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First Blood: A Cultural Study of Menarche

Chapter 3


We are unclean when we’ve got the period.1

For many young girls the most disturbing feature of menarche is the involuntary secretion of blood from their bodies and the associated soiled clothing. Another aspect that came up early in the interview process was the concept of becoming unclean, in the sense of ‘polluted’. As the interviews continued, women conveyed how their religion influenced their understanding of menarche and menstruation and expressed the thought that menarche introduced the presence of impurity or pollution to religious activities. Although these were older women, many emphasised that their beliefs were present in their cultures today. In this chapter I will argue that the religious belief systems observed by my interviewees – Judaism, Islam, Eastern and Western Orthodox Christian traditions, Hinduism and Buddhist thought – constructed the menstruating body of women as unclean, and that this influenced women’s own constructions of the menstruating self. Throughout the chapter I will show ways in which the interviewees’ religious belief systems governed practices relating to menstrual uncleanness. Moving beyond the interview data, I will explore the ways in which major shifts in thought regarding the pollutant qualities of the menstrual body came about in religious traditions.

Impurity and pollution were matters of major interest to anthropologist Mary Douglas, arising from her African fieldwork. Douglas develops the idea of dirt and contagion through two themes that the anthropologists Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb noted are ideally suited to the topic of menstrual blood.2 Douglas argues that ideas surrounding dirt are cultural constructs, using as an example the guest given a cracked cup. Western social convention frames cracked drinking vessels as potentially harmful because dirt contains germs, so by transgressing custom the host endangers the guest by an action with the potential for contagion. In putting the cup aside, the idea of taboo is introduced, and from the simple everyday experience more complex theories are developed.

First is the concept of taboo, which Douglas argues is a way of maintaining a particular world-view of social organisation and stability. She links the study of taboo to belief systems, describing it as a coding function that sets up boundaries around potentially dangerous situations. Taboo works because of social compliance with belief and the authority of a leader, or leaders. Any contravention creates a threat that is potentially contagious to the entire community.

The second theme combines ambiguity and anomaly. Douglas argues that anything not fully understood, not able to be cognitively placed, causes concern, fear, and threat. Taboo provides protection by transferring the ambiguous to the bounded sacred.3 Taboo also functions against cognitive unrest caused by the anomalous; Douglas refers to the Abominations of Leviticus and the pig, arguing that feet deviant from the cloven-footed domestic ruminants create the anomaly, hence uncleanness and dietary taboo. Although she uses the terms ambiguity and anomaly, she insists they are not synonymous. Ambiguity, for instance, is present in any situation or statement that may be interpreted in more than one way. If the ambiguous can be reduced to a single interpretation then the concern, fear, or threat is also reduced. Anomaly is the odd entity in any given group or series and causes the same concern, fear, and threat as ambiguity. However, the anomalous may be physically controlled by destruction of the cause, or by rules of avoidance, stressing oddity or difference as the converse of things approved. In all societies, ‘matter out of place’ – those anomalies and ambiguities considered unclean or dangerous, which William James describes as part of a system – must be set apart if order is to be preserved.4

A symbolic ‘being set apart’ was discussed by the first group of women interviewed, as part of articulating the concept of uncleanness. Zosime, who was born to Greek parents in Alexandria in 1923, told me, ‘we don’t go to church because it is not clean for the lady. It is dirty. I couldn’t explain … don’t go to church. Don’t get the communion’.5 Initially I wondered if this was due to Islamic influence in the Egyptian Greek Orthodox Church until other Greek-born women in the group concurred. Prohibition spilt over into social life for young Greek women, particularly those from peasant backgrounds, because menarche introduced a time of danger. Young women were perceived to have become a corrupting force, a threat to men in a society that stressed motherhood rather than sexuality. As a result they entered a form of bodily seclusion, wearing shapeless, concealing, clothes and a head covering, their menstrual impurity prohibiting religious activities.6 Nor was Zosime alone in her experience. Arabic-speaking Nadia, born to Syrian and Lebanese parents in Alexandria in 1939, recalled that during menstruation ‘we should not take … accept … from the priest [communion]’.7 This was echoed by Maryam from Lebanon who told me, ‘I am a Christian and they say that when you have your period you cannot go to church until you wash and finish properly’.8 Later I met a group of Russian-speaking women who had recently arrived in Australia. Seda, struggling to express herself in English, told me ‘I want to say about Armenian religion. Armenian religion is Gregorian, and when this period, woman with menstruation, can go into the church. Armenia and Ethiopia are Gregorian, but all Christian’.9 However, Olena, from Ukraine, offered another view: ‘Russian cannot go. Georgia, Belarus … Orthodox’.10 Olena provided the key – Orthodoxy. According to religious historian William E. Phipps, the third-century Bishop of Alexandria, Dionysius the Great, was the first documented leader of a Christian church to prohibit menstruating women from the Communion table on the grounds of impurity, an edict that remains upheld by church law in Eastern Orthodoxy.11

How did these ideas about menarche and menstruation evolve? When we consider life for women from ancient times we understand that most of their menstruating years were given to pregnancy and lactation rather than to bleeding. Consequently, the rarer the occurrence, the more profound it would have seemed, as Judith Antonelli notes.12 In early societies the occasional menstruation would be signified by patches of blood on women’s garments, on the ground where they had walked and where they reclined. We read of Rachel in Genesis, sitting in her tent on a camel’s storage saddle, excusing herself to her father, ‘I cannot rise up before thee; for the custom of women is upon me’.13 Rachel may have been hiding stolen goods in the saddle and claiming ‘women’s custom’ as an excuse, but she illustrates the reality that menstruation limited movement and made women’s everyday tasks difficult. Where water was scarce, early women’s skin may have borne blood in stripes down the inner thighs, under the nails, and smeared on hands and clothes. Moreover, this was blood that could not be controlled. It was messy, and humans, as Douglas persuasively argues, seek order through the control of unclean matter by taboo, which entails separation, demarcation and purification.14

Menarche was, and is, an anomaly, according to Douglas’ theory. A young girl, neither sick nor wounded, begins to bleed. Moreover, she is neither child nor reproductive woman and this makes her place in society one of ambiguity. To the ancients this was an unstable situation, and therefore dangerous, not only to the social group around the girl but to herself, and so certain rules evolved to regulate life for the menarcheal girl during her first period and in diverse ways, according to her culture, with subsequent menstruation.15 When working as a midwife I occasionally encountered the menstruating newborn girl. This is a fine example of anomaly but one missing in the anthropological literature I have read, so the meaning associated with it in traditional societies remains unknown.16 When the ambiguous and the anomalous become part of the religious belief system, clear rules are drawn between the sacred and the secular and transgressions are punished.

