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How Menarche Is Treated In Different Societies

Anthropology is rich with descriptions of comingof-age ceremonies for girls. The attitudes of societies toward menarche vary from delight and pride to fear and shame. Positive labels signify that the girl is an adult, capable of contributing to the ongoing society. Menstrual pollution is the term anthropologists use to describe fears of menstrual blood and its dangerous powers. Since the time of Pliny (23–79 C.E) myths and taboos have surrounded menarche. Societies in Brazil, British Columbia, India, Ceylon, and North America built menstrual huts to segregate menstruating women.

When the Bemba (from Rhodesia) were studied, the chisungu was held for each girl at menarche. The girl informed older women that she had started to bleed and they "brought her to the fire" to warm her. Seeds were cooked, and the girl was required to extract and eat them burning hot. Dances were performed to protect her against the magic dangers of her first intercourse. Pottery was painted and decorated with special symbols. Later the girl was isolated indoors and fed millet cooked in a new fire (Richards 1956). Menarche was a cause for celebration but recognized as a dangerous state.

In contrast to this public event, on the island of Inis Beag, Ireland, most girls were unaware and unprepared for menarche. Their mothers did not discuss menstruation with them. They were traumatized by the experience and had nowhere to turn for information or support. As a consequence, their adult reproductive life was fraught with half-truths and superstitions regarding their bodies and their sexual behavior (Marshall and Suggs 1962).

The Tiwi of Australia subjected menstruating girls to severe restrictions. The girl's mother and relatives chased her into the bush, where they built a menstrual hut for her. She could not dig up or touch food, or eat without a stick. She could not touch or look at water. Someone had to give it to her. She could not scratch herself with her fingers. She could not make a fire or break any sticks. She had to whisper instead of talk.

Among certain Jewish people, the mother slaps her daughter's face with a congratulatory statement such as "today you are a woman," or "may the blood run back to your face." One source reports the slap as an admonition that the daughter should not disgrace the family by becoming pregnant before marriage. The tradition is less common than it was before the 1950s. Certain mothers who were slapped have decided not to carry on the ritual because of its pejorative connotation (Appel-Slingbaum 2000).


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Messenger, J. C. (1970). "Sex and Repression in an Irish Folk Community." In Human Sexual Behavior, ed. D. C. Marshall and R. C. Suggs. New York: Basic Books.

Richards, A .I. (1956). Chisungu: A Girl's Initiation Ceremony among the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia. London: Faber and Faber.

Tanner, J. M. (1962). Growth at Adolescence, 2d edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Turner, V. (1968). The Drums of Affliction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Other Resources

Appel-Slingbaum, C. (2000). "The Tradition of Slapping Our Daughters." Available from http://www.mum.org/slap.htm.

eHRAF (Electronic Human Relations Area Files) (2001). Available from http://ets.umdl.umich.edu/reference.html.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaOther Marriage & Family TopicsMenarche - The Biological Process, Differing Ages Of Onset Through History, Meaning For Reproduction And Family, How Menarche Is Treated In Different Societies