Menarche, or the first menstruation, is a universal occurrence that marks the beginning of womanhood for women around the world (Payne & Hahn, 2002). In many cultures the act of menstruating entails a host of rituals that the young woman must face. Rituals surrounding this passage into adulthood vary widely from culture to culture and can be as elaborate as entire communities welcoming the event or as simple as a mother and daughter discussing the intricacies of sanitary napkin use. In Hindu and Buddhist Sri Lankan cultures, the first menstruation is welcomed with much celebration and fanfare. Anthropologists understand these rituals, and their implications, to be symbolic codes that help communicate various aspects of a community’s ideologies and social structures (Meyer, 2005). However, the depth of importance bestowed upon the first menstruation in this culture cannot be demonstrated in singular, ritual or ceremonial acts. For the women of Sri Lanka, a complex range of social implications and new responsibilities also underpin this single, celebratory event.
Connections to Sexual Health
The perceptions of menstruation in Sri Lankan culture and the first menstruation rituals that evolve from them, bear obvious connections to the sexual health of these women. According to Hyde and Delamater (2006), menarche is not only a significant biological event but is also an important social one. Biologically, menstruation is a vital process for the continuance of life; socially, menstruation is an indicative process that allows members of our community to know that we are sexually “mature” and capable of contributing “living resources” to the community.
First menstruation practices also provide a window into the larger social constructs and gender belief systems found in other societies (Meyer 2005). According to Niranjana (2001), one of the most revealing menstruation perspectives in Sri Lankan culture, “is the usage of the words innu hennadalu “she has now become a female’-suggesting both the relatively asexual purity of the pre-pubertal girl and the equation of womanhood with childbearing” (p. 60). Kapaida (1995) also references this notion saying, “It is the sign that the preeminent female powers have “entered” a young woman” (p.71). In essence, menstruation is the definitive process that determines womanhood in Sri Lanka, and a female is genderless in this culture until she menstruates.
Sri Lankan Buddhist and Hindu Menstruation Ceremonies
Sri Lanka is often overshadowed in magnitude and grandeur by its neighbor to the immediate west, India. Home to nearly 20 million people, Sri Lanka’s ethnic make up consists of several different ethnic groups and major religions (World Factbook, 2007). Two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s people are Buddhists while the remaining one-third are Hindu, Muslims, and Christians (World Factbook, 2007).
According to Winslow (1980), virtually all Sri Lankan women follow some form of first menstruation ritual. Despite the great diversity found among its different religious and ethnic groups, the rituals that surround the act of menstruation in Sri Lanka remain relatively unchanged across the religious spectrum. Winslow says of the rituals, “The basic events are the same for all groups in Sri Lanka: the girl is isolated for some days, is bathed ritually, and then, with some recognition of specialness, is returned to normal life” (Winslow, 1980, p. 607). This process seems to be based upon two premises: 1.) one, menstruation (particularly the first one) marks the transition from childhood to adulthood, and 2.) two, menstruation itself is the ritual process by which the inherently dirty female body is cleansed. The first premise, the attainment of one’s new, adult role in society, is precluded by a physical segregation from that society. The second premise, the restoration of feminine purity, is accomplished through ritual bathing. Both premises collectively inform the final ritual phase, the return to “normal life.”
Hindu Menstruation Rituals
The Hindu first menstruation ritual is one that involves the entire community. The public ceremony serves as the young girl’s formal introduction to her society as an adult woman with full rights and privileges (Winslow, 1980). Hindu rituals usually consist of a physical separation from the woman’s society, and a return to that society only after a ritual bath has been performed. Almost abruptly from this point onward, the young girl must assume the role of an adult (Winslow, 1980). It is interesting to note that in this society, menstruation is not a personal issue that is kept from the men. Publicly welcoming the woman’s first menstruation seems to emphasize the fact that Hindu communities recognize the important, far-reaching social importance of this common occurrence. The men of the village are perhaps the most aware of the significance of the young girl’s first menstruation because it is only after this ritual has been conducted that the girl is available for marriage (N. Sivasothy, personal communication, March 14, 2007).
Buddhist Rituals of First Menstruation
The Buddhist version of first menstruation ritual closely mirrors the Hindu version. In fact, there is very little distinguishing the two. According to Wickremeratne and Bond (2006), like Hindu girls, the coming of age process for a young Buddhist girl is always “traditionally associated with the kotabalu magula ceremony” (p. 78). Like the Hindu rituals, Buddhist rituals include three ceremonial stages: a separation, a ritual bath, and a return to society. These rituals, too, are based upon the underlying themes of departure from childhood and female purification.