The concept of danger is heard in Cecile’s story. Cecile comes from a village in Uganda and was away from home at the time of her menarche. She spoke hesitantly of another concern: ‘I was staying in another place with an auntie … but I didn’t tell her because I was told she might do something … or even … especially that first thing is very important’.17 Cecile was alluding to the power associated with menarcheal blood. She had been warned not to let that power get into the wrong hands. She went on carefully: ‘also, because we didn’t have pads … we were using cloth … from old linens … the first thing you used you give to your mum and that’s…’ Cecile laughed with embarrassment ‘…but I don’t know what they did with it’. Cecile had shared as much as she wanted to on that subject. I found the same with Ruth, also from Uganda, a deeply religious woman who was at boarding school at the time of her menarche. When asked about any traditional responses to menarche in her culture, she told me, ‘my mum was a Christian and, with the knowledge of Christianity which had come, she did not leave us to just go and survey things ourselves. She made a boundary for us so we had to go by those boundaries so we never … she was very cautious of these cultural events which … many of them involved the evil areas. I mean all the superstitions which are totally not in line with Christianity … we were protected from that so we never had experience of them at all. Most of the cultural things are truly very wicked and cause a lot of fear’.18 These two women, both from cultures where traditional belief systems are seemingly at odds with modernity and Christianity, experienced menarche during the escalating civil wars that followed Ugandan independence (in 1962) – a time when many thousands of women were becoming victims of rape.19 Cecile introduces the concept of menarcheal blood and power and Ruth’s denial of knowledge confirms its existence, together with the inference of danger. I was reminded of anthropologist Alma Gottlieb’s findings among the West African Beng, many of whom are now Islamic or Christian, but still take part in some of the older traditional belief practices, such as using menstrual blood for witchcraft with the intention of affecting others in either positive or negative ways.20

So it was that Cecile protected her now-ambiguous self from the anomaly of menarche, that of the power of first blood, by concealing it from a woman who might cause harm. Ruth was protected from the inferred danger of traditional practices by her mother’s Christian boundaries. For the Greek and Russian-speaking women following the Eastern and Russian Orthodox belief systems, there was compliance with ancient rules of Leviticus, inevitably quoted in studies of menstrual exclusion.

Before Christianity and Islam, Leviticus had long provided Jewish women with laws directing menstrual conduct. These commandments have been regarded by feminists as a template for women’s oppression by men, and by others as a hygiene guide for avoiding contagion.21 Because Leviticus is enormously influential in the lives of so many women, I include the relevant verses here:

She shall be put apart seven days: and whoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the evening.

Everything that she lieth upon in her separation shall be unclean: everything also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean.

Whoever toucheth her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even.

And if it be on her bed, or on anything whereon she sitteth, when he toucheth it, he shall be unclean until the even.

And if any man lie with her at all, and her flowers be upon him, he shall be unclean seven days; and all the bed whereon he lieth shall be unclean.

But if she be cleansed of her issue, then she shall number to herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean.

And on the eighth day she will take unto her two turtles, or two young pigeons, and bring them to the priest, to the door of the tabernacle.

And the priest shall offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for her before the Lord for the issue of her uncleanness.22

The ambiguity of women’s blood has an added dimension in Leviticus: that of the power and danger of contagion. By assigning the problem to the sacred, the mechanism of defence and protection is enacted under the aegis of divine authority. Women are separated and demarcated in the secular space and prohibited from the sacred until purification and atonement are obtained through animal blood sacrifice.

Leviticus remained the authoritative text in the Western Christian tradition until the sixth century, and women continued to be prohibited from entering the church or taking communion. In 596 CE Augustine, first bishop of the Catholic Church in England, wrote to the Pope to ask about women’s menstrual exclusion from church. The Pope’s response reflected a change of thought based on the Gospels:

A woman should not be forbidden to enter church during these times, for the workings of nature cannot be considered culpable, and it is not just that she should be refused admittance, since her condition is beyond her control. We know that the woman who suffered an issue of blood, humbly approaching behind our Lord, touched the hem of his robe, and was at once healed of her sickness … A woman, therefore, should not be forbidden to receive the mystery of Communion at these times. If any out of a deep sense of reverence do not presume to do so, this is commendable; but if they do so, they do nothing wrong. For while the Old Testament makes outward observances important, the New Testament does not regard these things so highly as the inward disposition, which is the sole true criterion. Therefore … how can a woman who endures the laws of nature with a pure mind be considered impure?23

However, medieval historian Monica Green points out that Pope Gregory’s attempts to bring about change did not have unanimous support within the church. As a result the prohibition remained until the 12th century, when Pope Innocent III affirmed the earlier decree of Pope Gregory, allowing a menstruating woman to stay out of church but not prohibiting her attendance – a shift in religious thought that effected cultural change.24

This divergence from the Eastern Orthodox tradition altered the concept of menarcheal and menstrual uncleanness by transferring the source of impurity from the body to the mind. Thus, in Western Christian churches, the Levitical prohibition of the menarcheal and menstruating woman entering the sacred space and receiving communion became, and remained, invalid. Over eight centuries later, the responses of elderly Italian-born women to the question about menarche, and attitudes of the Roman Catholic Church toward it, were hardly unexpected. Loretta had quickly replied that at menarche and thereafter she could attend church when menstruating, ‘yes, yes, that’s a … that’s nature. There’s no harm. That’s nature’.25 Neve brought a certain authority to her response, arguing ‘I have two uncles who are priests. Nobody say this’.26 However, Ramona, a Spanish-speaking Chilean woman, introduced another aspect to my question about religion and menarche – virginity as a metaphor for purity. For Ramona the remembered connection between menarche and her Roman Catholicism was her struggle with the mind–body imperatives that her developing sexuality caused, ‘because you have to go in a white and virgin to the church anytime you get married’.27 Her emphasis on the significance of virginity was reiterated by the other Chilean women, suggesting a further shift in thought from menstrual uncleanness to the religious model of purity provided by the Virgin Mary, akin to the idealised feminine identity constructed by male priests in late medieval England, as we saw in chapter one.

