Menstrual seclusion was once about giving women a safe space – hunter gatherer cultures can teach us how women’s blood is potent, not polluting
Dr Camilla Power
Indian Hindu sadhvis (holy women) take part in a religious procession
on the eve of the annual Ambubachi festival at the Kamakhya temple
in Guwahati Photograph: Biju Boro/AFP/Getty Images
These days we tend to assume that menstrual seclusion, menstrual taboos, menstrual huts and pollution beliefs, which are prevalent in some developing countries, are all examples of sexist practices that undermine women’s rights and freedoms.
But what if seclusion once gave women a safe space, where they could find solidarity with other women? Suppose those taboos were first invented by women for reasons of their own?
Social anthropologists are never content with the way things are seen in their own culture. We try to abandon our preconceptions, in order to understand other ways of seeing. And so it needs to be said that there are two sides to menstrual taboos. Yes, they can become expressions of patriarchal oppression, but look deeper into their origins and we discover a different world.
Among many hunter-gatherers to this day, menstrual blood connotes potency, not pollution. Menstruating women and girls have privileged shamanic access to the spirit world, often imagined as connection to the Moon, “women’s biggest husband”. This potency demands such respect that women are inviolable and no man dares infringe these taboos for fear of destroying his hunting luck.
Could menstruation and its observances in fact be experienced as empowering for women? Take the menstrual traditions of the Yurok Indians who live in north-western California. Here, a woman would go on strike once a month for 10 whole days, declaring herself “on her Moontime”. It was her time off. She didn’t cook for her husband or do household chores. It was believed that a woman should seclude herself during her flow because “she is at the height of her powers”. Such time should not be wasted in mundane tasks, distractions or worries about the opposite sex. Rather, all her energies should be applied in concentrated meditation “to find out the purpose of your life”.
In the old days, menstruating Yurok women would communally bathe and perform rituals in a “sacred Moontime pond” up in the nearby mountains. In belief, all the fertile women in a household who were not pregnant menstruated “at the same time, a time dictated by the Moon”, when they practised their bathing rituals together. If a woman fell out of phase with the Moon, breaking synchrony with her sisters, she could “get back in by sitting in the moonlight and talking to the Moon asking it to balance her”.
Three Kalasha sisters sitting together Rumbur Valley, Chitral, Pakistan
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Anthropologists have described how withdrawal of sexual and domestic services was in many cultures on women’s terms. Far from being oppressive, so-called “seclusion” could be experienced as special time. In 2001, Wynne Maggi described what happens regularly to this day inside the bashali, a communal menstrual house used by women among the Kalasha people of north-west Pakistan.
In this community, there are no isolated menstrual huts. Instead, there is a large sacred building serving as a communal meeting house for the women, who see it as the physical centre for their solidarity and freedom. Women congregate here when menstruating or giving birth, so that at any one time there may be as many as 20 women inside, gossiping, laughing and singing together, many with babies and toddlers. During their stay in what they call their “most holy place”, women compare notes on the duration of their menstrual flows.
The men express pride that in this society, “our women are free”, despite the fact that the bashali building is off-limits to them. Women who want to escape their husbands for a few days can use it as a refuge. Maggi describes graphically how women enjoy the intimacy of sleeping overnight in the bashali, arms and legs wrapped closely together. What happens in the bashali is women’s secret, so much so that men don’t even have the words to ask what happens there. The special house for women is the biggest building in the village. Like so many men’s houses or temples in patriarchal societies, but the other way round, it is one from which half the population is excluded.
Among African hunter-gatherers, where gender egalitarianism is strong, a girl’s first menstruation triggers special celebrations embracing the entire community. For hunter-gatherers of the Ituri Forest in the eastern part of the Congo, the elima ritual is a collective and joyous affair. Lasting several moons, activities centre on an elima hut, which is in fact the most impressive structure ever used – more like a temple at the centre of the community.
Girls who have recently begun menstruating go inside with older women to be given practical lessons about boys and sex, but mainly to learn ancient, polyphonic songs and the hut resounds with their singing. The girls emerge “on the warpath” to playfully hunt out boys with big whippy sticks. Festivities revolve around this sexual wargame of girls laughingly chasing boys and the boys countering and teasing back. If any boy gets whipped, he must try to enter the elima hut, assuming he can get past the mums and aunties guarding the entrance. In this way elima becomes a type of initiation for both sexes, very much on the girls’ terms.
In Blood Relations, his classic work on the anthropology of menstruation, Chris Knight argues that women invented culture. He traces the origins of sexual morality to female self-organisation and collective resistance toward bad behaviour in males. Knight argues convincingly that women could not command respect if they allowed men to take sexual access to them for granted. The way to get men to be helpful was to make clear that sex was conditional on good behaviour. To make this work, women had to establish, at least periodically, the most fundamental rule of all, that “No means No”. As Knight puts it: “If the body is not sacred, nothing is.”
Dr Camilla Power is senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of East London and a member of the Radical Anthropology Group which discusses these questions in Central London on Tuesday evenings. All welcome.