Empowering Women and Girls
First published in Women’s Sahayog (1999), Calcutta, India
By: Chandra Alexandre
Around the globe, girls often experience some form of initiation into adulthood at menarche (the first coming of menstrual blood). Although such rites of passage can be as simple as a mother showing a daughter how to use a sanitary napkin, or as complex as religious ceremonies in which the entire community participates, they are nonetheless important markers in an individual’s life since it is generally at that point that girls become women in the eyes of society.
There are, however, two ways a girl can be impacted by her “initiation.” She can either be wholly embraced by her community, or taught to be ashamed of her monthly cycle. Unfortunately, a middle ground does not generally exist and rites of passage, when extant, are often only brutal reinforcements of patriarchal biases and attitudes that promote self-hatred and the denigration of women’s power.
Within most global contexts, the influence of patriarchy means, “each woman must go through each life stage, transition, and crisis, in silent aloneness, unsupported by either ritual or the women’s group.” (1) In some parts of the world, while rituals may abound to mark the passage of a girl into womanhood, some only purport to honor her femaleness; as often these ceremonies are just the community’s way of marking the woman as fit for domination. The practice of genital mutilation and other ritualized forms of abuse endured by women because of cultural denial and culturally-learned self-hatred are good examples of how women suffer by virtue of their very woman-ness within a patriarchal context.
Adulthood is a stage in the individual life cycle that usually involves the taking on of responsibilities. Generally, the responsibilities associated with becoming a woman within a family or community group involve not only marriage, child rearing and household work, but also maintaining a livelihood, often in order to ensure that the basic needs of life are met. However, when no sacred, or communal space in which to learn about and honor the mysteries and realities inherent in the transformative process of becoming an adult woman is to be found; or when the rite of passage is a psychologically painful or physically brutal process, girls on the verge of inheriting all of these responsibilities are often thrust into crisis – crisis from which most never emerge.
How then do we change the attitudes around menstruation, both as a culture, and as women ultimately impacted by the values, norms and traditions of our society? Although difficult, the only way to change society is to promote change from within ourselves. We must be committed to taking the first step – taking it upon ourselves to question why we may (or may have at one time) regard menstruation, a natural process, as “dirty” or shameful. Look back for a moment to the first time you had your monthly flow. How was the situation handled? Were you alone or with someone…a woman…your mother…a friend? What did you think about your blood, and what now are your associations with it?
In answering these questions, note your feelings and reactions. Is it hard to talk/think about menstruation? How have your attitudes about menstruation been shaped by those around you, by what you’ve heard, by what others may say? What does it mean to you now to menstruate, and how, over time, has your attitude changed? Has becoming married or having children (if you are or have) impacted how you feel at all about this process?
The ideas and beliefs that surround women’s blood shape not only the individual woman’s sense of self, but also the relationships in which she finds herself throughout life. And of course, many of the taboos and negative associations attached to menstruation stem directly from the fears of men and male-dominated religious and socio-cultural constructs. Women are not naturally ashamed of their monthly course – they are taught to be so. Therefore, re-thinking and re-teaching menstruation as a natural, special and powerful aspect of women’s unique culture can mean that women move into a greater sense of empowerment in all areas of their lives.
As more and more women speak out about their personal needs, and about the needs of sisterhood in this regard, the more likely it will be that woman-affirming change can occur. Calling upon each other for support in such personal matters without a sense of shame, and lending a hand in larger communal efforts for change can ultimately lead to a more concerted global effort to promote women’s issues and concerns.
Many organizations are learning what it means to be a good forum for the initiation of such projects, and The Maa Batakali Cultural Mission is dedicated to making such a vision real. To this end, we have begun the project of the Daughters of Kali, which provides mentorship and rites of passage for girls ages 13 and up, as well as a forum for initiated members to work ritual around this and other issues.
Although acknowledging the difficulty of changing people’s beliefs, for women themselves to honor menstruation as a sacred process would be a good beginning. What if women’s groups, for example, taught that “the menstrual cycle in the female body corresponds to, and represents, the cyclical change of the seasons and the orderliness in the universe…[and that further, it serves to] interrelate humans to their environment and to the socio-cultural reality in which their rites and rituals attain fruition. [It is an] episode that provides us with a choreography in which collective acts and events of theological/philosophical and cosmological significance attain fruition.” (2) Wouldn’t it be incredible if women (and eventually men) could understand and work that reality into their attitudes and psychological makeup? Certainly, that is the hope.