Yet for women of Orthodox Jewish belief, Leviticus remains the main authority. Yanuva, who was born in Egypt in 1946 to Sephardic parents, experienced menarche while in transit as a refugee from Nasser’s regime. She explained that her mother’s Sephardic heritage embraced a Kabbalistic tradition, and that ‘the main focus of a synagogue is the ark and it’s like a cupboard, and inside the cupboard are the Torah scrolls, and three times a week … Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays, a Torah scroll is taken out and we read from it. OK? So, when the Torah scroll is out you’re not, according to my mother, you’re not allowed to look at it. So you have to keep your face down, or up, or turn your face away because you are not allowed to look at it because it’s too holy … and that can translate itself to not even to go to synagogue when you’ve got your periods … and the other thing is, in the regular run-of-the-mill Jewish law … when the wife within the family is menstruating, and for a week afterwards, she is called Niddah, and they separate. You don’t have any physical contact, definitely no sexual contact. You can’t even lift the same object which means you can’t hand a child from one to the other. You can’t hand anything over from one to the other’.28 The significance of Niddah for Jewish women is present in Yanuva’s brief reference and I was interested to discover, some time later, that today’s Jewish girls attend special weekly classes over the course of a year, from when they are about 11, in preparation for their Bat Mitzvah, the religious coming-of-age at the age of 12. In place of learning Torah, as their male counterparts do, some synagogues place the emphasis on learning how to become good Jewish women and mothers. The girls are instructed in the women’s role for Shabbat and other rituals, and learn about Niddah, or ritual purity, including visiting a micveh, the traditional Jewish women’s immersion bath through which purification is achieved after menstruation. For girls from less religious backgrounds, attending non-Jewish schools, this may be the only religious education specific to Jewish women and women’s bodies they will receive.29

At the time of menarche Yanuva was more concerned with learning how to manage her menstrual cloths, made by her mother, which she had to wash according to her mother’s interpretation of Jewish law. ‘You would soak it in the sun for 24 hours and you would get down on your hands and knees and scrub it, and you weren’t allowed to pour the water … like you weren’t allowed to do it in the sink because as far as my mother was concerned it was spiritually impure and had to go in the toilet. So you had to do it outside … on the ground. It was like a whole story’. In this recollection, Yanuva puts the practical face to Jewish law. When asked about food preparation when menstruating Yanuva replied, ‘that’s interesting because I think … I think there’s something there that I don’t even remember. Nowadays I don’t think it applies because a woman in Niddah still has to cook for her family, but in the olden days when they lived around a courtyard with an extended family there was always a grandmother or an older sister or cousin or somebody who wouldn’t mind to cook and therefore they were able not to touch the food. Definitely if you’re talking about the Temple Era then there were certain things that a woman could not touch’.30

Niddah today is a ritualised practice governing sexual relations in marriage. The practice had greater significance to the menarcheal girl before the destruction of the First and Second Temples in 560 BCE and 70 CE, because her impurity, or tumat niddah, prohibited her from crossing the boundary into the Temple and from touching food and utensils used in religious worship.31 This is what Yanuva was referring to. During the time of the Second Temple, a girl who would become known as the Virgin Mary reached her religious coming-of-age at 12, creating a problem for the priests who asked what they could do to prevent her polluting the Temple. The answer was betrothal to Joseph.32 But it was not Mary per se that was the problem. Rather it was the ambiguity of the child’s body in a situation which Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert describes as the forensic context. Referring to the Babylonian Tulmud, Fonrobert observes that potential menarche created the dividing line between purity and impurity, with associated unease about Temple pollution. Before menarche a girl was in a state of purity and might handle Temple items without cause for concern. Between 11 years and one day and 12 years and one day, she was considered under halakhah (religious law) to be approaching her season, her legal coming-of-age, and was in a state of presumptive impurity, with pending menarche causing anxiety over her handling of Temple items. As her bodily blood was believed to be increasing in readiness to breach the boundary, a prior examination was carried out for the purpose of advance recognition of bleeding and its concomitant change of status. In this, Fonrobert suggests rabbinical participation, whether or not with awareness of Roman and other ancient cultures, in a legal discourse on the young female body, although for Jewish practice the examination was primarily to protect Temple-related items from impurity.33 After destruction of the Second Temple the need for these strictures was removed and Niddah became solely concerned with religious law regarding sexual relations.34

Religious law and its interpretation relating to menarche and menstruation, as my interviewees described, continued the theme of uncleanness. I met with two groups of women from the youngest of the monotheistic religions, Islam, who added their voices. The women were culturally very different as one group were Arabic-speakers from Lebanon and the other from Indonesia. The Indonesian group from Java, wearing Western dress, explained their belief was mixed, syncretic, as Islam overlaid the older abangan animist tradition. By contrast the Lebanese women wore Islamic dress and Rashida explained through an interpreter that ‘when she has a period she is not allowed to go to the mosque to pray. She must stay home and she is not allowed to touch the Qur’an, the holy book, until the seven days she will wash herself well. There is nothing that cannot be washed’.35 This was echoed by Nirmala, from Jogjakarta, who reminded me that not entering the mosque ‘is always sort of general for Muslim people, you know that, as I said you don’t go to do praying … we don’t fast because they consider you have period you are in a dirty’. Wani interrupted, ‘but also because you are losing blood’. Nirmala continued, ‘when we finish period we always have to drink jamu, a herbal medicine to cleanse, and also when we finish we have to wash our hair, then you would be allowed to do praying and also during the fasting month you’re allowed to fast’.36 Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi notes that religious education for a Muslim starts with attention to the body: the orifices, secretions and fluids that the child must learn to monitor and control. Girls learn that they must wash their bodies according to a strict ritual after menstruating.37 Once again, we see the boundaries of the sacred enacted through religiously prescribed seclusion, demarcation and purification, acting as a defence and protection (for others) from the impurity of menarche and subsequent menstruation.

