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First Blood: A Cultural Study of Menarche

Chapter 4


I believe they want to show off a blossomed flower.1

From an early age, ceremony marks the special events in our social lives. Some enhance our feeling of well-being and happiness at achievement while others cause nervousness and uncertainty, perhaps even disappointment, but all take us to another level of existence where we are recognised as members of a different group. As Solon T. Kimball observed in his introduction to Arnold van Gennep’s classic text Rites of Passage, there is no evidence that contemporary urban living has reduced the need for ritually expressing transition from one status to another.2 Yet we have seen in chapter two that Australians from Western cultural backgrounds make no formal acknowledgement of the special event that is a girl’s menarche. Indeed, most women interviewed expressed humorous surprise at the notion of ceremony associated with the first period, and they did not make any connection with certain religious or social ceremonies occurring at or about the same time. The exceptions were women from Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia and Fiji who had experienced, or witnessed, some form of ceremony.

The concept of the menarche ceremony was familiar to me, both anthropologically and through attendance at the four-day Apache menarche ceremony in New Mexico. Indeed, it was that ceremony that motivated me to seek, through my interviewees, a deeper interpretation and understanding of what the ceremony actually meant to the young subjects. Why is it still important to some cultures and what does the ceremony reveal about the broader cultural approaches to menarche? How is such a ceremony understood and what does it signify culturally? How is a menarche ceremony managed and by whom?

In this chapter I will argue that there are two concepts underlying the individual stories – danger and possession – and that both are also part of many cultural belief systems about menarche and are strongly associated with the need to control it. Secondly, that understanding these concepts is the key to why menarche ceremonies remain relevant among some cultural groups and not among others. As a form of comparison with menarche ceremonies in non-industrialised cultures I will argue that in Western cultures ceremonies of a religious or social nature have evolved, signifying a particular transition in the life of a young woman, which serve to indicate maturation. They are characterised by two major differences from specific menarche ceremonies: choice in participation by the young woman, and an absence of cultural belief in the dangers caused by menstruation. Where specific menarche ceremonies still exist one can see the way in which the sense of danger, posed by a menstruating woman, is linked to religious and cultural beliefs, the latter requiring male control of the menarcheal girl’s potential fertility, highly valued for its power in alliance formation. (Hence the need to control access by possession of the girl’s virginity until marriage has been negotiated.) By contrast, in Western societies where menarche usually occurs while girls are in school and does not in any way interrupt their schooling, it is not seen as a crucial life stage or as the prelude to immediate marriage and reproduction. These decisions, like those about virginity and fertility control, are the responsibility of the individual woman, thus removing the onset of fertility potential as grounds for a specific menarche ceremony.

Menarche ceremonies have been aptly described as rites of passage. Their purpose is one of transformation from the status of child to that of woman through a process that all participants believe affects the subject both physically and emotionally. Although ceremony may be considered through the humanities and sciences, I believe anthropological writing imparts the most comprehensive interpretations, and these will be my points of reference in this discussion.

Ceremonies can take differing forms but the early theory published in 1908 by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep continues to be influential in both approach and terminology, as anthropologist Judith Brown (1963) observed in her own work on cross-cultural rites.3 In his best known text, Rites of Passage, van Gennep argues against anthropological and folkloric methods of extracting rites from ceremonies to be analysed in isolation, because their separation from context obscures both their meaning and purpose in the active whole.4 Context is therefore vital to interpretation and van Gennep uses a metaphor of life as a series of passages taking the individual from one age to the next or from one social status to the next. He argues that progress through the life of each individual requires admission through certain acts and practices intended to protect society from the dangers associated with these transitions.5 Van Gennep constructs a paradigm of tripartite acts and practices, neither uniform in significance or elaboration. These acts involve ritual separation from normal life; a liminal time of transition accompanied by special rites; and finally, the post-liminal rites that incorporate the individual in their new status.6 It is a theory with particular relevance to menarche ceremonies because it enables clear identification of the relationship of the individual to particular socio-religious structures in a cultural context.

The publication of the English translation of van Gennep’s work in 1960 brought the theory to another generation of scholars, including Mary Douglas, who found van Gennep’s paradigm – in which entry to a desired room can be achieved only through dangerous passages – reflected sociological insight into the hazard of transitional states.7 A further aspect of van Gennep’s theory is the recognition of psychological change experienced by the initiate during social transformation. Anthropologists, Alice Schlegel and Herbert Barry III consider this to be the foundation stone for describing and analysing adolescent initiation ceremonies.8 In a well-regarded study of menarche rites among Buddhists, Catholics and Muslims in Sri Lanka, anthropologist Deborah Winslow makes brief acknowledgment of van Gennep’s theory and the additions others, including Douglas, have made to it in later interpretations of social structures and symbols, boundaries and margins.9 Marla Powers applied the theory to her anthropological study on menarche ceremony as a first rite and to later menstrual cycle rituals, arguing it facilitated both analysis and adequate explanation.10 Van Gennep’s approach has also been praised and used by the anthropologists Barbara Myerhoff, Alan Dundes, David Parkin and Thera Rasing.11 However, not all scholars have found van Gennep’s work faultless. Writing on ritual and social function, Catherine Bell is critical of van Gennep for analysing brief descriptions of rituals outside their context, although she concedes that his understanding of these activities led to further work on the relationship between ritual and social organisation and the psychological health of individuals. Bell observes that a recent consequence of van Gennep’s theory is its contribution to questions asked about lack of formal rituals and the possible link with social ills in modern societies.12 These brief sequential references to van Gennep’s theory show its continued relevance to anthropological trends through the decades, having been applied to adolescent psychology through studies of menarche ceremonies in the 1970–80s, through to folkloric studies of ceremony in an attempt to give the genre a stand-alone academic profile, as a theoretical framework in studies of pre-Christian ceremonial tradition within third-world Christian communities, and in research, on the links between ceremony and mental health.

In their cross-cultural studies on menarche ceremonies, Schlegel and Barry III find greater prevalence in societies where gender identity is emphasised. In societies with increasingly complex social organisations the importance of gender is reduced, so these societies do not have menarche ceremonies. We may ask how such a ceremony is defined. Schlegel and Barry III consider ceremony as an event with social recognition of transition from childhood to the next stage, and with at least two participants, an initiate and an initiator. For them, initiation ceremonies differ from ceremonies relating to only one aspect of life, giving as an example the Jewish bar mitzvah which they argue is specific only to religious life with no broader social recognition of changed status.13 That may be so but Rabbi Abraham Bloch defines bar mitzvah as the legal definition of an adult Jew, the secular equivalent of being gadol or ‘grown up’, a biological definition without religious significance, based on puberty rather than age.14 It is ceremony that completes this transition although recognition as an adult would be dependent on the context of both geography and historical time.

Social activity involving others is central to menarche ceremonies – especially involving older women whose status, conferred through marriage, sexual and reproductive experience is that of the adult. Ritual and symbolism are culturally dependent, but share certain features necessary for safe transitional passage and the protection of body and mind at this time. So we see that water is used for purification, old clothing discarded and new given to symbolise the new identity, scented flowers or unguents applied to the body, gifts intended as dowry contributions, feasts and strengthening of kin alliances, and for some, marriage arrangements. The latter is the most notable difference and was absent in the lives of Sri Lankan interviewees. Conversely, the use of horoscopes to determine auspicious times for the menarche ceremony was absent in Fiji and Indonesia, indicating that cultural traditions which arise from religion can exist with later introduced beliefs in some areas but not in others. Deborah Winslow’s paper on the rituals of first menstruation demonstrate that menarche ceremonies remain part of Sri Lankan Buddhist and Hindu cultures, and my interviews with Sri Lankan women confirmed many of Winslow’s findings. Their descriptions establish a basis for identifying similarities and differences when compared with women’s experiences in other cultures and for this reason the women’s voices will be heard at some length.

