Menstrual Taboos and Cultural Relativism – Being An Ally
This is a bit of a free form thought response to reading a very interesting article.
I wrote a blog post recently on the role of menstrual taboo in Thailand limiting women’s access to the top stadia and restricting equality and possibilities in Muay Thai, called “Can Bleed Like a Man – Lumpinee, Muay Thai, Culture, Sexism and Meme.”
A lot of responses to that blog post were positive and thoughtful, even those that disagreed with my thesis that traditions which view and treat a class or group of persons as unclean, corrosive or polluting are simply unsustainable. These views and practices must change on a long enough timeline. Further, what we from the west view as “traditional” in a culture that isn’t our own might be a much less time-honored practice than we imagine. Something being “traditional” does not mean it has been around since the dawn of time; sometimes these practices are even quite new.
In this fascinating (and frustrating) article from Mosaic Science, titled “Blood Speaks,” (long and detailed, but very much worth the effort), the author Rose George explores menstrual taboo practices in Nepal and Bangladesh, looking at women who are shunned by family and society during their periods, from her angle the taboo leads to health risks. There are numerous parallel’s to the menstrual taboos in Thailand in terms of the belief that a menstruating woman is powerful and polluting – in fact, I’ve heard that these practices in Thailand may have originated from Brahmanism influence – but the severity in the cultures described in this article are far, far more severe with women being prohibited from entering the house, eating certain foods, worshiping, and even touching other women when they are menstruating. In Thailand (more so in some regions, less so in others) women are prohibited from entering certain sacred spaces when menstruating, but more broadly women can be barred entirely whether they are currently menstruating or not – rather, once a woman has reached menstruating age she is prohibited from areas of temples which hold relics, some Muay Thai rings, or how they enter into rings which do allow them, etc.
As I mentioned previously, some traditions may be more modern or have newer meanings than we realize. The”Blood Speaks” article points out that that the menstrual taboo practices in Bangladesh and Nepal, called chhaupadi, may have had an alternate purpose in older times, as one Nepalese village points out:
In earlier times, the villagers tell me, the menstrual restrictions probably made sense. Women could have a few days’ rest while they were weak from blood loss. The men were around to do the chores and there were family members to do the cooking. Things are different now. The men are gone, the women must still work, and the deprivation and damage done by chhaupadi is greater.
The article explains that these more rural villages nowadays are demographically skewed to have very few, if any, young men as most have migrated to larger cities for work. So the women who are left in the villages are carrying on a practice that no longer fits within the context of older times, when being ejected from the family home for seven days meant a break from the chores, work, childcare and other responsibilities. “’They have to stay outside but still do all the difficult jobs,’ says Kabi Raj Majhi, a young man who is the most vocal of all the villagers…”
Muay Thai is strongly linked to superstition and belief in magic. I find it truly beautiful and feel very conflicted about my appreciation and love for the traditional, somewhat esoteric elements of practices surrounding Muay Thai and the way in which these very same practices limit my access to and participation in Muay Thai. I cannot have one and the other. But in any example of modernization there is always a backlash and usually that backlash manifests as a clinging to the most conservative aspects of traditional practice, clamping down strongly on exclusion. We see this a lot in the US with the Whack-a-Mole style of refusing the basic rights of whichever minority group is gaining momentum at that political moment. Muay Thai in Thailand is seeking a modernization in its image, its practice, its global market value. The New Lumpinee, promotions like Thai Fight, changes in judging, commercialization of Muay Thai gyms and traditional pedagogy, marketing Muay Thai (especially female Muay Thai) toward a middle-class audience to consume the art as a form of fitness… all of these things are changing Muay Thai and all of them are Muay Thai. It is to be expected that the backlash to these changes is a clinging to the more exclusive aspects of “tradition” but one must also consider who is the caretaker of these cultural traditions?
The women shrug. It is our tradition, they say. It’s what our parents and grandparents did, so it’s what we do. But away from the group, as she has her picture taken in her miserable chhaupadi shed, Nandakala is more frank. “Of course I hate it,” she tells the photographer. In the winter it’s cold. In the summer it’s hot. The restrictions are stifling and unfair. “Why should the gods punish us? Why should women be punished? But what the hell can we do?”
There is a festival for Hindus in Nepal called Rishi Panchami, a day of atonement for women of menstruating age, the day
commemorates a woman who was reborn as a prostitute because she didn’t follow menstrual restrictions. It is a women’s holiday, and so Nepal’s government gives all women a day off work. This is not to recognize the work done by women, but to give them the time to perform rituals that will atone for any sins they may have committed while menstruating in the previous year.
Rishi Panchami enrages many educated Nepali women. It’s not so much the superstition but the legitimacy that the government gives it by providing a holiday that declares women to be dirty and polluting.
Just because something is practiced by women doesn’t mean it is appreciated or accepted by them. Thai women internalizing the “unclean” status of having reached menstruating age, not hanging her underwear too high off the ground or keeping it near where a man’s head might – at some point – be, not entering the ring when she’s menstruating, not entering over the ropes, considering herself polluting and separating herself, using unsafe hygiene practices like douching… all of these things are self-regulated by women from cultural and social pressures, but that doesn’t necessarily mean all practicing women like it, appreciate it, or feel connected to it. And as I said in my own blog post about Thai women being forced to go under the bottom rope to enter the ring – a practice that is understood culturally by some Thai women to be degrading – Thai women are Thai, it’s their culture, country, sport and country also. The “Cultural Relativism” that allows us to appreciate differences in culture without needing to “fix” non-western practices to be the same as what we find familiar does not extend to the kinds of practices that are being objected to by the people who belong to that culture. “Tradition” and “Culture” do not belong only to the most conservative among a people; they do not belong only to men, only to those who benefit from exclusion and restriction; they belong also to women, to children, to ethnic minorities, to those who are oppressed, restricted and excluded. Change does not belong to the west; freedom, equality and liberal though are not “western” products from which we must protect the rest of the world. The greatest thing we have to offer is not our half-informed protection of conservative traditions we don’t understand under the waving flag of “cultural relativism.” At our best we can offer ourselves as allies to those who are reaching out from behind the limits of their status within their own culture, to never condone limitation by saying it’s just “the way things are,” but rather realize that the way things are is ever-changing; it’s not a static state.
For the full article from Mosaic Science: “Blood Speaks: What is life like when having your period puts your health at risk and means you are shunned by society? Rose George reports from Nepal and Bangladesh on menstrual taboos.” It gives a fascinating light in which to look at the menstrual taboos and gender traditions of Thailand.
And my full blog post on menstrual taboos in Thailand as limitations for women in Muay Thai: “Can Bleed Like a Man – Lumpinee, Muay Thai, Culture, Sexism and Meme”
As my views have evolved, this is an article I wrote subsequent to this one: Navigating Western Feminism, Traditional Thailand and Muay Thai