Islam attributes the uncleanness of women to Eve, an ambiguous figure that determines constructions and perceptions of gender in Judaism and Christianity.38 According to historian D. A. Spellberg, the interpretation of Eve was revised as Muslim scholars selected certain existing written and oral sources from the older monotheistic traditions in the establishment of Islam, the writing of the Qur’an, and the life of the prophet Muhammad. Thus Adam became the first of a chain of 24 prophets ending with Muhammad who, through Allah, perfected the content of the Torah and Gospels. We learn that Adam and his unnamed female companion were created by Allah from one soul. Spellberg tells us Allah warned Adam and his companion, addressing them as a single entity, about the forbidden tree in the garden, and the enmity of Satan. They are tempted by Satan as a couple, after which Satan tempts Adam alone, but they eat the prohibited fruit together. Their mutual repentance follows their recognition of shared responsibility for their shame but fails to prevent their punishment by expulsion from paradise.39

This Qur’anic version of the Fall was reinterpreted by Muslim scholars during the establishment of an Islamic tradition. Religious historians Jane Smith and Yvonne Haddad argue that Islamic commentators ignored the construction of Eve in the Qur’anic version, repeatedly returned to the biblical narrative that represented Eve as the cause for Adam’s fall.40 Spellberg points out that although women had no part in writing the Qur’an, they are acknowledged as contributors to Islamic isnāds, the authoritative oral testimony preceding every distinct rendering of hadith (the reported sayings and doings of Muhammad). Writers of the final collection of data included Al-Tabari (d.923), whose hadith-like format was prefaced by isnād allowing construction of Eve, including a version attributed to Ibn Ishaq (d.767). Ibn Ishaq, an early biographer of the prophet Muhammad, merged collected material from Judaic and Christian sources as the Muslim Companions of the Prophet had been instructed to do. As a result, Al-Tabari’s Eve reflects Genesis in her creation from Adam’s rib rather than his soul, and she is named Hawwa, meaning Eve. Her agent in duplicity is a female snake who allows Satan, or Iblis, the fallen angel, entry to her body for passage into the banned garden. Having slunk into paradise (at that time the snake still had legs), Satan/Iblis successfully urges Eve to eat the forbidden fruit after which Eve persuades Adam. According to Spellberg, this is the Islamic rendering of the Fall, even though the Qur’an describes Satan/Iblis enticing Adam alone.41

With the ambiguity of Eve’s responses to Satan, further explanation of her character was developed through a section of hadith written by Ibn Maja (d.888), which relates to ritual purity in the care of urinating children. Here it is written that the Prophet said the boy should be wet and the girl cleansed. This instruction was further interpreted by legal scholar al-Shafi’I (d.820) as meaning that boys were made from the same material as their progenitor, Adam, who had been created from clay and water. However, as Eve was created from Adam’s short rib, girls were made from Eve’s flesh and blood. But Genesis tells us Eve was made from Adam’s ‘flesh and bone’ and in the Qu’ran, Adam is made from clay, or mud, and Eve is created from his soul. The introduction of blood as Eve’s forming substance immediately introduces the concept of impurity and of women being born unclean and essentially different from men. At menarche this impurity becomes ritualised in Islamic practice, a constant reminder of Eve, who caused the tree in the garden to bleed, and was punished by Allah, through the generations, with menstruation.42

From the People of the Book I moved to Buddhist traditions, meeting Nila, Keshini and Daksha from Sri Lanka. Keshini recognised her menarche on waking, remembering ‘my mother saw it in the morning and she kept me inside, then she called the washing woman we call dhobi and she came and she showered me and she gave me her clothes then, from there onwards, I used to wear the clothes that she brings because we had to give everything, including my gold earrings, to dhobi. We are not supposed to keep any of the things that we had on our body. Even this gold … I had very beautiful gold earrings with some pink colour stone, I can’t remember the name of the stone, it was a very good one, and I loved them and I can remember I didn’t want to give, but we’re not supposed to keep them, you know? We gave everything. Even my mother was a bit, you know, she was worried because of course, precious … something precious … some people change their earrings when they are at that stage … you know? I had very good ones but my mother couldn’t help it and she had to give them away. After that immediately the dhobi came and gave me a bath. I can’t remember if it was a special auspicious time or not but after that I wasn’t allowed to see any of my brothers, or my father, or any man. I was in the room all the time and food and everything were brought to the room, and even I go to the toilet and they are sitting there, they just go away, you know? My mother says now I am coming and no one stays’.43

Daksha had noticed blood on her clothes as she prepared for bed and told her mother, receiving a similar response to Keshini: ‘she said you can wait today but you must go to your room, and when it was daytime my mother brings the dhobi woman and we had to remove everything. Seven days inside the house, can’t see anybody, can’t go out, everything is inside. We have the bathing, get the horoscope, take the date to do the ceremony’.44 Daksha’s story was interrupted before she could finish, but confirmed a commonality in the Sri Lankan Buddhist experience of menarche, although I wondered what menarche meant for young girls in a tradition in which rebirth as a woman was a backward step or bad karma. In the search for answers I found that Prince Siddhārtha, the future Buddha, had been repulsed by the bodies of women whose impurity was evident in menstruation.45 But, by the time of transformation, his teachings emphasised a philosophy that was both gender neutral and gender exclusive, according to feminist Buddhist scholar Rita Gross. While Buddhist scholar Alan Sponberg agrees, he points out the teachings were not without orthodox criticism, particularly toward radical ideas about women’s capacity for spirituality which remained within a framework of cultural assumptions.46 Gross observes that the place of women in Buddhism is frequently told in the stories of the Earth Goddess who responded to Siddhārtha Gautama’s plea for a witness to his many good deeds in earlier lifetimes. Her willingness helped him attain enlightenment as the Buddha and illustrates how women are necessary in every context of Buddhism. However, the context for women remained one of domestic labour interspersed with devotional practices including provision of food for the monks in an environment of close contact between the monastic and lay community (whom, initially, the Buddha taught). By the third century BCE, early Buddhist principles had spread throughout India and into Sri Lanka, incorporating much of the Indian understanding of the world, including the view of women as inferior beings, partly due to birth, and partly to the belief that women were less interested in spiritual matters. Women were perceived as unfortunate because of five woes, which included the pain of menstruation and their lack of independence due to lifelong subservience to men – fathers, husbands and sons.47 With the concept of male dominance in women’s lives, it comes as no surprise to read that Buddhist historian Bernard Faure considers Buddhism to be unremittingly misogynist, exemplified in the way existing cultural phobias about the pollutant power of women’s menstrual blood became underpinned by Buddhist meaning in male thought.48

Specific to Sri Lankan Buddhists is the belief in killa – the destructive power of the menarcheal girl, against which all male members of the family must be protected, and which necessitates her seclusion. However, Swarna Wickremeratne, recalling her menarche and seclusion, related that some people believed menarche to be a time of danger to the girl herself. She was not left alone for fear she might be invaded by evil spirits in her vulnerable condition. If her companion needed to leave the room, an axe was propped against the wall as symbolic defence, inviting Swarna to reflect on her situation and on the malevolence of spirits she might be forced to defend herself against.49 Yet there are other forms of defence. In her paper on the rituals of menarche in Sri Lanka, anthropologist Deborah Winslow points out that at this time Buddhist girls may relate especially to the female goddess Pattinī, whose birth from a mango tree created her as pure, and whose powers of protection and destruction make her a goddess of contrasts. At menarche, when the young girl’s killa becomes more dangerous to others than at the time of giving birth or at death, she may be thought to represent the fearful, virginal powers of Pattinī.50 It is in this duality that the community perceives a threat to cosmic purity, according to anthropologists Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb.51