According to van Gennep, seclusion is the first part of the ceremony, when the transformational change in identity begins to evolve. Keshini recalled ‘they make you feel it is different now. I think that’s how they let you learn. I was given the feeling if you see a man you will become uglier but if you don’t see a man you will come out a pretty girl. Actually I believe they want to show off a blossomed flower because nobody sees her and after four weeks or some time you come out with different clothes. I think that’s the idea anyway, to make a difference, but it changes your feelings as well. It tells you that you are grown up, and then, after that, again, the horoscope. I’m a Buddhist. Horoscope is Hindu culture but in Sri Lanka Hinduism and Buddhism go hand-in-hand. We all have this Indian culture, you know … and they look for a good time according to the horoscope I believe. They decide the day but I’m one hundred per cent sure that it’s not as strict as Hindu culture, they do it as a sort of trend, you know?’15

Trend or not, the horoscope is a vital part of the menarche ceremony and one that influences its form through the setting of dates and times. To most Westerners, astrologers are star-gazers and horoscopes are an entertaining side column in the weekend papers, but in Sri Lanka the horoscope is a catalyst for every aspect of an individual’s future, a mechanism by which misfortune may be foretold and avoided. Anthropologist Steven Kemper observes that the positions of astral bodies, indicated in various tables that form the textual core of astrology, acts as a system of signs and their influence over the individual is a technology that accords with Sinhalese understanding of the self and each other within their society. Kemper provides a brief historical background explaining how a specifically Sinhalese form of astrology emerged in the second half of the 13th century when Anomadassi, a Buddhist monk whose contribution to astrological literature was significant, wrote the Daivajñakāmadhenu.16 Sri Lankan political, state, and Buddhist institutions are guided by astrology in setting times for notable activities. Less public is the notable activity surrounding the menarcheal girl. Kemper suggests astrology can be constructed as a cultural category of ‘individual’ and ‘time’. Hence, to an astrologer the individual is simply matter containing the code for its own development, and time is the variable stimulus. Therefore individuals exist only so far as they exist in time. Change can be brought about by the human action of, or toward, an individual, and by the passage of time. Further, the power of time acts differently on males and females: both have horoscopes read at birth, but girls have a second reading at menarche.17

Immediately after menarche occurs an astrologer is consulted and the auspicious time for the purifying bath and ceremony ascertained. The horoscope for the girl’s future is worked out by confirmation of the exact time blood was seen. This second horoscope pertains to marriage and, according to Kemper, indicates the junction between Sinhalese culture and astrology in the concern with women’s blood and impurity. The koţahaluva, or menarche ceremony, links the first menstrual period with future bleeding at defloration and childbirth, and is the reason for seeking more information about the menarcheal girl through a second horoscope reading. Kemper concludes that women, as individuals, are creatures of calendar time, their stability in a marriage role being influenced by astrological lunar change. As a result, the girl at menarche is the primary focus for premarital astrology to identify her place of existence in time.18

In chapter three we saw that physical separation of a girl at menarche took place because of belief in killa, the polluting power accompanying menarche that threatens family members, particularly the men. We also saw how Keshini was immediately separated from the male members of her family by seclusion, and how the clothes and jewellery she was wearing at the onset of menarche were given to the woman who bathed her, the washing woman known as the dhobi. The dhobi, known also as redi nändā, is one of the key participants in the menarche ceremony. But who is the dhobi and why would she risk her own well-being by exposure to the killa power of the menarcheal girl, either directly in bathing her, or indirectly through handling her clothing and jewellery?19 Winslow notes that the dhobi is one of a caste of washer-people whose duty is dirt removal, both symbolic and actual. The pure and white cloths she provides for covering the menarcheal girl are both practical and symbolic of her work. In discussion with a dhobi Winslow heard how this woman left home in the morning before her family could see her and bathed prior to returning at night. Paradoxically, although the dhobi and her family were endangered by the contagion of killa encountered in her work, and not negated by caste, she was equally endangered should she refuse to participate in the ritual bathing, an action which might cause her to become ill due to malevolent spirits. As compensation for her sacrifice the dhobi is paid in the gifts of personal items worn by the girl at the onset of menarche, money from the family and food prepared for the ceremony. After completing her part in the menarche ceremony, and before leaving, the dhobi blesses and forgives the girl for the dangers she has caused to her.20 Anthropologist Karin Kapadia, writing on menarche ceremonies in rural south India, makes two points that are relevant to Sri Lanka. One is that a dhobi can be considered as a ritual specialist. The second is that the used, but clean, clothes she brings to the newly menarcheal girl have belonged to other menarcheal girls and wearing them enhances a sense of ambiguity of identity: the identity of the child is lost and the new self not yet defined.21

At the end of her seclusion and as the prelude to the actual ceremony, at a time set by the astrologer, Keshini was ritually bathed once more, remembering ‘at this special time the dhobi woman as well as my father’s sister, that’s my auntie, but it has to not be my mother’s side, my father’s sister helped her shower me in a separate covered place and give clothes to change. The first clothes I’m wearing are white, and [they] cover me with another white cloth, and that is how I am brought into the house. The day you come out you are still covered and you have to bring a lighted lamp. It’s a brass special kind of lamp. I carried a lamp and a glass of water with the flower … and that’s why I think you have to take your shower outside somewhere because you have to come in the front door. They took me out from the back door but you are coming in the front door but you are still fully covered. I wore white, a school uniform actually. In Sri Lanka it’s white. I wore a brand new school uniform covered with another white big cloth. Dhobi brought that, and I carried the lamp. You give light to the house – it’s significant – but still I was fully covered, and then the dhobi breaks a coconut before I step into the house’. When asked the significance of breaking the coconut Keshini replied ‘to destroy any evilness or whatever. I think that’s the idea, and when they break the coconut they are expected to go like this [indicating a clean break] and be full of water. That’s kind of a prosperity … but if it goes [indicating difficulty in opening] they believe the future’s not very good’. At this point in the interview we were briefly interrupted by Keshini’s daughter, a university student. Keshini introduced me. ‘This is my daughter. I did it for her as well even after so many years’. As my focus was on interviewing Keshini this information was a distraction and the subject was not pursued. Her daughter left and Keshini continued, ‘then I came in and all my aunties, uncles, and everyone from my close family gave presents to me, gold, jewellery, earrings. I had to kneel down and worship all my relatives when they gave me presents. It is something rather special but in those days I never thought these things have meanings but any child, poor or rich, got new nice, beautiful dress … we don’t have very much … but it’s a nice beautiful dress and the colour of the dress is also decided by whoever is doing this astrological thing … so, that’s how it is. When I was doing the same thing for my daughter I was trying to give a meaning for that’.22