Separation as a Matter of Public Safety
Separation from society is an important part of the menstruation ritual process. It is a precautionary tactic that protects both the woman and her community from her physical and spiritual impurities. According to Niranjana (2001), “menstrual blood is perceived as dirty for some, dangerous or harmful for others, and a matter of shame for women” (p. 60). She writes:
Separation is imposed during the first and subsequent menstruations to curtail the normal social interaction of the girl. . . She is given a separate plate, mug and mat, and there is a strong taboo against participation in religious or other auspicious ceremonies during menstruation. (p. 60) Frazer (1996) also writes, “As soon as signs of that condition make themselves apparent in a young girl, she is carefully segregated from all but female company . . . the very sight of her was dangerous to society” (p. 251). The separation of menstruating females, much like the removal of delinquent elements from free society to corrections facilities, is simply matter of public safety.
Separation as an Indicator of Marginal Female Status
Aside from the physical and spiritual protections for the woman and her community, Stephens (1967), argues that separation is the “one menstrual custom that has repeatedly caught the anthropological imagination and has often been singled out as indicative of low female status” (p.67). Anthropologists seem to agree that menstruating rites and the taboos against women are perpetrated by men on women, and the separation, from men in particular, seems to be a symbolic preparation for the young girl’s new role in life as a modest and chaste woman (Delaney, Lupton, & Toth, 1988).
Winslow also describes this period of transitioning as a form of social conditioning for placement in society saying, (1980) “. . . during the transition period the girl is carefully and auspiciously led through the details of the required behavior of women. She must change from being at ease with men to being circumspect and modest” (p.614). The separation is an intermediate period of being and learning where the female who is neither child nor woman comes into her new, traditional role.
Hindu Separation Practices
In the Hindu tradition, the menstruation period begins with a symbolic period of separation. Hindus believe that during the menstrual period, the body is “shedding” and is in a vulnerable state, therefore, separation during this time is essential for the protection of the menstruating woman as well as those around her (Winslow, 1980). The young woman is often confined to her own house, but some women are sent away altogether to “safe houses” built specifically for the purpose of sheltering menstruating women. According to Knight (1995), many of these shelters are elevated or placed on stilts “to prevent the cosmic disasters which earthly contact would invite” (Knight, 1995, p. 382). In an interview, Nimala Sivasothy (Amma) recalled her own Hindu first menstruation ceremony nostalgically: For the first menstruation, I could not go outside. We girls were told to rest, rest, rest. We were fed special foods to build our strength that we were losing in the blood. We ate mostly eggs, lentils ground into flour, and ginger oil and were not allowed to eat meat, oils, and spices. It lasted 11 days. (2007)
Separation is vital because it is generally believed that a young woman’s healing can only take place away from the general population. The emphasis on preserving strength by eating special foods during periods where the body is considered vulnerable to physical or even spiritual attack is one that is seen in cultures around the world (Wickneratne & Bond, 2006).
Buddhist Separation Practices
As in the Hindu ritual, the female is taken away from the general public at the first sign of menstrual bleeding. While female family members will tend to the basic needs of the girl, the male members of the family are not allowed to see or interact with her during this time. Buddhists believe that the impurity of menstruation is the most dangerous impurity of all and one that is especially dangerous for men. Simply put, “Among Buddhists in Sri Lanka, the experiences of menarche and menstruation are held to evidence women’s threat to cosmic purity and, hence, to society” (Buckley & Gottlieb 1988, p. 10). Like Hindu practices, the Buddhist separation period seems to be viewed as a time to protect both the young girl and the people, particularly the men, around her.
It is also a common belief in Buddhism that during the time when a girl is menstruating she is especially vulnerable to attacks by demons (Winslow 1980). A woman is usually considered powerless to these demons and they can cause her to act irrationally at times. Young, Buddhist menstruating girls are also fed non-spicy vegetable curries and mild foods to preserve their strength and deter demonic interference (Winslow 1980). The food avoidances are an introduction to the new food restrictions she will now have follow during subsequent menstrual periods.