Threats of the destructive powers of menarche were absent in interviews with two other Buddhist women, both Chinese-Vietnamese. They had both experienced menarche at a time of national conflict and profound social instability and how much this influenced perceptions of socio-religious life is unknown. In contrast to the Sri Lankan interviewees, neither knew of any menarcheal ritual in the Buddhist tradition, but both were aware of menstrual impurity. When asked about temple attendance Bao had responded ‘aieee, no. No go in. We are [unclean] when we’ve got the period. Don’t go, that’s rude’.52 Her friend, Tu, added ‘before we not go, but some old lady said “don’t worry”, because she asked why we didn’t go, and we said we’re dirty, and she said “don’t worry you can go anytime because this one the Buddha give you. It’s natural. All the girls have this”’.53 I was interested in the difference between the Sri Lankan tradition of seclusion and ritual and its absence among Chinese-Vietnamese, and also in the suggestion made by the older woman – possibly no longer menstruating therefore free of pollution – that bodily function was not unclean, a statement with clear overtones of Pope Gregory. The belief that menstruation was a gift from the Buddha suggests some other cultural influence, possibly the French Catholicism of colonialism. I discovered that among the bodhisattvas (those striving for perfect enlightenment in order to benefit all sentient beings),54 an Indian male, Avalokiteśvara, had been transformed into a beautiful Chinese woman known as Kuan-Yin, who is always represented in white. Kuan-Yin symbolises women’s problems, including those associated with menstruation, and is attributed to helping Chinese women free themselves from culturally defined gender restrictions.55 Anthropologist Steven Sangren, examining the connection between women’s social roles and pollution beliefs in Chinese religious symbols, suggests a certain juxtaposition with female deities. Consequently, if Kuan-Yin is to symbolise the feminine ideal she must be free from the pollution of menarcheal and menstrual blood. Because of her pure state, Kuan-Yin protects women from ritual impurity, therefore women entering Kuan-Yin temples to recite their daily Buddhist sutras see the activity as one of purification.56 Under such conditions Bao and Tu, as menstruants, may have been able to enter temples dedicated to a female bodhisattva without fear of spiritual uncleanness.

Menarcheal and menstrual impurity is part of the Hindu religious belief system. My interviewees included Hindu women from Sri Lanka, India and Kenya, each with a story containing shades of difference that the Indian women explained was due to variation in religious practice from state to state. Nila had recalled being ‘very nervous, and immediately I told my mother I was isolated because I was not supposed to see my father. They kept me private, and then they did tell all my family members, like my close aunties and uncles and the ladies and then I think, on that day itself, the ladies … I think it was my grandma and my aunties, three or four, I can’t remember, they gave me a bath … on the day itself. It was blessed and they each took turn to pour the water and after that I just showered myself and then they gave me new clothes and I was in that room, you know? Then they go and look at the time, that particular time, and the date was very significant, and then they contact an astrologer or the priest, whomever, and they start to see your horoscope and apparently now, in the Hindu religion, I think it’s more related to than your birth time, this time is significant in your life, in your future life, and so they look at that and I think the priest tells them, like I think it was fifteen or thirty [days] … I’m not sure now, I can’t really remember, but they say you don’t go to school. I’ve really forgotten actually how many days it was I don’t go to school, and according to the priest’s time and everything, there’s a big celebration in the family. During our periods, you know, when you have your menses, you never go and pray to God and you don’t go to the temple. I personally don’t agree to this because I think it’s a natural thing of your body but the culture meant … and I don’t myself go to the temple. You feel, anyway, not clean in yourself. I think that makes you not want to go’.57 Here Nila expresses the internalised belief of uncleanness and temple pollution but there is little difference in her interpretation of the menarcheal experience from that of Keshini and Daksha, an observation that bears out Deborah Winslow’s study of Sri Lankan menarcheal rituals among Buddhist, Catholic, and Muslim girls, which suggested some syncretism of religious practice.58

Variations in Indian Hindu religious practice according to social, urban, rural and linguistic groupings complicates the interpretation of meaning for those outside their particular stratum, according to Hindu scholar Kartikeya Patel, who observes that Hinduism is not one tradition but an overarching term incorporating many traditions.59 The women interviewed represented variation, both in experience and attitude. Netri told me ‘we were quite a broad-minded family. No, you don’t go to temples during that, but even that my mother never said, you know. It’s not a big deal … and they didn’t do worship and those things. My mother, I think, didn’t do that’,60 but Hettal remembered a different experience. ‘When I had my period no go to temple and no worshipping in home also. I can’t enter this room, because in India everywhere one room is special for God, but I can’t touch it and not touch food also because my grandma told me is separate. No, don’t touch. Sometimes I see only four days I can’t go to room but fifth day also bleeding but can go. It’s questionable. Sometimes fifth day, sixth day bleeding is over but not allowed. If I touch the water, my aunties they not take this water. After three days allow you to touch water’.61 Hetal’s understandable scepticism over the time she is considered impure is reinforced by Hindu scholar David Smith’s explanation that purity/impurity is not altogether physical, arguing the menarcheal girl’s second bath on the fifth day purifies her even though she may still be bleeding, and if her bleeding ceases before the fifth day she remains impure until she has the second bath.62 Thus the symbolism of time determining purity/impurity is as ambiguous as the menarche that caused it. Moreover, although Hettal is very clear about prohibition of entry to the domestic shrine from the time of menarche, anthropologist Karin Kapadia draws attention to families who worship lineage deities that are not offended by menarcheal impurity of a girl from the household. They are, however, affronted by the menarcheal pollution of an outsider.63 So it would appear Hettal’s position in the household was that of an outsider. Certainly, her ‘aunties’ regarded her as contagiously impure. Again, the ambiguity of menarche is symbolised by a concept of danger which Kapadia considers to be caused by the unpredictability of planetary influences. Hettal was vulnerable at this time of transformation from child to adult, and the domestic prohibitions she experienced were structured responses to the anomaly of her menarcheal blood, its power and her vulnerability to that power.64