We see from Keshini’s account that her memories are mixed, partly those of a 12-year-old, and partly reflecting her re-interpretation of the long past event, but carrying the reminder of danger in this vulnerable time of transition. Change is symbolised by the identity of the women who gave Keshini the ceremonial bath – not her mother but the dhobi and Keshini’s father’s sisters or mother’s brother’s wife. Winslow points out that in the Buddhist tradition these women are classificatory mothers-in-law and suggests that their presence presages the menarcheal girl being transferred to the domination of her future mother-in-law.23 The covering provided by the dhobi, worn over the new clothes, and the glass of water she carried protected Keshini from evil spirits, known as vas, as she walked with the dhobi from her bathing place to the front door. Keshini believed the breaking of the coconut destroyed any evil at the door and certainly the water might well repel vas but in her interviews with Buddhist Sri Lankan women, Winslow found that breaking the coconut had symbolism pertaining to domestic life, the time of marriage and a forecast of whom the dominant marriage partner would be. In her memoirs of menarche, Swarna Wickremeratne, a Buddhist woman, recalled battling to break her own coconut, the number of pieces representing the number and sex of her future children, and how the lighted lamp illuminated the wealth of food on the table, but Winslow’s interviewee made no reference to any specific symbolism, so Keshini’s belief in bringing light to the home is appropriate.24

By contrast, Nila had difficulty remembering the time frame between seclusion and ceremony but recalled she did not go back to school until the ceremony had been completed. ‘I’m sort of saying that the days are fifteen or thirty, I’m not sure, but the celebration was definitely there. What happens is, that particular morning you have a bath, which three ladies gave me. All the clothes I was wearing went to a person we call dhobi. He’s the washing man, or woman, who is doing our regular clothes washing, because in Sri Lanka we have someone particularly coming and washing our clothes. So he takes all those clothes he knows we will never wear again. But in the ceremony we don’t have that special bath. Because I was a small-made person I didn’t want to wear a sari, which is a traditional dress, but I wore a skirt and a blouse and something to cover all which is called a half-sari because that’s what signifies that you’ve become a big girl, that you’ve become a woman, and you are dressed almost like a bride and everybody comes and blesses you with sandalwood, flowers, you know, like rice, they put it all on your body. Being the only girl, it was done like a party. They all bless you, give you presents and everything, but mainly this thing is done by the women. All the relatives and friends come for this thing, and my uncles gave gold coins, or something in gold as a gift, and I think now I understand the reason for that. These gold coins from every uncle they gave me as a start. I think it’s to do with marriage. I think it’s just an announcement that my daughter is available, but that’s what I am thought to be, a big girl and available for marriage in the community or something like that, and then the ceremony as such’.

Nila continued, ‘the uncle, mother’s brother, is also a significant character for this blessing because I think in those days there was marriage if you had an uncle and uncle’s son, you are eligible to marry. I think that could have been the reason that uncle was very prominent and they are supposed to bring dowry or something, but they don’t really bring that. What they bring is their visit from their family is very important and that’s the uncle that comes with his family so he brings a lot of things like clothes, flowers and things in trays, flowers and fruit and things like that and he even plays a prominent role and he puts a garland on you. You fall down and get blessing from your parents, your uncles and all the elderly people. That was very significant to us. Then people enjoy eating a meal and then after that meal you’re supposed to leave for school or wherever’.25

The form of the menarche ceremony for Keshini and Nila follows no authoritative text but is structured by the women in the family, particularly older women, within a framework of knowledge, time and money.26 Although the two memories of their ceremonies differ, taken together they construct a more comprehensive description of their experience. Keshini remembered seclusion, not with a sense of danger but as a place of transformation from which she would emerge as a ‘blossomed flower’ four weeks later. Comments on physical beauty after seclusion are not uncommon. No reference is made to her place of seclusion as being a koţahala gedara, or puberty house, with its special features; rather it was ‘a room’ but not ‘my room’. On a more reflective note, Keshini understands this seclusion to be a time of learning, of developing self-awareness, of becoming ready to enter a more ‘grown up’ world. Then, the astrologer is consulted and arrangements are made for her ceremony. This horoscope process is a ritual of remembering and recreation by the girl’s mother, according to Winslow, although Keshini recalled it as a trendy Hindu tradition, taken up by Buddhists and part of Sri Lankan culture.27

Hindu Nila’s ceremony, as she remembered it, commenced with a seven-day seclusion at home, in a state of transition until her ceremony 15 or 30 days later. Her one ritual bath was given on the first day of menarche by her grandmother and aunties, and we are not informed whether they were maternal or paternal. Although Nila was prohibited from seeing her father, indicating an awareness of killa, it was not referred to, nor was there any dhobi participation, other than taking the clothing worn at menarche, because of the dhobi’s male gender. Rather, Nila’s changed status as a woman was symbolised by new clothes, including the wearing of a half-sari, and celebrated with the same symbols as a Hindu bride – by the application of sandalwood, flowers and rice to her body. The menarche ceremony anticipated Nila’s marriage through the presence of her maternal uncle, a dowry of gold coins and her stated eligibility to wed her uncle’s son in the preferred Hindu custom of cross-cousin marriage. This signified the primacy of protection of family purity and the prevention of status ambiguity that female sexual activity outside marriage can create.28

The Indian interviewees emphasised that ceremony for menarche was not nation-wide in this country of many ethnic and cultural groups. Hetal from one of the hill stations of the north told me that the ceremony was specific to the southern regions. This was confirmed later by Saha: ‘I’m a Hindu lady and we didn’t have any ceremony. It’s the south Indians who do too much fuss about it’. Alisha, from Madras, spoke briefly and indirectly of the ceremony following menarche. ‘After three days they bathe. For three days, no bathing. After that they say woman can bathe. She’ll be put there and all the women come and put different coloured water and things like that. Then the priest will come and a blessing will be done. Purification for the first period takes a long time and they have to spend quite a lot of money on that’. Alisha abbreviates a menarcheal ceremony without identifying the cultural group in which it took place. The prohibition on bathing suggests a ceremony for a Brahmin caste Hindu girl, although a protracted purification ritual differs from the modern Brahmin ceremony described by Kapadia. In her comparison with that of a non-Brahmin, both taking place in Tamilnadu, in rural southern India, Kapadia arguing that change in child-marriage laws caused loss of ceremonial importance to Brahmins.29

Unlike the elaborate non-Brahmin puberty ceremonies, those for Brahmin girls are influenced by the belief that the reproductive role of women is secondary to that of men, Kapadia contends.30 Women are merely vessels for the male’s child. Nor do Brahmins believe that astrology indicating bad menstrual stars can affect the entire family if not ritually removed. At the onset of menarche the young girl is secluded in an area of the house, and on the fourth day the married women invited to attend the ceremony will arrive. At this juncture a Brahmin priest may become involved; otherwise married women known as sumangali, who are considered to be auspicious, will conduct the ceremony. Because of her impurity the menarcheal girl remains in a clearly demarcated outdoor area, indicated by a chalk design on the back porch or somewhere exterior to the house. When everyone has assembled she is called forward and seated on a low stool placed in the centre of the design. While the women sing auspicious songs one will apply auspicious substances to the girl’s body, beginning with a dot of turmeric powder mixed with sesame oil on the girl’s forehead and then applied to her cheeks, hands, and feet. Sesame oil is rubbed into her hair. Then one of her female relatives circles three times around the girl with a container of red aratti liquid, to which grains of raw rice are added, to remove any inauspiciousness. Then the container of aratti is carried through the house to be poured into the centre of the auspicious chalk design external to the front door. This destroys evil spirits known as dirushti. The menarche purification bath is given by one of the married women, whose sacrifice requires her own purifying head-bath later to leave behind all inauspiciousness and impurity, which are especially linked to the hair. After that, dressed in a new half-sari, her body and hair decorated with flowers, the young girl is incorporated into life as a young woman.31

