Seemingly restrictive religious traditions that regard menstruating women as "unclean" may paradoxically build strong bonds between women, new research finds.
This sense of community, most famously depicted in the Bible-based novel "The Red Tent" (Picador, 1998), comes at a cost. Women with strict religious traditions around their periods feel more embarrassment and shame about menstruating. But their positive feelings suggest that there's an upside to having everyone know you're having your period.
"They came up with a way of positively spinning it," said study researcher Tomi-Ann Roberts, a psychologist at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
The idea for the study came when study researcher Nicki Dunnavant, now a graduate student at the University of Chicago, studied abroad in Nepal in 2008. The first morning staying with a family in a traditional village, she woke up with her period.
Her Hindu hosts followed strict rules about what women can and can't do during menstruation. So that first morning, Dunnavant said, she had to go up to her host mother and explain the situation.
"I had to pull out my sad little notebook of phrases and words," she told LiveScience. The phrase she was looking for translated to, "I have become untouchable."
For the next four days, Dunnavant had to sit in the hallway instead of the kitchen, wash her own dishes and avoid contact with men. She had to wear the same clothes every day and didn't receive a tika, a red dot on the forehead that signifies a religious blessing. [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]
"Everybody in the village knew that I was on my period, which was definitely a new experience," Dunnavant said. "I would walk down and the men would walk a little bit farther away from me."
She resisted the prescriptions "a little bit" at first, Dunnavant said, but soon came to see the rules as oddly empowering.
"It really became sort of a communal experience that I could share with the women in my village and with my female teachers, and offered me an entirely new perspective on how communal menstruating could be," she said.
Rules and restrictions
The experience made her wonder if women who grow up in these religious traditions feel the same way. So upon returning to America, Dunnavant teamed up with Roberts to survey 340 women residing in the Rocky Mountain West, ranging in age from 17 to 62, about their periods. The online survey gauged women's disgust and shame at their periods by asking if they agreed with statements such as, "It is important to keep the period a secret," and "A woman should feel ashamed if she 'leaks' menstrual blood on her clothes."
Seventy of the women surveyed were Orthodox Jews, Muslims or Hindus, three religious traditions that demand certain behaviors and purification rituals during the menstrual period. Another 162 women were religious, but their religions did not officially have any period-related rules, and another 136 were secular.
The results revealed that women from traditions with menstrual rules felt more shame, embarrassment and seclusion during their periods. But they also reported a heightened sense of community.
Follow-up surveys with a dozen women revealed that individuals with strict religious traditions often saw the restrictions as blessings in disguise. One Muslim women who followed the prescription not to engage in sex during her period saw the rule as a break from being sexually available.
“I like the idea that I can say no to my partner, and he's going to understand and he’s not going to like get upset over it because it's not in my hands," she told the researchers.
Interestingly, being in a relationship made both religious and non-religious women feel better about their periods, but for opposite reasons, Roberts said. Strict religious women enjoyed the opportunity to say no to sex. For secular women, a committed relationship eases the burden of secrecy surrounding menstruation, she said. [5 Myths About Women's Bodies]
"People might be horrified by this, but getting over the hump of what I would call menstrual sex, having sexual relations while you're having your period is a huge moment in a relationships," Roberts said. Suddenly, she said, the taboo surrounding the period is broken a little bit.
The findings highlight that attitudes toward periods are quite negative, even among the secular, the researchers reported online Feb. 27 in the journal Sex Roles. Turns out, American culture has rules about proper periods, too, Roberts said.
"We are obliged as Western women to sanitize and deodorize and wear white clothing and appear not to be a menstruating being at all," she said. "We also practice rituals, they're just not codified."
That means that in American tradition, women get all of the disgust heaped on periods but none of the communal bonding that arises from religious rules. And disgust is a strong driver of moral judgments, Roberts said — perhaps explaining why women's reproductive health is a favorite topic for politicians.
"When we associate women with blood and we are disgusted by them, we persist as treating them as less than fully human," Roberts said. She wants to see more positivity around periods. Instead of a monthly curse, she said, menstruation should be seen as a positive indicator of a woman's health.
"To the extent that we can help girls and women feel good about their periods and get more of a positive attitude toward it, they're going to feel better about their whole selves," Roberts said, adding, "I want to bring menstruation out of the closet."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.