Hindu belief related to the power of menarche differed in time and place, as Karuna relates. ‘I was going to a village school but that was a different sect, much more reformed than some of the ones that are connected to temples, and the principal of that school was also such that, if in a Hindu temple there were some restrictions, he said “no”. He was only fourteen I think, and he was sitting for pudja, when you are praying for certain gods in front of a fire. There was a little candle burning, and there was food around it, and this was a holy thing, and he was sitting all night without sleeping, and he was fasting. That food was supposed to be pure, and a little mouse came in the middle of the night, and nibbled at that food, and the fellow changed in that moment. He said “if a little mouse can come and nibble out of that food which people consider very holy and it’s right in front of the god … he said I’m not going to worry about this religion” and he reformed so many things. He said girls should get an education as well as boys. They should be equal to boys. And that was the reason he started this school, built specially for girls, in 1937 and I was five when I joined that school, one of the first ones. They said [menstruation] was natural. You see? It was natural and it has to come. In some religions you can’t go to the temple and if you have your period you can’t fast. You’re not allowed to because you’re not pure or clean … but my teacher just said “it’s natural”’.65 After hearing Karuna’s story I read of another reform that occurred in India during the mid-1970s, in the temple of Adi Para Shakti (the Primordial Great Powerful Goddess), situated in the village of Mel Maruvattur some distance from Madras. A young man of the village experienced a revelation that the goddess was present and that she wanted it known that her followers were equal, regardless of gender, race or caste, because they shared the same red blood. This was to be symbolised by the wearing of red when people visited the temple to worship her. Furthermore, menstruating women were to be included.66 In both these stories the revelations occurred to young men, each acting as an agent of change affecting young women. Each man created a liberal environment for girls’ education and worship that removed traditional religious strictures toward menarche and menstruation.

Liberation from the prohibitions of Hindu tradition was very much on Alisha’s mind when I interviewed her. She has seen and experienced a great deal, having been born in Madras in 1929, and she spoke of responses to the impurity of menarche according to Hindu belief in the framework of India’s dowry system. Initially it seemed distant from the subject of menarche but the historic implications for girls became clear. She told me that ‘girls were actually regarded as weeds in the garden because a girl means, in those days, dowry, and people cannot afford to have dowry and they have to sell their property, lose jobs, borrow, go into debts, and one daughter, significant difficulty. So when you have two, three daughters the man will have to go with a begging bowl after that, for they insist on dowry. They were not … women were not educated. But this dowry business – they start setting up from the time the child is born. A girl is unwanted. If there’s a boy in the house they give the cream of the milk to that boy and the watery milk to the girl. That’s the treatment they had in my days. And it is very seldom that we get the affection of both father and mother because mother, she actually was in the shadow of the father. The wife, the wife has no say in anything. What the husband says, she has to listen; and they are not supposed to mix with the others … but mostly in the remote areas if they find out they have another girl they kill that child even when it is in the foetal state; and after it is born also, they think it is … like a religious duty that she should be destroyed if it’s a girl. Many have done it. But the dowry is the curse. Because of that only they’re not wanted. Girl … they have to protect the girl. So, by the time the girl is about ten, eleven, they have to look for a husband … sometimes even five. My grandmother was only five years old. My grandfather ten years. They were married. Soon after the marriage they started fighting for one banana. That was the state in those days. Then, as for the periods, they never told us anything. They didn’t guide us. But they thought … that was another taboo … to talk to a girl about it later and … about marriage and first night and all. They don’t talk because, like they said at the time, they’ll talk to the girls later. So that type of education is not given to the girls. So they’re ignorant. So when they get their first period, supposed they are they are in school or playing with the children, they think they’re finished, they will die. They didn’t know what exactly it was. So they come home, with bleeding on clothes, and then they are put aside. Maybe for three days, not allowed to see anyone and just kept away segregated from the family. Kept separate because nobody can go near her [because] she’s considered impure. Separate bedding, one mat will be given her and some rags would be given. She’s not allowed to come out from anywhere. Back door. In the villages they’ve got this habit: they make a hole and make the child sit there. They don’t even give napkins. No sanitary pads. They were not even known in those days. The villagers are just like that and … then, after that, she’s given bath and they’ll be celebration. That celebration is like an announcement that there’s a girl ready for marriage. Once the girl attains puberty she’s ready for wedlock’.67

Both historically and religiously, menarche was a public statement of readiness either for marriage, or for consummation if the marriage has taken place in childhood, as it had for Alisha’s grandmother. We know from chapter one that in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, early defloration of girls was practised for physiological reasons. Hindus believed in it because of concepts of women’s sexuality and impurity. Patel argues that the concepts of the feminine and menstruation are not only inseparable, but part of religious tradition. According to Patel, the term dharmaritu combines two notions: dharma meaning religion and ritu, meaning both menstruation and seasonal cycles and changes, as well as cosmic order, although strictly speaking, ritu refers to the time of post-menstrual purification after the fourth day, believed to begin the season of fertility. But dharma has deeper meanings: it is a collection of rules to help both the individual and the collective attain human goals. Disregard for the rules can cause chaos and even destruction, and Patel stresses that menstruation is not simply biological but a framework in which human activities of significance reach fruition. Hindu scholar Barbara Holdrege reads the Hindu body as the locus of pollution, and the pure body as an ideal to be constantly sought in the unceasing threat to bodily boundaries, by continual entry and exit of polluted substances. Purity is reconstituted through a complex system of practices and regulations.68 We can understand that systemic control of potential chaos becomes imperative, and we can integrate Douglas’ theory of the dangers of transitional states and their anomaly and ambiguity into the Hindu menarche.

Fear about the dangers of transitional states is one of the reasons posited for child marriage. Hindu scholar Benjamin Walker explains that the entire household was put at risk if a virgin daughter reached her menarche while still under the family roof. Hindu lawgivers declared it to be sinful, the ancestors suffered torment, and the girl’s parents would go to hell for their ineptitude. It was mandatory that the girl be married so that the power of her menarche, her first ritu be properly used.69 Proper use was the subject for long debate in 1891, following the death of a 10 or 11-year-old child from the effects of marital rape, and in the following court case and media reports Hindu orthodoxy conflicted with Indian reformers seeking to convince the colonial government to raise the age of ‘consent’ in marriage from 10 to 12.70 The following newspaper excerpt, while articulating Hindu opposition, also shows the religious grounds for it:

The performance of the garbhadhan ceremony is obligatory. Garbhadhan must be after first menstruation. It means the first cohabitation enjoined by the shastras. It is the injunction of the Hindu shastras that married girls must cohabit with their husbands on the first appearance of their menses and all Hindus must implicitly obey the injunction. And he is not a true Hindu who does not obey it … If one girl … menstruates before the age of twelve it must be admitted that by raising the age of consent the ruler will be interfering with the religion of the Hindus. But everyone knows that hundreds of girls menstruate before the age of twelve. And garbhas (wombs) of hundreds of girls will be tainted and impure. And thousands of children who will be born of those impure garbhas will become impure and lose their rights to offer ‘pindas’ [ancestral offerings].71

Menarche in Hinduism had become the site of religious and political struggle. It was a battle for control over power – the female power of the first ritu – by men representing different interests. It illustrates one of several facets of meaning that religious belief systems have imbued menarche with, and the social structures that organise and control the anomaly and ambiguity of menarche.