Flowers feature very prominently in the small ceremony in Java recalled by Rara at the time of menarche (to be followed by an early marriage arranged by her grandmother). Of her menarche Rara recalled ‘a day only in the pant you know? My grandmother, old woman, not tell anything, but next day my grandma gave me medicine … I don’t know medicine but it was served with flower, you know, and after give me bath with flowers in the water, rose (kanauga), magnolia (kautal) and jasmine’.32 I asked Rara if this was a Hindu tradition. ‘I don’t know … it might be superstitious medicine … it might be Javanese culture … and the medicine too … not in the glass but in a bowl of coconut shell with a flower too … special flower, kautal’. Asked if she was given new clothes to wear after her bath, Rara responded, ‘yes, yes, everything new’. And the clothes worn at the onset of menarche? ‘My grandma wash’, indicating any power attributed to menarcheal blood was not contagious to the grandmother. Rara’s ritual bath was attended by one other person. ‘Another lady came making medicine for me. It’s special medicine … flowers but I don’t know. I think this friend from the grandmother was smart with traditional medicine. Also, I still remember when I little girl I look in the special room they got small packet for medicine … many come, you know? Small room … in her home. Very close to my grandmother … maybe my grandmother tell her … and she make for me’.

In form, Rara’s menarche ceremony in Jogjakarta seems rather perfunctory. The ritual bath, given after the brief menarcheal bleeding ceased, was marked as something special only through the addition of flower petals, and Rara insisted the petals were taken from seven types of flowers although the women collectively could name only three, omitting the ubiquitous frangipani. Their symbolism remains a mystery, although Clifford Geertz, in his study of Balinese symbolism, observed that under such symbolic forms the world of the imagination and the world of ritual fuse and become the same world in which transformation of an individual’s beliefs becomes possible.33 Rara explained ‘my mother and grandmother think superstitious … belief in spirit but my grandma believe in God too … is mixed … abangan’. There was no overt reference to danger, either to herself or to others, caused by her menarche and Rara reflected with some uncertainty, ‘I don’t know why they gave me a bath’. As there is so little written on puberty ceremonies among Javanese I have made certain extrapolations. The first is the special medicine, or jamu, which comes in many variations appropriate to need and is widely used in Indonesia, particularly in Java.34 One concoction ensures good menstrual flow and is sold by traditional healers or by jamu-sellers in the markets.35 The ingredients are classified as ‘hot’ and may include, for example, vinegar, yeast and ginger.36 However, Nirmala, also from Jogjakata, remembered ‘when we finish period we always have to drink jamu, what we call jamu, a herbal medicine to drink so it cleanse’.37 Thus it would appear that Rara’s jamu in its flower-decorated coconut shell was intended as an auspicious drink to purify the body internally after the brief menarche, rather than to ensure increased menstrual flow, with the bath providing purification compatible with religious belief within Hinduism, Islam and the animist belief in spirits.

The belief that a menarcheal girl is vulnerable to malevolent spirits belongs to an older religious belief system than the 19th-century Christian missionary overlay in the South Pacific islands, which include Fiji, home to Levani. She had not had a menarche ceremony of her own but had witnessed her older sister’s, who would have an arranged marriage with a cousin to strengthen the va-kawa, or family ties. ‘I was very young but I remember a few things that later on told me “ah, this is because she was having her period” because suddenly, just on one day, uncles started coming bringing food and I didn’t know what was going on … I think I’d have been about eight or nine and these uncles started bringing material and the mats, and aunties, and on that day my sister came dressed in traditional things and nobody told me anything and I didn’t ask any questions. It was later, I think actually when I learned about culture at school which in form IV, which was when I had my period, it was when all these things came together for me … this sister and I are very close … and I didn’t ask her … it just didn’t occur to me to ask these questions but what happened was she came out dressed in traditional clothes and there was the ceremonial thing and the cobu [shows clapping] and all of those things, and I remember her sitting there with her head down and then after that she went and changed and there was the feasting. She disappeared and what happened when she disappeared I don’t know … whether there were other things happening and I was too young to know …. and then she appeared in these new clothes and then the feasting began … so I think … because we have the … you know, with the new baby, they have the bath and a new anointing of a chief they have the bath. A lot of the things they have the bath … and men, when they are circumcised … and I know all about that because that was open but nobody said anything and I didn’t ask. I didn’t even wonder what this was all about until I was in the culture class and then realised that that was her fourth day of the menarche so someone has been keeping count, but it’s interesting too that my uncles and aunties came … they knew what that was for but just nobody talked about it … so in my mind I just put together that this must have been her fourth day and then I remember afterwards thinking “but it doesn’t stop on the fourth day” but that’s the celebration thing’.38

Levani’s memories corroborate the findings of anthropologist Marijke Sniekers, who studied gender identity among Fijian women, including the role of the menarche ceremony.39 Levani’s sister was the first of three daughters in a family of nine children belonging to a village chief. Her menarche ceremony provided the opportunity for a major village event, one that was not repeated for the other daughters, but which anthropologists Karen Ericksen Paige and Jeffery Paige maintain provided the occasion for competitive feast-giving for a man of influence and prestige.40 This was not an unusual situation, as Sniekers learned from her informants. Some of them believed all daughters would have menarche ceremonies, but others argued that economics determined the decision. By comparison, anthropologist Thomas Maschio found that among the Melanesian Rauto people of New Britain, the menarche ceremony was held for the eldest daughter, or for the daughter who had the most potential to become an important woman in the community, acting as a social marker for her family and giving older women an opportunity to share their knowledge and draw the young girl into their declared patterns of female social and cultural identity.41 However, for the young Fijian girl, recognition of her menarche is the first of the steps that will take her to identifying herself as a woman. She tells someone, and if it is her aunt or a friend the news will be conveyed to her mother, hence to her father. The form of the ceremony begins with a four-day seclusion inside the house, during which time the women of her family, her grandmother, mother, aunts, and cousins if she is from a chiefly family, begin the instruction that van Gennep refers to as the liminal rites of transition, when the specific knowledge of women is shared with her. She learns about menstruation and menstrual hygiene, female sexuality and the importance to her family of her virginity at marriage, motherhood and the social meanings attached to being a woman in her society, including behavioural warnings, narrated through stories, myth and family history.42

During this time invitations are sent out by her father, inviting close and extended family to his daughter’s menarche ceremony. Because Levani’s sister was from a chiefly family, invitations would go to the mataqali, those from other villages who are part of the chiefdom. Some family members arrive during the four-day seclusion to enable the women to share in the young girl’s transition. Everyone brings gifts of food, the decorated bark cloth known as tapa, and mats called masi, which have great ceremonial and practical value. Most significantly they greet the young girl as a member of their adult community. Inside the house the young girl is cared for by her female relatives. She is washed, dressed and fed while sitting, resting or sleeping on a pile of mats, her movements restricted to toilet visits or brief walks for the four days of seclusion. Bathing, and swimming in the sea or the river during this time, is prohibited, as is going outside the house, because the power of menarcheal blood may harm others, and the evil spirits outside may harm the young girl or her women companions during this vulnerable transition state. Levani referred to the four days as ‘a celebration thing’ which Sniekers’ informants verified. Fijian celebration and ceremony for birth, marital consummation, and mourning are all four days according to ancestral tradition.43