The Power of Menstruation and Rites of Passage
While the “pre-eminent feminine mystery” (3) of menstruation has been both celebrated and cursed throughout the ages by cultures around the globe, it is usually recognized as containing great power. We need to continue to re-vision menstruation with positive constructs/connotations and remember that many of the world’s cultures do celebrate a girl’s coming of age with rites and ceremonies that recognize, name and honor this important passage. We can take example from some of them, where the sacred rituals of society allow the girl “…to become conscious of a transformation that comes about in a natural way and to assume the mode of being that results from it, the mode of being of the adult woman.” (4)
The Native American Apache peoples, for instance, perform the Sunrise Dance when a girl first menstruates, a celebratory initiation into womanhood that lasts four days. With the girl having completed the ceremony, the Apache, “know [her] small age is past and treat [her] like a woman.” (5) Paula Gunn Allen tells us that the Oglala (another Native American tribe) too view menstruation as “something sacred”, and a girl’s first period is “greeted by celebration.” (6)
By naming and celebrating this particular passage in community, the girl’s transformation is honored, acknowledged and respected by her peers and elders. Her place as an adult woman is secured with all of its rights and privileges, burdens and responsibilities. She is welcomed and embraced. In this regard, it has been noted that such formal recognition helps to alleviate the sense of crisis many young girls feel around this life passage, particularly about their bodies and about what it means to be a woman in society:
To emerge enriched from the life crisis of menstruation implies finally trusting and liking one’s body…It gives pride and status rather than shame and mistrust…It can be creative for [the woman] and the community. Her trust of her body depends on her seeing it in context of the whole. In that sense, it is part of the very goodness of life and of the creative structures of all living organisms.(7)
And as Carol P. Christ notes, “changing cultural attitudes toward the female body could go a long way toward overcoming the spirit-flesh, mind-body dualisms [imposed by Western culture]… since… the denigration of the female body is at the heart of these dualisms.” (8) What if a community effort was made to help our daughters feel welcomed and honored upon becoming a woman? What if we provided educational forums for the eradication of taboos associated with menstruation? Ultimately, the whole of society would be impacted, and women’s power would be reclaimed and restored to its proper place.
It is also worthwhile mentioning here that within some cultures, the power of women’s blood is envied by men to the extent that they often emulate women’s rites of passage. Sometimes, men endure pain and mutilation in attempting to connect to the realm of the Divine Feminine – the realm that women, by “virtue of their ability to bleed menstrually…are naturally privy to.” (9) Jane Caputi tells us that often men perform “subincision” in their initiation rites, which “entails a cutting of the penis so that during rituals the wound can be reopened and the penis can bleed…the bleeding men are playing the role of menstruating women.” (10)
It would appear that men, through the enactment of these rites in certain cultures, are seeking to connect to the manna of Mother Earth, to the sacred power that “has life-giving and life-destroying possibilities.” (11) This paradoxical nature of the Goddess, as both creator and destroyer, reflects Her ability to embrace the fullness of the cycles of life from birth through death into rebirth. She is the loving whole that can contain them all.
Thus, for women who bleed, the microcosmic reality of menstruation is connected and grounded through an awareness of the Earth’s living presence as a sister with cycles of her own; as well as through an awareness of the sacred Divine Feminine in any of Her aspects. If we could re-establish a healthy relationship to our own personal bodies, we could help to facilitate a shift in awareness that would have far-reaching consequences. It could mean that one day, women would bleed without shameful associations, and our blood would once again become the blood of life – the force that potentiates both creation and destruction. With this in mind, I encourage you to begin working for the promotion of menstruation as sacred, remembering that the changes must start within each of us.
1. Sjoo, Monica & Mor, Barbara. The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, San Francisco, 1987, p. 186
2. Patel, Kartikeya C. “Women, Earth and the Goddess: A Shakta-Hindu Interpretation of Embodied Religion” in Hypatia vol. 9 no. 4 (Fall 1994), pp. 73-74
3. Eliade, Mircea, Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth, New York, 1958, p. 47
4. Eliade, Mircea. Ibid.
5. Quintero, Nita, “Coming of Age the Apache Way”, essay appearing in On My Way Running: Women Speak on Coming of Age, edited by Lyn Reese, Jean Wilkinson and Phyllis Sheon Koppelman, 1983, p. 35
6. Gunn Allen, Paula. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, Boston, 1986, p. 253
7. Washbourn, Penelope. “Becoming Woman: Menstruation as Spiritual Challenge” essay appearing in Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, edited by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, San Francisco, 1979, pp. 256-7
8. Christ, Carol P. “Why Women Need the Goddess: Phenomenological, Psychological and Political Reflections”, essay appearing in Womanspirit Rising, ibid., p. 282
9. Gunn Allen, Paula. The Sacred Hoop, ibid., p. 87
10. Caputi, Jane. Gossips, Gorgons & Crones: The Fates of the Earth. Santa Fe, 1993, p. 185
11. Washbourn, Penelope. “Becoming Woman: Menstruation as Spiritual Challenge” essay appearing in Womanspirit Rising, ibid., p. 251 Ê