Interviews provided directions for further investigation into how the world’s major religious belief systems constructed the menstruating body of women as unclean, and how that concept, maintained in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, continued to influence how the interviewees as young women felt about their menstruating bodies. However, there were exceptions. It was shown that where young girls had been influenced by other agents, including educated parents or educators with reforming intent, there was social transformation. Alternative knowledge acquisition shifted the authority of leadership away from the religious, with its ideas of contagion and taboo, preventing internalisation of the concept that the menstrual body as unclean.

Religious practices of exclusion and prohibition relating to menstrual uncleanness were established by interview data as part of menstrual life for many interviewees. The clear demarcation of boundaries between the purity of the sacred and the pollution of the menstruating body continued to be observed by Eastern Orthodox Christian, Islamic and some Jewish women (who avoided looking upon the sacred Torah scrolls at this time). The boundaries were clearly defined at menarche in the Sri Lankan Hindu and Buddhist traditions, with seclusion and purification ritually carried out in similar ways, but Indian Hindu observance varied according to education, region and language groupings as well as reformation within the tradition. Chinese-Vietnamese interviewees had internalised the idea of becoming unclean, and ritually practised avoidance of the sacred until given the concept of divine will in their involuntary bleeding.

Interview findings also gave some explanation for the major shifts in thinking on menstrual uncleanness in the Jewish Orthodox tradition. Further research indicated the destruction of the Second Temple caused menstrual uncleanness to become less relevant, and the concept of impurity was transferred to the ritualised practice of marital sexual relations known as Niddah. In the Western Christian tradition the historical model of menstrual uncleanness was relocated from the body to the mind, after a sixth-century papal decision declared that the involuntary nature of menstrual bleeding could not be construed as an impurity if the mind of a young woman was pure. There were no major shifts identified in Buddhism or Hinduism, although small reforms were occurring. Nonetheless, the religious context in which uncleanness is ritualised remains established in many cultures, perpetuating a particular construction of the menarcheal and menstruating body for young observers.

1    Bao, 12 years old at menarche, Vietnam 1968.

2    Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb, ‘A critical appraisal of theories of menstrual symbolism’, in Blood Magic: the Anthropology of Menstruation, Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb (eds), University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988, p. 26.

3    Mary Douglas, ‘Preface to the Routledge Classics edition’, in Purity and Danger: an Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo (1966), Routledge Classics, London, 2008, pp. xi – xiii, xiv.

4    Douglas (2008), pp. 47, 49–50. The term ‘matter out of place’ is frequently attributed to Mary Douglas. She cites it on p. 203 from William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, London, 1952, p. 129.

5    Zosime, 11, Egypt 1934.

6    Yewoubdar Beyene, From Menarche to Menopause: Reproductive Lives of Peasant Women in Two Cultures, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1989, p. 3.

7    Nadia, 11, Egypt 1950.

8    Maryam, 15, Lebanon 1942.

9    Seda, 14, Armenia, year unknown.

10  Olena, 11, Ukraine 1949.

11  William E. Phipps, ‘The menstrual taboo in the Judeo-Christian tradition’, Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 19, no. 4, 1980, p. 300.

12  Judith Antonelli, In the Image of God: a Feminist Commentary on the Torah, Jason Aronson Inc. New Jersey, 1997, p. 287. Deborah Winslow also suggests that infrequency of menstruation may increase tensions surrounding menarche. See Deborah Winslow, ‘Rituals of first menstruation in Sri Lanka’, Man, vol. 15, no. 4, 1980, p. 623 f.n. 21.

13  ‘Genesis’, 31:35, The Holy Bible, King James’ version, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge n.d.

14  Douglas (2008), p. 5.

15  Buckley and Gottlieb in Buckley and Gottlieb (eds), (1988), p. 7.

16  The phenomenon of infant menstruation is caused by the withdrawal, at birth, of the maternal oestrogen that the foetus has been exposed to in the womb. See Margaret Myles, Textbook for Midwives, Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh 1975, p. 450.

17  Cecile, 16, Uganda 1965.

18  Ruth, 17, Uganda c.1974.

19  Helen Liebling-Kalifani, Angela Marshall, Ruth Ojiambo-Ochieng, and Nassozi Margaret Kakembo, ‘Experiences of women war-torture survivors in Uganda: implications for health and human rights’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 8, no. 4, 2007, pp. 1–2.

20  Alma Gottlieb, ‘Menstrual cosmology among the Beng of Ivory Coast’, in Buckley and Gottlieb (eds), (1988), p. 56. See Buckley and Gottlieb in Buckley and Gottlieb (eds), (1988), p. 35.

21  See Janice Delaney, Mary Jane Lupton and Emily Toth, ‘Women unclean: menstrual taboos in Judaism and Christianity’, in The Curse: a Cultural History of Menstruation (1976), University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1988, pp. 37–38, 48–49. See also Tova Hartman and Naomi Marmon, ‘Lived regulations, systemic attributions: menstrual separation and ritual immersion in the experience of Orthodox Jewish women’, Gender and Society, vol. 18, no. 3, 2004, pp. 389–390. Liubov (Louba) Ben-Noun indicates the roots of preventative medicine may be seen in Leviticus in ‘What is the biblical attitude towards personal hygiene during vaginal bleeding?’, European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Reproductive Biology, vol. 106, no. 1, 2003, pp. 99–101.

22  ‘Leviticus’, 15:19–24, 15: 28–30, Holy Bible, King James version, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, n.d.

23  ‘The letter of Pope Gregory’ 1.27, in Bede: A History of the English Church and People trans. Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1956, pp. 78–79. For the description of Christ reacting to the touch of the bleeding woman see Luke 8: 43–48, Holy Bible King James version. See also Charles T. Wood. ‘The doctor’s dilemma: sin, salvation, and the menstrual cycle in medieval thought’, Speculum, vol. 56, no. 4, 1981, p. 713–714. Wood notes that the term ‘nature’ is used in reference to the infirm state of humanity after the Fall.