Levani remembered her sister’s reappearance in traditional dress on the fourth night, her coming out. In preparation the young girl would be bathed and her body rubbed with coconut oil so her skin gleamed. She wore the distinctive traditional masi dress with a salusalu or sweetly fragrant flower garland, and stepped over the threshold to become the centre of attention, seated in the usual position of the chief at the head of the eating mat, the chief and elders beside her, receiving more gifts of masi and mats known as yau, or wealth, in a formal ceremony associated with the cobu or hand-clapping that Levani had recalled. After the ceremony, these gifts are redistributed among the relatives, except for the mats and masi touched by her menarcheal body during her seclusion, and personal items. Then Levani’s sister disappeared briefly to change her clothes, her new status publicly symbolised by the long wrap-around skirt or sulu and by her distinctive round haircut. On her return prayers for the young girl were said, the food was blessed and the feast began, with the young girl being offered the choicest bits. Speeches were given, her father’s acknowledging that his daughter was now a woman. Sniekers considers that change in her collective identity is symbolised by her position in the adult group where she faces the men as a woman, and faces the children as an adult. Her individual identity continues to transform as she assumes more adult responsibility, learning slowly the lessons taught by her female kin during her four-day menarcheal ceremony.44 Those four days are not all that’s required to become a woman, but rather, as anthropologist Nancy Lutkehaus argues in her work among Melanesian societies of the South Pacific, it is but one of the rituals that a woman participates in that incrementally forms her gender identity and full ‘personhood’ in a particular society.45

As societies undergo change so, too, do their ceremonies. Menarche ceremonies in Fiji are one example. Before 19th-century Christian missionaries began their conversion process in the Fijian Islands, and compulsory education took girls away from home, the feast at the end of the menarche ceremony was followed by the commencement of intricate tattooing that visibly and permanently marked the young girl as a woman. This slow and painful process required breaks for the skin to heal and the throbbing to settle and, when completed, the girl’s lower body was covered from waist to knee, resembling a pair of bike shorts. Four nights later another ceremony took place in which a feast, given by the family of the girl’s promised husband, placed the young girl once more at the centre of attention, proud of her endurance that signified her to be a brave woman and permitted to wear a liku, or skirt made of fibre. Missionary influence led to cessation of this part of the menarche ritual.46 In neighbouring Tonga the menarche ceremony for girls has not been recorded since the 1930s, according to anthropologist Helen Morton, and tattooing was prohibited by 19th-century missionaries who considered it to be a ‘heathen practice’.47

We have seen certain commonalities in the form and symbolism of the menarche ceremonies described by the interviewees and interpreted through secondary scholarship. The body of the menarcheal girl may be likened to a chrysalis or budding flower but is more complex because of the ambiguous connotation with power and vulnerability, hence seclusion during this transitional or liminal state. In certain situations an individual, designated by caste, makes a symbolic sacrifice of themselves by acceptance of the menarcheal girl’s clothing, which contains the pollutive power of menarcheal blood, and by accepting the possibility of pollution through contact with water from the body of the menarcheal girl during the ritual bathing. In seclusion the girl is not left alone because of her vulnerability to malevolent spirits. Her most significant companions are the older women of her family, the grandmothers and aunts, who symbolise the knowledge of all women, expressed through stories that tell of strength and endurance, of sexuality and reproduction, and of protective and nurturing maternal skills, intended to mould and shape the changing identity of the young girl to young woman. Common to all ceremonies is the ritual bath symbolising purity, and new clothes symbolising the change in social status when incorporated into adult society.

Each of the women interviewed remembered their ceremony, or that of their older sister, but their recollection was overlaid by their interpretation of the events they were retelling. There was some confusion over time and sequence of events, and focus varied between loss – of personal items to the dhobi – and gain – gifts received or new clothes. The symbolism of ceremonial artefacts, lamps, flowers, coverings and medicine were not fully understood at the time and interestingly, as an educated adult Keshini sought meaning in her menarche ceremony through that of her Australian-born daughter. Although her disengagement from her ceremony in the re-telling, indicated by the use of the impersonal ‘they’ rather than the collective ‘we’, suggested cynicism, perhaps for my benefit, Keshini would not imperil her daughter by ignoring Buddhist belief in killa, and ensured a menarche ceremony was given. I didn’t pursue details because the age and birthplace of the daughter did not fit interview requisites. Levani recalled her sister ‘sitting there with her head down’, represented more as a ceremonial object than as subject and, given that their father was the village chief, the ceremonial feast-giving placed him in the central role. This leads to asking how others might benefit from a menarche ceremony. For the older female relatives who are with the girl through her seclusion there are opportunities for strengthening family ties; historically for Indian Hindus the family benefited economically once their marriage dowry was completed and their daughter was transferred to her husband. In more recent times, as Nila remarked, the menarche ceremony has social benefits by allowing parents to make ‘an announcement that my daughter is … available’.

Although this collection of stories is limited, one conclusion seems clear. A menarche ceremony is not solely for the benefit of the girl whose experience it is. The cultures who maintain the ceremony in some form, based on blood pollution and danger, provide evidence that a woman remains subject to men, both father and husband, and that this social condition is perpetuated by older married women in the passing of knowledge during the transformative or liminal time of seclusion. Through van Gennep’s tripartite framework we are able to understand that there are more similarities than differences in menarche ceremonies. Judith Brown found that the ceremony endorses the changed status of girls in communities where they remain in the maternal home after marriage, and that ceremony is more widespread in societies where women contribute significantly to subsistence activities, although the stories I was told by interviewees from cultures in the process of industrialisation, with resulting social change reflected in ceremonial traditions, have no bearing on this.

In the beginning of this chapter I suggested that we have no tradition of menarche ceremonies in Anglo-Australia. Indeed, menarche is symbolised by silence. Nonetheless, there are rite-of-passage ceremonies that take place at or around the time of menarche, allowing transition of a young person to another status recognised by their social group. I was reminded of this by Marjorie, an English-born woman, who remembered with some horror the discovery of blood ‘in the evening and I was going to a church social and I was wearing my confirmation dress which was a white crepe dress’.48 Marjorie’s confirmation, her special white dress and her anticipated church social all reflect a change of status through the religious ceremony of confirmation, which admitted her to full church membership and participation in Holy Communion, followed by inclusion in church-related social activities for her peer group. As divinity professor, John Macquarrie observes:

solemnity is heightened because this sacrament comes at a point of life when the recipient is leaving childhood behind and is facing the new and increasing responsibilities that will come with adult life. This is why confirmation is for many people an impressive and well-remembered moment in their lives.49

