Taboo(-ed) and Terror(-ised): The Hermeneutics of Menstruation
By Soma Mandal
The significance of taboo and theology to understand the anthropological origin of imagined communities, their national histories and cultures have been engaging fields of studying the anomalies of nature and natural events. Their justification in rationalizing deviant behavior different from the usual codes of cognitive and behavioral performance brought structural changes in tribal and pre-modern societies. The subsequent control of female sexuality to assert male(-ness), became a culturally universal trope for undermining the matrixial, feminine, pre-maternal, maternal ethos of female subjectivity (Ettinger 1995) and female sexuality. “The womb as the time-space of psychic encounter-event” and menstruation as inextricably linked to matrixial transmissions constituted symbolic and visual threats to the phallogocentric worldview of traditional societies. To control women’s periods in order to maintain the cosmic rhythm of the world (Levi Strauss 1978) became a pre-condition for essentializing continuity in human evolutionary processes. Though menstruation, etymologically related to ‘moon’ and menses (Latin ‘mensis’ or month), which signifies the waxing and waning of the moon in 28 days rotational cycle, a pattern similar to human reproduction cycle, period tracking app Clue investigated 7.5 million menstrual cycles and found no co-relation between lunar rotations and period patterns. It assessed that “period start dates fall randomly throughout the month, regardless of the lunar phase.”
In India menstruation comes with a lot of discomfort to women mostly in the rural sector. In the urban areas, technological and economic prosperity has ushered at a reasonable level menstrual liberation but the notion of menstruation has been quite challenging to understand without attaching the phenomenon to cultural and pre-historic interpretations. While the biological process explains the genesis of human regeneration, the phenomenon has been mostly secretive and covert in its representation which has resulted in making the biological process a mysterious malaise. The trouble lies in constructing gender as a biological category. Menstruating women whose physiological non-performance and the visible non-performativity based on her biological constitution during her period which helps in the construction of masculinist and linguistic taboo(-isation) suppress the actual cultural expression of gender (Butler 1990). The secrecy of the uninvited discussions, lack of awareness regarding menstrual hygiene, the observance of certain cultural traditions on the basis of religion and the strict prohibitions leading to exclusion and non-participation have made period the most taboo(-ised) and terror(-ised) a phenomenon for women.
Menstruation as a phenomenon has often attracted criticism and ostracisation, at times stereotyping and discrimination. The terror of seeing menstrual blood often scares women in public places. Menstruation and the male gaze often destabilise the normal work routine of women and they are often subject to mockery, jibe, ridicule and insult in the workplace. For every rural woman, without adequate health-care and availability of menstrual products, menstruation becomes even more difficult to manage. The labour force participation rate of women as compared to men is on a steady decline in India and among the lowest in the world. The World Bank Report which shows only 26.97 per cent females engaged in labour activity in India as compared to 48.47 per cent in the world in 2018 indicates a skewed labour force where men are at a more advantageous position to claim labour rights and labour reforms. This disparity in the labour force participation is due to lack of education, institutional reforms and financial autonomy to women. Women who drop out of work either voluntarily or involuntarily claim menstruation to be one of the many reasons why they choose to quit their job or skip that time of the month during their period. Students and adolescent girls often choose to prioritize health aspects and fail to attend examinations and job interviews. But menstrual health awareness, medical supervision and topical medications to relieve menstrual cramps, pain and disorders remain almost absent for women since the discourse is avoided and lacks articulation except in the private sphere. Instead, quack practices and homely remedies are recourses to period relief.
Foucault’s discourse of taboo extends to the sphere of menstrual blood following incest and patricide. The taboo of blood as a signified totem and menstruation as a stigmatized subject is associated with hunting, killing, and possession. Menstrual blood and the imagery of ‘bleeding bodies’ evoke implications of noun ‘kill’, verb/adjective ‘killing’ or ‘killed’, thereby emphasizing the need to regulate and discipline female bodies. The training of women’s bodies to practice certain cultural rituals and traditions, practice consensual exclusion in relationships, observe fasts for penance during the period, avoid gaudy food, and garrulous gaze has made periods stigmatized with notions of purity, threat, and pollution. Anthropological studies exploring cultural mechanisms for the explanation of the blood period found religion as the basis for menstruation since the birth of Eve. Numerous proto-types of organized and collectivized early-community rituals around religion created a dominant patriarchal narrative (Durkheim) which prescribed safety and precautionary measures to be observed by women during their menses for holistic well-being and physical health.