24  Monica H. Green, ‘Flowers, poisons and men: menstruation in medieval Western Europe’, in Menstruation: a Cultural History, Andrew Shail and Gillian Howie (eds), Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2005, pp. 59–60. Winslow (1980) refers to Vatican II reiterating Pope Gregory’s dictum that menstruating women should not be barred from attending church. Winslow (1980) notes that among Sri Lankan Catholics the perception of uncleanness remained into the 1970s and women chose to absent themselves, p. 623 f.n. 19. This tradition may have reflected Buddhist and Hindu influences.

25  Loretta, 10, Italy 1947.

26  Neve, 11, Italy 1941.

27  Ramona, 15, Chile 1964.

28  Yanuva, 10, Egypt, 1957.

29  ‘Mazel Tov! Mazel Tov! Bar and Bat Mitzvah’, Compass, ABC 1, Sunday 16 August 2009.

30  Yanuva, 10, Egypt 1957.

31  Haviva Ner-David, ‘Medieval responsa literature on Niddah: perpetuations of notions of tumah’, in Shail and Howie (eds), (2005), p. 188.

32  Wood (1981), p. 722.

33  Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender, Stanford University Press, Stanford California, 2000, pp. 137–143. See also f.n. 19, p. 269.

34  See Jonah Steinberg, ‘From a “pot of filth” to a “hedge of roses” (and back): changing theorizations of menstruation in Judaism’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 13, no. 2, 1997, pp. 8–9. The Second Temple was destroyed by Roman legions.

35  Rashida, 14, Lebanon, year unknown.

36  Nirmala, 13, Indonesia 1964.

37  Fatima Mernissi, Women and Islam: an Historical and Theological Enquiry, trans. Mary Jo Lakeland, Women Unlimited Press, New Delhi, 2004, p. 74.

38  ‘Genesis’, 2:21–24, 3:22, Holy Bible, King James’ version, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge n.d.

39  D. A. Spellberg, ‘Writing the unwritten life of the Islamic Eve: menstruation and the demonization of motherhood’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 28, no. 3, 1996, pp. 306–307. In their paper ‘Eve: Islamic image of woman’, Jane I. Smith and Yvonne Haddad indicate three other places in the Qur’an where the single soul is stated to be the source of creation of both man and his mate, but these are the only references to the creation of woman. See Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 5, no. 2, 1982, p. 136.

40  Smith and Haddad (1982), p. 138.

41  Spellberg (1996), pp. 308–309, 311–312.

42  Spellberg (1996), p. 313.

43  Keshini, 12, Sri Lanka 1969.

44  Daksha, 13, Sri Lanka 1947.

45  Julia Leslie, ‘Some traditional Indian views on menstruation and female sexuality’, in Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science: the History of Attitudes to Sexuality, Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich (eds), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994, pp. 69–70.

46  Rita M. Gross, ‘Buddhism’, in Her Voice, Her Faith: Women Speak Out on World Religions, Arvind Sharma, Katherine K. Young (eds), Westview Press, Cambridge, Maryland 2002, p. 69; Alan Sponberg, ‘Attitudes toward women and the feminine in early Buddhism’, in Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender, José Ignacio Cabezón (ed.), State University of New York Press, Albany, 1992, pp. 10–11.

47  Gross in Sharma and Young (eds) (2003), pp. 59–61, 63–65, 88–89.

48  Bernard Faure, The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity, and Gender, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2003, pp. 9, 66.

49  Swana Wickremeratne, Buddhism in Sri Lanka: Remembered Yesterdays, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2006, pp. 78–79.

50  Winslow (1980), pp. 615–617.

51  Buckley and Gottlieb in Buckley and Gottlieb (eds), (1988), p. 10.

52  Bao, 12, Vietnam 1968.

53  Tu, 14, Vietnam 1963.

54  Gross in Sharma and Young (eds) (2003), pp. 70–71.

55  Barbara Reed, ‘The gender symbolism of Kuan-yin bodhisattva’, in Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender, José Ignacio Cabezón (ed.), State University of new York Press, Albany, 1992, p. 159.

56  P. Steven Sangren, ‘Female gender in Chinese religious symbols: Kuan Yin, Ma Tsu, and the “eternal mother”’, Signs, vol. 9, no. 1, 1983, pp. 4, 11–12.

57  Nila, 13, Sri Lanka 1964.

58  Winslow (1980), p. 604.

59  Kartikeya C. Patel, ‘Women, earth, and the goddess: a Shākta-Hindu interpretation of embodied religion, Hypatia, vol. 9. no. 4, 1994, p. 71.

60  Netri, 14, India 1951.

61  Hetal, 14, India c.1952.

62  David Smith, Hinduism and Modernity, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2003, p. 111.

63  Karin Kapadia, Siva and her Sisters: Gender, Caste, and Class in Rural South India, Westview Press, Boulder, 1995, p. 96.

64  Kapadia (1995), p. 101.

65  Karuna, Kenya, age and year of menarche unknown.

66  Vasudha Narayanan, ‘Hinduism’, in Her Voice, Her Faith: Women Speak on World Religions, Arvind Sharma and Katherine K. Young (eds), Worldview Press, Cambridge, Maryland, 2002, pp. 46–47.

67  Alisha, c.14, India c.1943.

68  Patel (1994), pp. 73–73. See also Barbara A. Holdrege, ‘Body connections: Hindu discourses of the body and the study of religion’, International Journal of Hindu Studies, vol. 2, no. 3, 1998, pp. 365–366.

69  Benjamin Walker Hindu World: an Encyclopaedic Survey of Hindus, Indus Press, New Delhi 1995, p. 62.

70  Tanikar Sarkar, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism, Indiana University Press, Bloomington 2001, pp. 214–215, 224–225. The age of consent was very contentious. See also Tanika Sarkar, ‘A pre-history of rights: the age of consent debate in colonial Bengal’, Feminist Studies, vol. 26, no. 3, 2000. Although the Sarda Act or Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 raised marriage age for girls to fourteen, religious tradition rather than Indian law still dictates child marriage for girls in parts of India. See M. Bradra, ‘Changing age at marriage of girls in India’, International Journal of Anthropology, vol. 15, nos 1–2, 2000, pp. 39, 47–48.

71  Dainik O Samachar Chandrika, fourteen January 1891, cited in Sarkar (2001), p. 224. Shastras are treatises forming the basis for Hindu law.

First Blood: A Cultural Study of Menarche

   by Sally Dammery