Marjorie was 12 years old at menarche – the usual age for confirmation – and beginning secondary school, and we will examine her experience through van Gennep’s three-stage theory of ceremony: separation, transition and incorporation, which in Marjorie’s life coincided with her menarche. In the articles of faith, directives for the Church of England (as the Anglican Church was then known), confirmation was considered desirable at coming of age, an opportunity for the child to ratify baptismal promises made by godparents on behalf of the infant.50 At the time of Marjorie’s confirmation, preparation involved separation from usual activities to attend special classes focusing on catechism, which is the doctrine of the church in a question– answer format, and the meaning and symbolism of the two main sacraments, baptism and Holy Communion. On the day of their confirmation young girls wore a modest white dress with a white veil covering their hair. They were separated from family and friends and seated together at the front of the church, their confirmatory vows made collectively in an atmosphere that was both restrained and serious. In front of them the confirming bishop, robed in the full regalia of office, received each individual confirmation candidate presented to him. They knelt before him to receive a blessing by prayer and the symbolic laying on of hands to the head symbolising the gift of the Holy Spirit. There usually remained an interval of some days before taking first communion, a liminal time of anticipation. At first communion the newly confirmed young girl was aware that she was now an adult member of the church and, as such, was incorporated through greetings of welcome by well-wishers.51

We can see, in the religious basis for confirmation, links to the medieval past when the cult of virginity, promulgated by the Catholic Church, imposed a form of control on young girls at the time of menarche through chaste behaviour.52 In Western Christian tradition, confirmation, established by the fourth century, symbolised religious transformation from child to responsible young adult, corresponding with a physical transformation silently signified by menarche. This increased emphasis on the spiritual contested the dangers of burgeoning sexuality and potential sexual corruption, hence the white dress and head-covering acting as both symbol and reminder of the purity already bestowed by the ritually blessed water of baptism. Whereas Roman Catholic girls were confirmed well before puberty, the Anglican and other Protestant churches had the ceremony as a recognition of coming of age.53 Specific to Latin America, particularly Mexico, is the Roman Catholic coming-of-age ceremony for girls, which is not widely known but worth introducing. It is la quinceañera, argued by anthropologist Karen Mary Davalos to be a statement of gender identity and ethnicity. Preparation takes the form of special classes focusing on religious and social responsibilities, including the Catholic ideal of pre-marital sexual purity.

On the day of the quinceañera the young girl, attired in a special dress resembling a bridal gown, walks to the church in procession with her parents, godparents, and immediate family. Inside the church she renews baptismal vows, gives thanks for surviving 15 years, and prays for a strengthening of religious faith. The religious service is commonly followed by a social ceremony in the form of a big party with dancing, marking the transition from young girl to young, responsible, adult.54 Interestingly, when asked about ceremony at time of menarche none of my Chilean interviewees made any reference to the quinceañera but all referred to the expectation of heterosexual pre-marital purity.

Nor was my Jewish contributor able to explain the experience of a bat mitzvah as circumstances prevented her from undergoing it, but the ceremony ought not to be overlooked. In the Jewish tradition a girl comes of religious age at 12 years and one day in the presence of pubertal signs.55 Although efforts were made in the 19th and 20th centuries to recognise this coming of age in parts of Warsaw and Lemberg, now Lvov, the occasion warranted a party rather than a religious ritual in a synagogue. In parts of mid 19th-century Italy, girls and boys who had come of age were blessed by the rabbi, and recited a blessing in a ceremony marking their entry to the minyan, the quorum of ten, usually men, required for community prayer, public readings of the Torah, and other spiritual matters.56 In France at the same time, Jewish confirmation with the young girl wearing the white bridal-style dress of a much younger Catholic confirmation candidate was introduced, and in Germany, the Jewish Reform Movement, influenced by Protestantism, attempted to replace the traditional bar mitzvah with a newer ceremony for 15 or 16-year-old boys and girls following religious education of some duration, including a Jewish catechism in question– answer format.57 In the US, the first specially created ceremony, according to Jewish historian Ivan Marcus, was that of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan for his 12-year-old daughter, Judith, in 1922.58 Over the next three decades the ceremony of bat mitzvah took form in Conservative and Reform synagogues, integrated with the Friday night service with the young girl, given the honour of reading the haftarah, the writings of the prophets through whom God spoke to the Jewish people. The haftarah was linked with the weekly reading of the Torah, due to be recited by a man the following day.59 Conservative synagogues introduced a confirmation ceremony for girls who attained a religious study goal in the synagogue school reflecting the Christian model, including the white dress, and often held at Shavuot, a time of spiritual redemption of the Jewish people. However it took the rise of Jewish feminism in the 1980s, with its demand for egalitarian liturgical involvement, to slowly evolve bat mitzvah to a Sabbath ceremony in progressive synagogues, in which a 13-year-old girl would read from the Torah, ask blessings over the Torah, read haftarah and make a speech to the congregation in the same way as boys at their bar mitzvah. Resistance to change from Orthodox Judaism has brought about innovative shifts in Jewish feminist thought, including services specifically for women to counter the non-acceptance of egalitarian ritual in mixed services, which, among other issues, is partly based on the dignity of the congregation and the historic belief that a woman reading the Torah indicates that men in the community are unlearned. Other services, apart from the regular, are attended by groups of Orthodox Jews and permit certain liturgical participation of women. There is some inclusion of girls who have reached twelve to read the Torah and to receive ’aliyot, the call to read the Torah, although the ceremony of bat mitzvah appears to remain a troubled work-in-progress for mixed Sabbath congregations.60

Memorising a sacred text is part of the rite of passage ending in ceremony for young Muslim boys and girls, but one that none of my Arabic speakers from Lebanon made reference to. Known as the Khatum Qur’an, also called the Muslim Hatum Ceremony, it takes place when the young person is between the ages of 10 and 12 years, that is about the time of a girl’s menarche. It is a slow and disciplined endeavour beginning at about five to seven years of age under the supervision of a Qur’an teacher, with the intention to read correctly, and to understand, the entire Qur’an. In Malaysia the ceremony was part of the Islamic revival of the 1980s, enabling the young girl who succeeds to be commended by her teacher, bring pride to her family, and achieve the special community status of being a good Muslim who knows the Qur’an. To mark her change in status, a special all-female ceremony and feast are held and at this ceremony the young girl completes her reading. She is dressed in white, indicating purity, and behaves with appropriate decorum. In a ceremony-within-the-ceremony, the women guests sing the marhaban, or praise to Allah, while the hosts of the ceremony distribute bunga telur, or egg flowers, and sprinkle minyak attah, an Arabian perfume, on the singing women, as a way of thanking them for their attendance and for witnessing the completed reading of the Qur’an.61

The support of women at this transitional time of a young girl’s life is present in a peculiarly social ceremony with historical economic symbolism: the debutante ball. It is a ceremony that Karen Ericksen Paige finds not unlike menarcheal ceremonies in traditional cultures, arguing that the American debutante ball is a display of paternal wealth and prestige advertising a daughter’s worth to prospective suitors, who are expected to be drawn from the same social class the ball indicates she will be part of.62 Sociologist Dean Knudsen attributes the ceremony to European courts of the 17th century, but historians Isobel Thompson and Vicki Northey focus on England, arguing that the debutante ball is a Victorian upper-class tradition that introduced a young woman to adult social life through presentation at court, followed by a flurry of social activities through the spring and summer seasons. However, Australian social researcher Lyn Harrison found that by the late 1960s, the effects of social change had significantly reduced the popularity of the debutante ball.63 Historian Janet McCalman’s research, comparing the experiences of middle-class Melbourne girls from two private girls’ schools, provided evidence that the debutante ball waned in popularity after the Second World War with formal debuts at Genazzano, a Catholic school, being 48 per cent, and at Methodist Ladies College, where many thought it ‘corny’, only 24 per cent.64