On Ritual Bathing
A Sri Lankan woman’s ritual bath is yet another part of her introduction to life as an adult woman in the society. The ritual bathing process begins with the destruction of childhood clothing by the dobbi, redi nanda, or “washer people” (Winslow, 1980). The “washer people” are very symbolic in Sri Lankan culture. Although their main job is to clean physical dirt, they are often employed to remove spiritual dirt as well (Winslow 1980). The destruction and replacement of a girl’s old garments by the “washer people” symbolizes her departure from childhood and entrance into the adult realm; the ritual bath purifies her for this undertaking.
The delayed ceremonial bath is the young girl’s first demonstration of her new menstrual hygiene expectations. As a menstruating woman, she will not be able to bathe during subsequent menstrual cycles until her blood flow has ceased (Winslow 1980). During this time of impurity, she will also be unable to “prepare food, make offerings, participate in family feasts, go to the temple, into the kitchen, into the granary, or to the well” (Kakar, 1981). However, once menstrual bleeding ends, “the act of pouring water (over oneself) renders a woman pure again” (Niranjana, 2001, p. 61) physically and spiritually.
The Hindu Bathing Ceremony
After the designated period of separation, the elders and experienced women from the village are called to perform the bathing ceremony. The most important participants in the bathing ceremony are the young woman’s mother, older female relatives, and the eldest maternal uncle (N. Sivasothy, personal communication, March 14th, 2007). Amma says: The bath day is chosen according to auspicious days indicated by the young woman’s astrology. The bath ceremony actually includes a true bath; however, because this bath is such a public spectacle, it is always performed fully clothed. Each person in attendance gets a turn to pour a bowl of water over the young woman’s head and offer additional blessings. (personal communication, March 14th, 2007) At the conclusion of this ceremony, the old clothes and jewelry used during the bath and cleansing are given to the local dobbi,. The dobbi prays her blessing and burns the old clothing and jewelry. Next, the family furnishes the young woman with new clothes and gifts that represent her new transition into adulthood (N. Sivasothy, personal communication, March 14th, 2007).
The Buddhist Bathing Ceremony
Unlike the Hindu ritual described by Amma, the Buddhist bathing ritual does not place a strong emphasis on astrology or auspicious days and times (Winslow, 1980). However, in some elaborate rituals, astrological almanacs may be consulted. Many methods are used to predict the best time for bathing rituals, but most Buddhist bathing ceremonies take place just after the last day of menstrual bleeding. The bathing ceremony can either be elaborate or kept quiet depending on the young girl’s financial status and her mother’s preferences. Winslow (1980) describes two accounts of the Buddhist bathing ceremonies in her article: the first takes place almost completely unnoticed and the other takes place with lots of fanfare and celebration. According to Winslow (1980), a low-key ceremony may be in order when the young menstruating girl has older sisters who have not yet been married or if the daughter is one of many.
The most salient controversy concerning first menstruation practices and perspectives in Sri Lankan culture concerns what these ceremonies illustrate about the role women in society. The fact that, “Though the first menstruation is in itself an auspicious event, the menstruating girl herself is seen as polluting” and “the entire village observes a pollution period during these days” (Niranjana, 2001, p. 60) seems to place an unfair burden on women in this society. Because women are often thought to be “polluted” and “impure” during menstruation, negative views of inherent female inferiority abound far beyond the first ceremonial menstrual cycle. Examining the controversies surrounding menstruation in Sri Lankan culture helps to illustrate how menstruation perspectives influence social structure and overall culture. These controversies surround the issue of menstruation in Sri Lanka on three main fronts: menstruation practices as a means of male domination, menstruation as a medical issue, and menstruation as a religious affront.
I. Menstruation Practices as a Means of Male Domination
Some major areas of concern for many Sri Lankan women today are gender issues that surround the act of menstruation. Some oppose the view that menstruation rituals are effective at promoting the positive awareness of impending womanhood. Chandra Alexandre (1999) believes that ritualized menstruation practices are sometimes a form of control. She says, “. . . rites of passage are often only brutal reinforcements of patriarchal biases and attitudes that promote self-hatred and the denigration of women’s power” (p. 10). Although it is the women who typically conduct these rituals, the author suggests that men are at the very heart of it. Alexandre also compares rituals of menstruation to other forms of ritualized abuse such as female genital mutilation, and contends that men control womanhood in societies that allow these rituals (1999). Rituals that actually promote an understanding of the female body and encourage empowerment should be the ideal.
