engaging in it. the discussion has been pretty hostile in places, with some good stuff in amongst it.

i have been taking part in some really useful discussions on facebook, as well as watching another discussion thread that had the heavy involvement of maori women and men. the latter i found really useful, because i was interested to learn about how maori see these issues, and where the debate is at with them.

i'm not sure yet what i feel about it all. i can understand the need to have debate when there's an element of exclusion being applied to people who don't share a particular set of beliefs - though i'm not entirely sure that's what is happening here. i think also that there is the natural conflict that arises when the values of two cultures are incompatible and one will have to give way to the other. i can certainly understand the frustration of a minority culture who have been the ones to give way for any number of decades, and have only recently been able to assert their own positions in any meaningful way.

on facebook, i gave a couple of examples where i've had to face what i can only describe as a clash of cultures. one was the example of having to hongi with males when on the marae, which was a situation i had to face back in waitangi day 2006. it's something i don't feel comfortable with, because of my own personal beliefs. on the other hand, i don't want to be disrespectful of the traditions of the people and the place where i am.

another experience was at a fiji day celebration in manukau back in 2008. they were having some kind of kava cermony (apologies for my ignorance of the proper wording). there i was, sitting right up the front, and desperately hoping that i wouldn't be offered any. given that it causes drunkenness when taken in large quantities, it comes into the category of alcohol & drugs ie a no-no for me. luckily they didn't offer me any, but i just don't know how i could have responded without giving offence if they had.

i can give lots more examples. there are times when compromise is difficult, and other times when it just isn't a good idea. when basic values of justice and equity collide with practices that seem to be grossly unfair, someone does need to take a stand.

is this one of those times? i'm still not ready to answer that question. the debate i saw amongst maori was quite varied. many were ready to move on from this practice, there were others who valued it. some of the differences in opinion were as a result of being from different iwi.

there's been a lot in the comments here about the reasoning behind the practice, some of it being summarily dismissed. others have interpreted the practice from the lense of their own cultural history, which has treated menstruation as something unclean, and have refused to accept an alternative explanation when presented with it. but the biggest problem by far is the notion that one groups cultural practice may be used to impinge on the freedoms of others outside the group.

it reminds me of the case some years back of the woman working at MSD who refused to sit at the back during a powhiri because she felt it was against her personal beliefs. there was a lot of noise around that issue, and i remember she ended up losing her job, though that was because of her going to the media without her employer's position. it's a similar issue though, and there needs to be a way to negotiate through these cultural clashes in a manner that is better than what we are seeing so far.

like one of the maori women suggesting a solution to my problem with the hongi. she first asked me what i would feel comfortable with. i said i could cope with a handshake, because it didn't involve the same degree of personal closeness. her reply:

If it was me in that situation, I would compose a short sentence to use as I approached each person. For example, "I am sorry I cannot hongi you due to my culture, but please accept my greetings" and offer your hand. Sometimes we need to be educated in the ways of other cultures too.

i thought that was a lovely solution, and a offered with an attitude of respect for my dilemma. i think it's possible to negotiate solutions and have people move forward if we could only approach these issues with a feeling of goodwill. there seems to have been too little of that today, and not just today but every time a similar situation comes up. often, movement happens best in incremental steps. pushing too hard just results in people pushing back.

On the inconvenience of periods and pregnancy

Cross posted

The New Zealand Herald contacted me yesterday, wanting a comment on this invitation being sent out by Te Papa (the New Zealand national museum).

Te Papa storeroom tours

A behind the scenes tour of Te Papa's collection stores and collection management systems
Te Papa, 10:30am- 2:30pm, Friday 5th November 2010
Places are limited to 7 people

A chance for Local regional museums to visit various Te Papa store rooms and meet the collection managers of:
- The Taonga Māori collection - Lisa Ward, Moana Parata, Noel Osborne
- Photography and new media - Anita Hogan
- Works on paper - Tony Mackle
- Textiles - Tania Walters

Conditions of the tour:
* No photographs are to be taken of the taonga, however some images can be made available.
* There is to be no kai (food or drink) taken into the collection rooms.
* Wahine who are either hapü (pregnant) or mate wähine (menstruating) are welcome to visit at another time that is convenient for them.
* We start our visits with karakia and invite our manuhiri to participate.

Who is it for?
- This tour is for representatives from small museums, art galleries, heritage organisations, the arts and cultural sector or iwi organisations.


(I've edited the layout and fonts and so on, to fit on the screen, and the emphasis is mine.)

The Herald reporter suggested that I might have something to say about the practice of excluding menstruating and pregnant women being sexist and archaic. However, I didn't. I sent back these three quotes.

It's fair enough to respect cultural protocols, but maybe Te Papa could say that, instead of their mealy-mouthed request for pregnant and menstruating women to come back at a time that "is convenient for them." I'm perfectly able to function when I've got my period or when I'm pregnant. It's far more inconvenient to have to make special arrangements to come back at another time.

I don't understand why a secular institution, funded by public money in a secular state, is imposing religious and cultural values on people. It's fair enough for people to engage in their own cultural practices where those practices don't harm others, but the state shouldn't be imposing those practices on other people.

It's up to Maori to work out if and how and when cultural practices should change for Maori, within the traditional freedoms of liberal democracies. If it is important to Maori people that pregnant and menstruating women aren't included in the tour, then maybe the tour shouldn't take place at all.


The story appeared in the New Zealand Herald this morning:

Anger at Te Papa ban on pregnant women

It's interesting to see which of my quotes was used in the story, and how it was used.

Stuff also has a story about the invitation. They contacted Boganette for comment.

Pregnant women warned off Te Papa tour

A reminder: we are individuals at The Hand Mirror, not a monolith. The views above are very much MY opinions, not views of The Hand Mirror.