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Cultural Practices and Menstruation

October 29 2020 | Written by Rhea Kumar (She/Her)

Disclaimer: At Marlow, we recognize that not only women menstruate - men and non-binary individuals do too. We use ‘women’, ‘girls’ and ‘menstruators’ interchangeably in this article to be consistent with the language of the articles we cite.

In many cultures, periods usher in a lot more than a box of tampons and a week of stomach cramps. 

When I set out to write this week’s blog post, I couldn’t help but think of the day I got my first period. A sudden flurry of confusion followed by an ‘aha!’ moment is what I recall most vividly. After my mom handed me a box of hideously oversized pads, I sat on the edge of my bed and debated which of my friends I’d tell first. Then my mom popped her head in the door and told me to get in the car because we were going to Starbucks. 

As we sat with our venti-sized hot chocolates on a rainy March day, she warned me that every 28 days I would have to prepare for this all over again and that it was perfectly okay to get stomach cramps. Phew, I thought… Just a week before my period hit, I did in fact experience stomach cramps, but I thought that it meant that I was about to die from a slow, painful stomach disorder. She ended the informative session with a cheerful, “you’re a big girl now!” 

To say that the casual sipping of $5 hot chocolate was celebratory may be a tad suggestive, but I’ll take it! If your household or culture is anything like mine, it goes without saying that your first period and all subsequent ones aren’t a big deal. However, in other cultures and religions periods can be a signal to celebrate, to isolate, and to engage in important traditions. 

We at Marlow understand that 'culture' is a very encompassing word, and there are many traditions that exist within a single culture. We acknowledge this information merely scratches the surface and in no way aims to generalize cultures into a single case. 

As wonderful as it would be to touch on every single culture and/or religious attitudes toward menstruation, we can all agree that that’s a pretty taxing undertaking! Instead, we focused on a few specific cultures (including North American, Ojibwe, Tamil, Traditional Islam and Orthodox Judaism traditions), and refined our research with personal interviews. If you want to share your culture’s attitudes, drop us a comment below, we’d love to learn more from you! 

North American Culture

Let’s take into account that there is not a singular North American culture, as the continent has some of the world’s biggest melting pot cities including Toronto, New York and Los Angeles. 

Instead of trying to wrap our heads around how many cultures we could cover, we decided to shed light on some practices toward menstruation instead. 

Red Tent Gatherings

The term ‘red tent’ originated from Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent, and refers to the tent in which Biblical figure Jacob expected his tribe to seek refuge while they menstruated or gave birth.  

Today, red tent gatherings are gaining mainstream recognition in non-religious circles thanks to Diamant’s book and word of mouth. The ‘red tent’ has been commercialized, as companies and organizations from Los Angeles to Austin can be hired to organize a red tent event either for a first time menstruator, or as a monthly gathering. The gathering can consist of activities like guided meditations, reiki sessions, crafts and storytelling. The purpose of red tent gatherings are to encourage women to reclaim periods as a powerful experience rather than be ashamed by it. 

Washington Post writer Cori Howard described the Red Tent gathering she arranged for her 11-year old daughter to celebrate her first period and coming of age. Howard noted that her appeal to the red tent gathering stemmed from North America’s lack of mainstream rituals to celebrate periods, and a desire to empower her daughter by imparting female wisdom that she didn’t have access to when she first got her period. 

Ojibwe Culture

The Ojibwe (Ojibway) are also known as the Chippewa, and speak a form of Algonquin language. They originated in areas that include Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Ontario. 

In Ojibwe culture, periods are called “moontime.” It is a celebratory time that encourages those experiencing their moons to take it easy, not participate in cooking, and refrain from medicine consumption because it is a time of cleansing and renewal. 

Celebrating moons is a way to celebrate womanhood, says Cleora White of White Earth Band of Ojibwe. Above all, recognition of the moon cycle helps keep menstruators healthy in both body and mind while reminding the community of these individuals’ significance. 

Tamil Culture

In Tamil culture, the first period can lead to a wedding-like celebration costing up to $30,000. It is the celebration of a girl turning into a woman, and therefore all family members, both immediate and distant, are expected to attend. 

I attended a period party back when I didn’t even know what a period was. With over hundreds of attendees, a white limousine, glamorous attire, a grand buffet and lively music, I was truly under the assumption that it was a wedding reception until I learned that it was a “period party.” 

According to a Globe and Mail article by V. Radhika, the celebration of a period also entails a private ceremony with far less attendees. At the ceremony, a young girl is given a bath of saffron and milk, and she wears a sari for the first time, which is a traditional garment that marks womanhood. 

Traditional Islam

According to a Marlow reader who practices Islam, when a woman gets her period, she refrains from praying as she is deemed ritually impure. She is also restricted from touching the holy book (Qur’an) and from fasting if it is Ramadan. Once the period is over, she takes a shower and is then able to pray again. According to Beenish Ahmed’s article for Vice,  menstrual-related faith limitations are viewed by some as a “holiday” that allows them to take a break from daily routine. To others, they view these restrictions as a tough balance between their faith and feminist views. 

According to the reader, in a traditional sense it is taboo and even shameful to talk about periods to male family members. Despite this, she says, each household may adapt their own practices and attitudes towards discussions about periods.

Orthodox Judaism

As I learned from Rabbi Alana Suskin, different interpretations of Judaic law entail different traditions. During my interview with Rabbi Suskin, she emphasized that her knowledge pertains to Orthodox Judaism. In a general sense, at the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle, she goes to  mikveh: the ritual of going to a body of water that flows. Suskin makes it clear that going to the local swimming pool is definitely not equivalent to a mikveh. Going to the mikveh is a gesture of sanctifying oneself while engaging with God. 

As to whether a girl is expected to go to mikveh after her first period is not set in stone, as it depends on the practices of one’s community. 

In an orthodox sense, Rabbi Suskin says that couples must refrain from having sex during a woman’s period, and in some interpreations, spouses are forbidden to touch one another at all during a woman’s period.  

“For many, this time of isolation can actually enhance the intimacy between couples as they patiently wait, ” says Suskin, but she jokes that “for some women, however, the isolation is just another reminder that periods are annoying and they can’t wait until they reach menopause.” 

Whether you gather under a red tent, celebrate with your family, refrain from doing daily tasks, or even grab a cup of coffee with your mom, there is no wrong or right way to view a culture’s attitudes to periods. At the crux of it all, we are in this together. To possess the superhuman ability to bleed for an entire week, endure physical pains and changes all while putting on a brave face is truly extraordinary. We at Marlow acknowledge that a period is a journey of personal discovery and reflection (while being slightly annoying), and that it is definitely worth celebrating.