II. Menstruation as a Medical Issue
Another view of menstruation that has survived in Sri Lankan culture presents menstruation as an illness. The article, “Sri Lanka: Free Trade Zone Women Workers Treated in Sub-Human Manner,” by Quintus Perera displays interesting female attitudes toward menstruation. For many of women, menstruation is viewed as an illness equal in magnitude, and just as deserving of time off, as maternity leave. Perera quotes one woman who says, “Like maternity leave, a leave for contagious diseases is essential for workers to have time to heal. In the case of females, it is important when they are faced with such debilities as menstruation” (Perera, 1998, p.29). The understanding of menstruation as a contagious, debilitating illness from which one needs to be healed is one that seems to promote the idea that women’s bodies are inherently compromised and biologically inferior to men. While it is true that female factory workers in Sri Lanka have had to contend with less than stellar human rights treatment, demanding time off during menstrual periods seems like an unreasonable stretch to most Westernized minds.
III. Menstruation as a Religious Affront
Yet another prevailing view of menstruation involves the religious sector of Sri Lankan society. Many women are excluded from basic religious practices while they are menstruating. Santhigiri Ashram’s 1995 article, “Problems in Spirituality related to Women’s Menstruation,” suggests that Hindu women are excluded from religious practices during menstruation because they are vulnerable and need to be watched. The author writes, “It is a negative influence on persons who are thinking of God, if [pollution from menstruation] gets into people’s body through touch or breath . . . menstruating women become vulnerable to evil which can prompt them into indiscriminate actions” (Ashram, 1995, para. 4). This viewpoint seems to focus religious impurity on the woman and her menstrual cycle, and stresses her ability to single-handedly disrupt the sanctity of temples with her mere presence. A woman needs to take no overt action because she is naturally defiled during her time of menstruation.
Ashram’s argument is also based on the stereotype of women being the easier swayed, completely powerless sex. It is interesting to note that his theories are also promoted by the rare feminine figures in religious authority. One Hindu, female guru is quoted as saying, “During that time, it is better for a woman not to worship” (Pechellis, 2004, p. 175). If one woman, who is simply abiding by the automated, biological process that her God assigned to her gender, has the power to pollute and defile that God with her breath then what power does that God really have?
Stakeholders for Maintaining/Dismantling Negative Social Perspectives of Menstruation
Men: Men are the primary stakeholders in this issue because changes to the status quo would greatly upset their “place” in society. The idea of menstruation as a cleansing process for the otherwise perpetually, unclean female gender only fuels feelings of male superiority in this culture. Changing these perspectives would call into question the traditional male (dominant and pure) and female (submissive and contaminated) roles in society.
Organized Religion: Organized religion is a stakeholder in this issue because control over women in societies is often facilitated and validated through religious institutions. Any change in the order of this system might have broader implications for other areas of daily Sri Lankan life. As an institution that is primarily controlled by men, threats to the male stakeholder status are unavoidable if the underlying misogynistic premises of organized religion are challenged.
Women: Though this particular view reeks of Western bias and seems to undermine and devalue the broader social and religious intricacies of Sri Lankan culture, it can be argued that women are stakeholders in this issue because they are directly affected by their own social inaction. As long as they continue to allow natural, biological processes to be viewed unfavorably in their societies, platforms for discrimination and inferiority complexes will continue to exist within the society.
Many cultures view menstruation as the universal symbol of womanhood, and some celebrate its arrival with much fanfare. However, once this pinnacle of womanhood has been attained, the social stigma concerning the innate uncleanness of the society’s “bleeders” permeates all facets of social life. These “new women” now face a life of constant separation and re-purification month after month for years, only finding true solace and relief in menopause. More work should be done to further encourage tolerance and understanding for women’s issues in this part of the world. Awareness and consciousness-raising through education seems to be the obvious pathway; however, imposing Western ideals on such an ancient culture smacks of elitism and may not be the solution. It is easy to make suggestions for the dismantlement of less understood practices and ideologies in remote cultures while sitting smugly upon a Western high horse. Ultimately, change must start from within the community, not from without. Fortunately, this is already slowly taking place.
Despite some opposition and resistance, Sri Lanka is experiencing vast social changes when it comes to women’s rights and health. Views of menstruation and womanhood are slowly changing in response to the modernization of society, and the negative views of womanhood and menstruation once held by many devout religious groups in Sri Lanka are slowly being edged out by more progressive and modern views (Narayanan, 1998). Ideas of pollution and social isolation have almost completely disappeared in most urban areas of Sri Lanka and women are taking more proactive roles in worship and society at large.
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