How corny would these girls have found the concept of an initiation ceremony? Van Gennep described the time as social rather than physical puberty and theorised that the initiation ceremony took the young person from the world of the asexual to that of the sexual. Such ceremonies made the girl marriageable, and was that not the original intention of the debutante ball?65 Following van Gennep’s framework of separation, transition and incorporation, the young potential debutante, past menarche but at the age of increasing independence and assuming some responsibility for herself, enters a time of training under the guidance of an experienced woman in preparation for presentation to a figure of some community standing. She learns good posture, how to move gracefully in a long dress and how to curtsy – left foot forward and right foot behind, bending with straight back – while extending the right hand.66 In her study of constructions of femininity through the debutante ball, Harrison found that young women in their final year of secondary school in a regional Victorian city enjoyed creating themselves as debutantes. Their separation and preparation included dancing lessons and carefully planning a romanticised feminine appearance as a modest, marriageable virgin, symbolised by a long white dress with elbow-length gloves, representing purity.67 The ceremony focused on the debutante, her male partner taking only a supporting role, in a night of evanescent transformation. Although the young women knew that the debutante ball resembled a wedding, they didn’t think the historic purpose of the occasion had any relevance to them. The ceremony allowed them a time of liminality, pleasure and creativity, summed up by Harrison as filling a niche that allows these young women to feel special, living out a fantasy of doing something a little bit better than anyone else, and helping in the construction of identity. Yet the process of incorporation fails at community level, affecting only the individual who may say with some pride, ‘look at me, I’m part of society’, without society recognising or valuing any change in her status. Debutante balls in this context fail to fulfill Schlegel and Barry III’s definition of initiation ceremony.68 Nevertheless the significance of the ceremony to the participants is clear since two years later, when each young woman was asked for the highlight of her life, she unhesitatingly replied ‘the deb ball’.69 In this regard there is considerable difference between the contemporary debutante ball in provincial Victoria and its counterpart in late 1960s US where, Knudsen argues, the purpose was less an introduction to society, which had probably been experienced for some time, and more a public transition to high-status marriageability.70


Interview findings confirmed that the cultural meanings associated with menarche were based on control of the menarcheal body and of the environment surrounding that body. The ceremonies that were described reveal a cultural belief that by intervention and ritual purification, a young girl rendered vulnerable by menarche would be protected from the dangers of possession. In recalling their experiences, women remembered the early stage of separation more acutely, and interpreted it at varying levels of significance, according to their youthful perception and focus at the time. We saw the contrast between the loss expressed by Keshini and the gain expressed by Nila, but whether the symbolism invoked by material objects translated to the loss and gain of identity, or to the power and vulnerability of the menarcheal body is doubtful. We saw that certain symbols are common to all menarche ceremonies described, including water for purification, new clothes indicating new status, food shared in reciprocity for attendance, and gifts given to celebrate not just menarche but the next life event: money and gifts symbolising dowry wealth; spices and rice symbolising marriage.

One feature that was common to most of the ceremonies was the post-ceremonial mixed-gender feasting. Descriptions of it indicated the reproductive capital brought to the family by the menarche of a daughter. In Sri Lanka this was demonstrated through the cultural custom of arranged marriage to a cross-cousin, an arrangement somewhat at odds with the return to school by the girl at the conclusion of her ceremony.

The importance of the menarche ceremony to interviewees was evident in the decisions by both Keshini and Nila to have menarche ceremonies for their Australian-born daughters. This indicated two important aspects of their lives as an immigrant woman – their belief in their daughters’ vulnerability at menarche, regardless of changed geographical and cultural circumstances, and a desire to acknowledge the cultural significance of the ceremony to Sri Lankan-Australian women.

In comparison with the menarche ceremony, religious and secular ceremonies occurring at or close to menarche revealed two important differences – the absence of belief in danger caused by transitional spirit possession and the component of choice in participation. Although most of the ceremonies were individually focused, confirmation usually involved a group with an individual ritual component. Studying the core religious text at a deeper level prepared the individual for her status transition from child to adult within church, synagogue, or mosque. In close-knit community groups, acknowledgement of changed status would occur. Commonalities were present in both religious and secular ceremonies, in the ritual symbolism of dress, demeanour and the manner in which knowledge of the new status was demonstrated. Social support of the individual by family members, teachers, and friends was common to all participants; so, too, was the reciprocal strengthening of family and social ties through the sharing of food at the end of the ceremony. The anomaly was the debutante ball, a secular ceremony that fulfilled the criteria of a transitional ceremony, focusing on the presentation of young women to a prominent and usually male figure, symbolising request and acceptance into the society of adults and sexuality.

Although the secular and religious ceremonies give young women choice in participation they are nonetheless ceremonies of control, influencing the ways in which young women might live a particular religious or social life. Even so, the argued psychological benefits of secular ceremonies such as the debutante ball are worth consideration.

1    Keshini, 12 years old at menarche, Sri Lanka 1969.

2    Solon T. Kimball, ‘Introduction’, in Arnold van Gennep (1908), Rites of Passage, trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1960, p. xvii.

3    Judith Brown, ‘A cross-cultural study of female initiation rites’, American Anthropologist, new series, vol. 65, no. 4, 1963, p. 837.

4    Van Gennep, trans. Vizedom and Caffee (1960), p. 89.

5    Van Gennep trans. Vizedom and Caffee (1960), pp. 2–3, 10–11.

6    Van Gennep trans. Vizedom and Caffee (1960), p. 11.

7    Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: an Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo, (1966), Routledge Classics, London 2008, p. 119.

8    Alice Schlegel and Herbert Barry III, ‘The evolutionary significance of adolescent initiation ceremonies’, American Ethnologist, vol. 7, no. 4, 1980, p. 696.

9    Deborah Winslow, ‘Rituals of first menstruation in Sri Lanka’, Man, vol. 15, no. 4, 1980, p. 604.

10  Mala N. Powers, ‘Menstruation and reproduction: an Oglala case’, Signs, vol. 6, no. 1, 1980, pp. 55–56.

11  Barbara Myerhoff, ‘Rites of Passage’ in Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual, Victor Turner (ed.), Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC, 1982, p. 116; Alan Dundes, Folklore Matters, The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1989; David Parkin, ‘Ritual as spatial direction and bodily division’, in Understanding Rituals, Daniel de Coppet (ed.), Routledge, London, 1992, p. 23; Thera Rasing, Passing on the Rites of Passage: Girls’ Initiation Rites in the Context of an Urban Roman Catholic Community on the Zambian Copperbelt, African Studies Centre, Leiden University, Amsterdam, 1995, pp. 34–35.

12  Catherine M. Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, Oxford, New York, 1997, pp. 35, 37.

13  Alice Schlegel and Herbert Barry III, ‘Adolescent initiation ceremonies: a cross-cultural code’, Ethnology, vol. 18, no. 2, 1979, pp. 199, 206.

14  Abraham P. Bloch, The Biblical and Historical Background of Jewish Customs and Ceremonies, Ktav Publishing House Inc., New York, 1980, p. 19.