Sexual Politics (Kate Millet 1970) and biopolitics (Foucault 1979) as powerful socio-political tools for governing female sexuality, sexual freedom and suppression of menstrual discourse indicated increasing control over human life processes through which women were marginalized. The transfer of sovereign power to bio-power signified a paradigm shift in understanding menstruation as a “site for power, politics and struggle” and a potential mode through which the ontological precarity or privilege of state vs the self collectively interpellated and performed. The praxis of liveability and liability of sex/gender as a separate category for state supervision encoded certain norms of behaviour “to ensure, sustain, and multiply life, to put this life to order.” The production of subversive mechanisms to control female reproduction through clinical terminations and incisive operations on the other hand, made menstruation a ‘disease’, rather than a natural phenomenon. Medicalization of the biological phases of a woman’s reproductive cycle as a means of social control (Lock and Nguyen 2010) and also associating ‘hysteria’ with the history of menstruation, an unleashed and suppressed zone for articulations of ungoverned emotions located hysteria in the uterus, a medical pathology arising out of pathological complications in women and not out of psychological and social forces at work invited much feminist critique. This partly justifies the popular patriarchal notion about mood swings that occur to women while menstruating. What is even more ironic is women think practising certain prohibitions during menstruation helps them not to acquire such ‘deviant tendencies’ (Marcuse) “which can entitle one to the secondary benefits of the sick role” (Gehlen 1977) and they can thus avoid male wrath. This forms the basis for collective, secret and open marginalization which is normalized and naturalized by women through everyday exclusionary customs (Stonequist).
The imagination of a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation) with a Hindu Nari (woman) at the centre epitomizing Savitri and Sita as ideal figures of femininity and virtue established the idea of a Hindu masculine state that could rule the non-Hindu world. The human reproduction cycle made explicit by menstruation did not fit the clean image of Sita and Savitri and polluted the purity of hyper-masculine Hindu text and the sub-text of Hindu life-forms which needed to be lived through piety and worship. As a result, in Hinduism, asaucha (impurity) is equated with ‘hatya’ (murder), more specifically ‘brahmana murder’. Therefore, menstruation originated as a result of the sin of murdering ‘Vritya’ (a Brahman) by Indra and equally implies that menstruant women are capable of murder and ‘kill’ as the seeds of ‘brahmana hatya’ (the act of killing a Brahmin) are implanted in her body. The hegemony of brahminical idealism as the universal and cultural expression of life also implies a casteist contamination which women incurred as menstruation. The release of blood from her body assuming symbolic overtones indicates the release of Brahman’s blood after his murder. Thus, after the completion of the menstrual cycle, a woman is assumed to regain her purity and chastity once again. The criminalization of the process is complete when the process explains the failure of the embryo to attain life and successive murders take place in her womb.
The hermeneutics of blood based on blood relations, and sex/gender systems in India have made taboos an inclusive part of the woman’s existence. The act of internalization of menstrual stigmas and victimization as a result of ‘action arising out of stigma’ have made menstruation even more vicious and vilified a phenomenon. The feminist awakening about patriarchal constructs can achieve praxis only when women become aware of such malpractices that minoritize women because discriminating the right to equality enshrined in the Constitution is discrimination of right to life.
Allen, Kevin (2007). The Reluctant Hypothesis: A History of Discourse Surrounding the Lunar Phase Method of Regulating Conception. Lacuna Press. p. 239.
Lévi-Strauss, C. 1978. The Origin of Table Manners. Introduction to a Science of Mythology 3. London: Cape.
Durkheim, E. 1963.  La prohibition de l’inceste et ses origines. L’Année Sociologique 1: 1-70. Reprinted as Incest. The nature and origin of the taboo, trans. E. Sagarin. New York: Stuart.
Lock, M. & Nguyen, V.-K., 2010. An Anthropology of Biomedicine. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Millett, Kate, 1970 (2000). Sexual Politics. University of Chicago Press. pp. ix–x.
The Birth of Bio-Politics: Michel Foucaults Lecture. < http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTDECINEQ/Resources/lenke.pdf>
Ettinger Bracha L. (1995). The Matrixial Gaze. Feminist Arts & Histories Network.
Ettinger, Bracha (2006). “Matrixial trans-subjectivity”. Theory, Culture, & Society. 23 (2–3): 218–222. doi:10.1177/026327640602300247
Soma Mandal is a former guest faculty member in the Department of English, Durgapur Women’s College, West Bengal, India. She is interested in Dalit literature, gender issues and literature from the margins. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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