Culture shapes behaviour, attitudes and beliefs -or is it the other way around? The chicken or the egg? This has puzzled me since I was a child wondering why everybody I knew wore jeans but in pictures the people living in, say, India did not. And the members of my family –uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins- all went to church and sat in seats. None of them prostrated themselves on little rugs on the ground. Did each of us have to be Protestant? Was there a choice? Or, was there something about my family that made them that way? I don’t remember choosing.
Why do we end up believing or doing something that seems arbitrary when compared with other parts of the world? Why do we often think that only the way we do things is appropriate? Correct? How many correct ways are there..?
Could imitation be something akin to an infection? If everybody we know does the same thing, why would we even suspect it? Maybe it’s contagious and causes a psychological compulsion to fit in –like fashion, or expresssions in language that identify us as a member of a group or region. We seldom question it, but then again, there is no reason to: everybody around us is doing the same thing so it infrequently rises to a conscious concern. It’s an outrageous thought experiment of course and yet such curious congruity does give one pause for thought.
But in our islands of similarity we do notice difference; it makes us feel uneasy –as if perhaps there was a choice. Another way to do something. Another way to be in the world. And depending on the status of the innovator, we may see the novelty as interesting but peculiar –perhaps even something we should adopt for ourselves- or we may consider it simply wrong. Strange. Evil. Something to be shunned, avoided at all costs -even at the expense of the defector. Even if the apostate is tolerated under other circumstances when seemingly adhering more closely to the accepted norms.
I use the word apostate advisedly. Society is a religion, and one that is often disdainful of heretics, aberrations that tug at the pattern in the fabric. Anomalies. Discrepancies sometimes strain cohesion and make us question who we are and why we have come to behave the way we do. We are creatures of custom.
Of course I realize it is difficult, if not impossible, to apprehend difference without judgment. Even curiosity suggests analysis: comparison and evaluation. Some things, however, seem difficult to assign merely to custom; the difference is more appropriately attributable to fear. Unintended ignorance. Naivete.
The menstrual taboo is a case in point. There have been some recent articles in both the BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-29727875?print=true and the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/sabrina-rubli/menstrual-education_b_5689072.html that discuss problems surrounding menstruation and how it interferes with education for young girls especially. Menstruation is a natural process for renewing the uterine lining every month: shedding the old cells to make way for new ones that may be required to grow a baby. But natural does not necessarily mean acceptable or discussable for everybody.
Culture deems some things embarrassing, things best kept private or at least not shared outside a family or circle of friends. Bodily functions and intimate relations probably top the list. And yet necessity sometimes trumps personal feelings; where adequate facilities do not exist, an accommodation, a compromise usually springs up to fill the need. So while communal ablution may never rise to the level of a societal norm, a variation of it may be tolerated under some circumstances. Safety and vulnerability constrains many compromises, with strict gender separation often necessitating extreme measures such as waiting until the relative safety of darkness for a woman to relieve herself. Even this atrocious compromise is fraught with danger, as recent reports of rape and sometimes murder in parts of rural India attest. That the practice should even need to exist is unconscionable to most of us; that those with the authority and power to change it in the region have not managed to remedy it is worse.
But let’s not allow the unreasonable social diminution of women in one area blind us to an even more pervasive inequity in many developing nations around the world: the cultural taboo about menstruation. Femme International has documented some of the more egregious offenders in its website http://www.femmeinternational.org/the-issue.html
Culture is a tricky thing. Both intriguing and covert, it exerts an inordinate amount of influence on thought and action. The sources of its traditions are often historical, bound in a delicate weave with myth and legend, and are at best opaque. To question it, therefore is difficult and usually seen as insulting and provocative –it is what separates us from them, precluding further analysis, further understanding. “It’s just how we do things,” is the usual response to questions from foreigners. “You wouldn’t understand.”
The menstrual taboo is like that… and not. Attitudes are seldom fodder for experimental investigations, and yet occasionally there are aspects that are historically discoverable. The enforced seclusion or restrictions on the activity of menstruating women are usually ascribed to ignorance –lack of education about the function and meaning of menstruation- or fear of some theological punishment. And yet Femme International, political correctness notwithstanding, has intimated there may be a more obvious, historical reason for the concern, albeit uncomfortable to state.
Traditionally, menses have been a source both of embarrassment as well as inconvenience for a woman –especially if she is required to be in public places such as the market -or school in more modern days- for any extended period of time. How to cope with the menstrual blood? Only recently have effective measures been available, but even these are priced beyond the means of many girls in isolated villages. In Kenya, for example, the BBC article reveals that the cheapest package of sanitary pads costs almost half the average daily wage, so they may be seen as more of a luxury item than a necessity. ‘As a result, girls will resort to using alternative methods of menstrual management, such as rags, leaves, newspaper, bits of mattress stuffing, even mud.’ The Femme International again: ‘Menstruation is the number one reason why girls miss school. Sometimes girls will attend school on their periods, but will refuse to sit down, or once seated, refuse to move. Many schools do not have appropriate latrine facilities, and girls are unable to wash themselves during the day. When latrines are shared between boys and girls, they are teased and mocked during their period.’ Indeed it has been suggested that because of some of these practices, the odour alone may have given rise to some of the fear of contagion and restrictions placed on the menstruating woman. For example, the BBC reports than in ‘regions of Kenya, girls are forbidden from touching livestock, preparing food or consuming animal products for fear of contamination.’ And in India ‘there is generally a silence around the issue of women’s health –especially around menstruation. A deep-rooted taboo feeds into the risible myth-making around menstruation: women are impure, filthy, sick and even cursed during their period.’
Femme International has suggested at least one acceptable option: menstrual cups. ‘Menstrual cups provide an affordable and sustainable solution to menstrual health management. A menstrual cup is made of medical grade silicone and is worn inside the vagina during menstruation to collect fluid. Menstrual cups are more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly than tampons as they can be washed and reused for up to 15 years. Unlike [expensive] pads and tampons, the cups only need to be emptied every 12 hours. Thus girls can attend school without worrying about the availability of private washroom facilities, or revealing their period to peers.’
There are other remedies of course and they, too, need to be pursued. Once again the Femme International: ‘Young women who lack the knowledge and resources to safely and effectively manage their periods not only miss school but face stigma and shame from their male and female peers. When girls do not understand why their body menstruates each month, they easily believe that it is something to feel shame about, something to keep hidden and something that is a source of humiliation. This type of behaviour is strongly influenced by the widespread stigma that surrounds menstruation in the majority of communities. When women are unable to manage their periods, they are less able to participate in daily life. Addressing the issue of menstruation through health education, positive reinforcement and the provision of management materials reduces these gender specific barriers.’
Yes, it’s a step to be sure, but one that may require a generation to succeed. We must not give up because the progress seems slow and the task insurmountable. Attitudes do shift, cultural mores and folkways change, governments fall. And with the almost ubiquitous availability of social media, one hopes the results might be noticeable even in our time. The curtain of mystery that has always separated the two sexes need not be rent asunder, though –mystery, after all, can be a source of awe and wonder. And not all mysteries have to be solved -sometimes just acknowledged and appreciated for their charm and excitement. No, the fabric need not be torn -merely parted enough to reveal that what differences do exist between the sides -between males and females- are nothing to fear. We were made for each other, after all.