Since the dawn of time “riding the crimson wave” and having a visit from old Aunt Flow has been a regular part of many women’s lives around the world. But despite the global connection the experiences differ wildly from one culture to the next.
Cultural differences and attitudes convey menstruating women as both something to be celebrated and shamed, as both a journey of womanhood and as a monthly contamination.
But many of these beliefs and practices are changing. Out-dated traditions and attitudes that have negatively impacted woman are becoming less common and slowly menstruation is becoming less of a curse.
Spending some time in a Menstruation Hut
A menstruation hut was a shelter where women with their period stayed due to the belief that they needed to be separated to protect their families. It was formerly practised in Rastafarian societies, and by Balinese and by Hindus in South India.
Alfon Adadikam chairperson of West Papuan Community in Victoria says the menstruation hut is still used in Papua by a certain tribe for a girl’s first menstruation. “The girl will sleep in the hut especially made for her and she must stay awake at night as long as she still bleeding to avoid bad dream that they believe will eventuate.” [sic]
It’s party time
In some African and Indonesian cultures, the first menstruation is a reason to feast on special foods, receive blessings and put on a party dress.
Merthi Poedijono, President of Balinese organisation Sekarwari, tells SBS that the Balinese hold a ceremony when a girl starts her period, called Menik Kelih, which is led by a priest or by elders. “[The ceremony] is to give offering to God, the purpose is to ask God to bless and lead her into a good life. This can be done at the girl’s house or other place but not at Pura (place of worship) as menstruating women are forbidden to enter Pura.”
Anti Suroso, employee at the GN-OTA foundation in Jakarta says that in Central Java a ceremony called Tarapan is practised: “In Jogyakarta palace the girl will be dressed with a special palace code of dress. The mother will make red and white rice porridge, herbs, spices and incense to prevent bad luck. Words of wisdom are given by the mother and other wise women. No men are allowed to participate including her father.
Mentoring and a special box of gifts
Juliana Nkrumah, Founder of the African Women Australia Inc says in Ghana, the Akan community recognise first menstruation as a time for special feasting and mentoring from older women.
“When I got my period, older girls told us what to do and supplied pads. You were given a special meal of yam, boiled and mashed, until it became fluffy, combined with onion, chilli, palm oil and a hard-boiled egg. This was presented by the Mum to her menstruating daughter, and she was taught about pregnancy and boys.”
A former ritual practiced by the Akan community was a coming-of-age celebration. “The girl was given a box in which were cosmetics, a traditional Akan dress, and traditional teskua head dress. She would get dressed up and stand in front of the house, so that the community would know she had come of age and [men could] ask for her hand in marriage. Kids would also come with their drums and dance around her.”
A reason for white pants and the fear of contamination
For some Indian women of Hindu faith, menstruation is a curse of contamination that prevents them from their daily activities.
“History and mythology points to them being asked to wear white or plain clothes for that time of the month,” says Manpreet Singh, Executive Producer of SBS Punjabi program.
“They couldn't enter the kitchen or cook for the family. They couldn't fill the water from the well and were regarded as unholy. They couldn't enter the temple either. I experienced this recently when I was in India as well, and was shocked that this practice still continues.”
Many Hindu temples in India display notices at their entrance telling menstruating women that they are not welcome.
For Nikita Azad, an organiser behind campaign #happytobleed, she believes it is important to change the views of contamination and encourage Indian women to speak openly about menstruation.
“With educated people, it is a bit different now. Education has brought a level of acceptance of menstruation as a natural process. But the appropriation of women as mothers, gems to be protected, is dissuading women from raising their voice.”
Period leave is a thing
Period leave, which allows menstruating women to take time-off without shame, is seen by some as a positive movement, others as sexism, belittling women and their “lady complaints”. The controversial menstruation leave is already in place in Taiwan, Indonesia, Korea and Japan.
Japan was the first country to start the period leave trend in 1947, but employers are not required to pay for period leave. Japan’s neighbours have followed suit, with Korean women being offered one-day-a-month paid period leave, while Indonesian women can take two days a month and Taiwanese are entitled to three days a year.
According to Japanese Women Working by Janet Hunter, Japan’s period leave was initiated for practicality and as a quality of life issue. “Women had no menstrual pads; there was no cotton available for that purpose. Rags were few … Menstruation leave was not inspired by women feeling weak or cramped or in need of protection for future maternity, but by women who had no easy way to deal with the physical aspects of their periods.”
Although Japanese women now have ease of access to menstruation products, the leave still continues today.