15  Keshini, 12, Sri Lanka 1969.

16  Steven Kemper, ‘Time, person, and gender in Sinhalese astrology’, American Ethnologist, vol. 7, no. 4, 1980, p. 745. See also Heinz Bechert, ‘Remarks on astrological Sanskrit literature from Sri Lanka’, in Senarat Paranavitana Commemoration Volume, vol. 7, Leelananda Prematilleke, Karthigesu Indrapala and J. E. van Lohuizen-de Leeuw (eds), composed by Sri Lanka Press, Leiden, The Netherlands, 1978, p. 46.

17  Kemper (1980), pp. 744, 746–747, 751.

18  Kemper (1980), pp. 747–748.

19  Swarna Wickremeratne, Buddha in Sri Lanka: Remembered Yesterdays, State University of New York Press, Albany 2006, pp. 79–80.

20  Winslow (1980), p. 622 f.n. 13.

21  Karin Kapadia, Siva and her Sisters: Gender, Caste, and Class in Rural South India, Westview Press, Boulder Colorado, 1995, p. 99.

22  Keshini, 12, Sri Lanka 1969.

23  Winslow, (1980), pp. 606, 614. Cross-cousin marriage in a matrilineal descent system is marriage to mother’s brother’s son in a line where the descent is traced through the females although the power is usually is held by men. See Charlotte Seymour-Smith, Macmillan Dictionary of Anthropology, (1986), The Macmillan Press, London, 1993, p. 185.

24  Wickremeratne (2006), p. 80, Winslow (1980), p. 608.

25  Nila, 13, Sri Lanka 1964.

26  Winslow (1980), p. 607.

27  Winslow (1980), pp. 607, 610. See also Nisha’s account in Cathryn Britton, ‘Learning about “The Curse”: an anthropological perspective on experiences of menstruation’, Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 19, no. 6, 1996, pp. 650–651.

28  Winslow (1980), p. 606; Kapadia (1995), p. 104.

29  Kapadia (1995), p. 93.

30  Kapadia (1995), p. 115.

31  Kapadia (1995), pp. 102, 108–109, 115–117.

32  Rara, 12, Indonesia 1951.

33  Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, New York, 1973, p. 112.

34  Wendy Bone, The magic ‘Jamu’’, part 1, The Jakarta Post, 26 July 2009.

35  Terence H. Hull and Valerie J. Hull, ‘Means, motives and menses: use of herbal emmenagogues in Indonesia’, in Regulating Menstruation: Beliefs, Practices and Interpretations, Etienne van de Walle and Elisha P. Renne (eds), University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2001, pp. 202–203.

36  Anke Niehof, ‘Traditional medicine at pregnancy and childbirth in Madura, Indonesia’ in The Context of Medicines in Developing Countries: Studies in Pharmaceutical Anthropology, Sjaak van der Geest and Susan Reynolds Whyte (eds), Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands 1988, p. 240.

37  Nirmala, 13, Indonesia 1964.

38  Levani, 16, Fiji 1967.

39  Marijke Sniekers, ‘From little girl to young woman: the menarche ceremony in Fiji’, Fijian Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2005.

40  Karen Ericksen Paige and Jeffery M. Paige, The Politics of Reproductive Ritual, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1982, p. 52.

41  Thomas Maschio, ‘Mythic images and objects of myth in Rauto female puberty ritual’, in Gender Rituals: Female Initiation in Melanesia, Nancy C. Lutkehaus and Paul B. Roscoe (eds), Routledge, New York, 1995, p. 136.

42  Sniekers (2005), pp. 405, 406–407. See also van Gennep trans. Vizedom and Caffee (1960), p. 11.

43  Sniekers (2005), pp. 406–407, 409–410, 412.

44  Sniekers (2005), pp. 413–415.

45  Nancy C. Lutkehaus, ‘Feminist anthropology and female initiation in Melanesia’, in Gender Rituals: Female Initiation in Melanesia, Nancy C. Lutkehaus and Paul B. Roscoe (eds), Routledge, New York 1995, p. 13.

46  Sniekers (2005), p. 416–419.

47  Helen Morton, Becoming Tongan: an Ethnography of Childhood, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu 1996, pp. 113–114.

48  Marjorie, 12, England 1956.

49  John Maquarrie, ‘Confirmation’, in A Guide to the Sacraments, Continuum, New York 1999, p. 84.

50  ‘Articles of religion XXV’ and ‘The order of confirmation’ in The Book of Common Prayer (1662), Oxford University Press, London, n.d., c.1950, p. 433, 228.

51  ‘The order of confirmation’ pp. 228–230 and memories of own experience in 1951. I have focused on young girl candidates although confirmation was not necessarily gender specific.

52  See chapter one.

53  Macquarie (1999), p. 80; Ivan G. Marcus, The Jewish Life Cycle: Rites of Passage from Biblical to Modern Times, University of Washington Press, Seattle 2004, p. 111. See also Mandy Ross, Coming of Age, Heinemann Library, Oxford 2003, pp. 6–7. This is a text for young people describing cultural rites of passage.

54  Karen Mary Davalos, ‘La Quinceañera: making gender and ethnic identities’, Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, vol. 16, nos 2/3, 1996, pp. 109–111, 120–121.

55  Bloch (1980), p. 19. At the time of Sinai puberty was estimated by the growth of a minimal two pubic hairs.

56  Marcus (2004), pp. 105–106. For an explanation of Jewish terms see ‘Judaism 101: a glossary of basic Jewish terms, concepts and practices’, a project of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America,

57  Marcus (2004), p. 113. See also Bloch (1980), p. 22.

58  Marcus (2004), pp. 106–107.

59  Marcus (2004), p. 109.

60  Marcus (2004), pp. 110, 114–116. See also Elana Sztokman, ‘Some rabbinic sources on women and Torah reading’, compiled in honour of her daughter Avigayil’s batmitzvah, 22 January 2005, p. 3.

61  Nor Faridah Abdul Manaf, ‘Other coming of age rituals among Malay Muslim girls in Malaysia’, in The Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures: Family, Body, Sexuality and Health, Vol. 3, Suad Joseph and Afsaneh Najmabadi (eds), Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands, 2006, pp. 69–70. See also Ross (2003), pp. 10–11.

62  Karen Ericksen Paige, ‘Social aspects of menstruation’, in Cultural Perspectives on Biological Knowledge, Troy Duster and Karen Garrett (eds), Ablex Publishing Company, New Jersey, 1984, p. 139.

63  Dean D. Knudsen, ‘Socialization to elitism: a study of debutantes’, The Sociological Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 3, 1968, p. 300. Isobel Thompson and Vicki Northey, Coming Out: Debutante Balls, Wangaratta Travelling Exhibition curated by Albury Regional Museum and The Exhibitions Gallery, 1991, p. 3 cited in Lyn Harrison, “It’s a nice day for a white wedding’: the debutante ball and constructions of femininity’, Feminism and Psychology, vol. 6, no. 4, 1997, pp. 497–498.

64  Janet McCalman, Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle-Class Generation 1920–1990, (1993), Melbourne University Press, Carlton 1995, p.189 and f.n. 14, p. 189.

65  Van Gennep trans. Vizedom and Caffee (1960), pp. 65–68.

66  ‘Coming out, ready or not’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 November 2004.

67  Harrison, (1997), pp. 496, 505.

68  Schlegel and Barry III (1979), p. 199.

69  Harrison (1997), pp. 504, 507, 509.

70  Knudsen (1968), p. 301.

First Blood: A Cultural Study of Menarche

   by Sally Dammery