Menstrual taboos have been generally associated with the oppression of women. It appears that a lot of these taboos appear in societies where women are seen as a lower class, or less important than men.
This is not limited to any particular culture and is evident even in modern societies. In a vast number of religions and cultures, menstrual blood is seen to be a polluting substance that can contaminate whatever it comes into contact with.The fact that women are the ones who cause the ‘contamination’ may lead to their subordinate state in any given society, or more likely, the fact that they already possess an inferior status to men (hunters, symbols of power and decision-makers), menstrual taboos can be used to confirm their lower status. In this essay I will look to examine the different approaches taken to try and understanding menstrual taboos, and whether or not they are reflective of a woman’s inferior or otherwise, place in society.I will look at some different ethnographic examples where taboos are in place, and try to decide how they are relevant to a female’s position in society. I will argue that the distinctions of menstrual taboos are not entirely clear and that each culture must be examined on a case-by-case basis for the results to be effective.
Menstrual taboos are a cross-cultural phenomenon; Buckley and Gottlieb state: “Menstrual taboos have been seen by turn as evidence of primitive irrationality and of the supposed universal dominance of men over women in society. (Buckley and Gottlieb 1988: 3)”.For many cultures this requires the woman to be isolated and made aware of her inferior status. It is difficult however, to study different cultures on a case-by-case basis, as menstrual taboos are quite complex even though they appear to reoccur worldwide. It may be useful to examine the relation of these taboos with reference to religion and cosmology.
There seems to be areas where we are unsure whether culture is a reflection of religion, or religion is a reflection of culture. If women are already seen as inferior in a societal construct, then this will have an effect on their religious views and customs.The lines are quite blurred and interdependent as the attributes of religion and culture go hand-in-hand to shape how people act in society. Many past studies of menstrual taboos by anthropologists have focused on the constrictions of menstruating women with regards to theories of pollution and contamination.
There are so many ethnographic examples of this that the studies relating to them have almost become redundant. Within the Mehinaku community, a South American collection of tribes in Xingu National Park, menstruation is seen as something caused by the bite of a piranha, and is associated with sexual fear, as many tribes also do.When there are menstruating women in this culture they are separated from males who have become sick or otherwise incapacitated. This is because they believe that the blood can contaminate food and is linked with things such as disease, injury and death.
The Mehinaku people associate sex with eating, and their words for sexual intercourse and eating are very similar; ‘aintyawakapai’ and ‘aintyapai,so this may explain their relation to menstruation and the contamination of food. It is not possible to pin-point any specific reason or explanation for menstrual taboos with regards to different cultures.