Seeing red about “Seeing Red”

Whero Wahine (Red Woman) by Robyn Kahukiwa

^ “The artist addresses the double oppression of Maori women by the social structures of the dominant Pakeha culture and changing Maori traditions. For this reason, she often paints strong Maori women who can act as role models for the younger generation. She has said, ‘as Maori women we need to reaffirm our place in Aotearoa and be accorded the same status that once was ours in traditional culture'”.

This evening on the way home from supper, we were listening to the CBC program “Ideas”. Tonight’s program was Part 1 of “Seeing Red” about cultural and societal attitudes and beliefs about menstruation.

It got my dander up. I decided to write a letter….

Your program, part 1 of which I have been listening to has me… well… seeing red.

Here we have, yet again, “experts” telling us what other cultures thought of and interpreted menstruation as, about their methods and reasoning behind their beliefs and practices and then telling us “what they really mean”. Of course, their own words have to be “taken with a grain of salt” because they can’t POSSIBLY be taken at face value. According to many cultures, menstruation is not “dirty”, “polluting” (in the sense of dirtiness), or “poisonous” but “powerful, “magic”, and full of portent. Instead of taking them at their word, we are told that “Well. What they really mean is “dirty” and “bad”.

The term “tapu” (taboo) does not, as your Geraldine Maddis (spelling?) assured us, mean “forbidden”. In fact, it means “inviolable or sacrosanct”. It is the Western interpretation of the concept of “taboo”, brought to us by Captain Cook, that all things “taboo” are “bad”. The use of the term can cover anything from rules about fishing to protect from over-exploitation of resources to protection against powerful supernatural or natural forces. And the word tapu is widely used for all sorts of things, and connotes “the sacred” or “the spiritual” and is can be said that every part of creation is seen to have its tapu “because every part of creation has its link to one or others of the spiritual powers and alternately with Io, Io Matua Kore, the parentless one’, Io Taketake, ‘the source of all'”. (Tikanga Māori: living by Māori values By Hirini Moko Mead, Sidney M. Mead).

Many “primitive” cultures did not see menstruation as dirty or polluting but as a powerful natural force, so powerful that it had to be contained or honoured, or hidden away, depending on their particular understanding of it. This “magical” quality was often seen as evidence of the power of women not of some destructive quality of women. Women were often isolated to allow them to spend this terribly powerful and sacred time alone. Some cultures saw women as having great a spiritual connection to Nature and to the earth at this time.

And, it should be pointed out that cultures that had what we “modern” humans consider as backward and superstitious beliefs and practices had beliefs and practices governing all aspects of their lives, including, dare I say it, the lives of the men, even matriarchal societies.

We can say what we want about how Victorian scientists saw women and saw menstruation but women today are still being told, not just by advertisers but even by feminist thinkers about what we should believe and understand about menstruation and our own bodies.

It is not so many years ago that I was told by a school nurse that my complaints about debilitating pain during my period that “it couldn’t be THAT bad”, pain that incapacitated me for three days of every cycle. Another nurse told me to “buck up” because I had cycles that were abnormally long and heavy at age 15. The fact is, it took 30 years to finally have it confirmed that I suffered from actual medical problems which could have been determined many years before had my problems not been dismissed by medical professionals, some of them women, as being “in my head”.

We are told to pooh-pooh the idea that women aren’t capable of being completely normal every single day of their cycle, that if you aren’t you are “letting the side down”, all the while dismissing the practices of other cultures which acknowledge that women experience something which is set aside for them, which should be honoured, and which has meaning.

Perhaps we, as women, should spend less time “reinterpreting” what other cultures thought about menstruation and women in order to remake the boxes we place women and girls in in our modern world.


Here is an interesting New Testament story about Jesus’ “curing” of a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years.

I think it is interesting because despite the Jewish proscriptions on women who were menstruating, defined in Leviticus 15:19-31,

19 When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. 20 Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. 21 Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. 22 Whoever touches anything upon which she sits shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening; 23 whether it is the bed or anything upon which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. 24 If any man lies with her, and her impurity falls on him, he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean. 25 If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. 26 Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as the bed of her impurity; and everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her impurity. 27 Whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. 28 If she is cleansed of her discharge, she shall count seven days, and after that she shall be clean. 29 On the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 30 The priest shall offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf before the Lord for her unclean discharge. 31 Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, so that they do not die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.

Jesus treats the woman in a manner which is rather revealing of his personal ministry.

43And a woman having an issue of blood twelve years, which had spent all her living upon physicians, neither could be healed of any,

44Came behind him, and touched the border of his garment: and immediately her issue of blood stanched.

45And Jesus said, Who touched me? When all denied, Peter and they that were with him said, Master, the multitude throng thee and press thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me?

46And Jesus said, Somebody hath touched me: for I perceive that virtue is gone out of me.

47And when the woman saw that she was not hid, she came trembling, and falling down before him, she declared unto him before all the people for what cause she had touched him, and how she was healed immediately.

48And he said unto her, Daughter, be of good comfort: thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace. ” Luke 8:43-48

Women with normal menstrual cycles would have been considered unclean and would not have ventured out of doors. Anything or anyone they touched would have become unclean. I don’t know what the punishment would have been for a woman who walked out during this time but it would have been considered a grave infraction of religious law.

In this case, the woman is ill and has been ill with some sort of menstrual condition which would have kept her confined for years. She is said to have spent all her money on doctors. According to the practices of the day, she would likely have been a candidate for a rather primitive surgical procedure, a choice of last resort. In a state of desperation, she hears of a healer passing by and decides to risk the possible consequences and goes out into the crowd, hoping for a cure.

When she finally comes upon Jesus, knowing that she couldn’t just come out and ask him for a cure, given the nature of her illness, she has faith that touching his shawl will cure her. She does so. Jesus “feels” that someone has touched him, despite the fact that hundreds of people bustling about him would have likely touched him. Luke’s relation of the story, unlike that of Mark 5:24-34 or Matthew 9:20-22, notes that Jesus perceived “that virtue is gone out of me”. Which relates back to the idea that the touch of an unclean woman would have rendered him unclean.

Instead of reacting with outrage at having been been rendered unclean, Jesus’ reaction is to her is to tell her that she is healed and to go on her way. Interestingly, nothing more is said about this and it is not directly interpreted by Jesus for his disciples in the way that his actions involving the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair is. Perhaps references were expunged from the Bible but I think it unlikely.

We aren’t told what to think of this story and we have to take it at face value. On one hand it is a lesson in faith — no matter what the illness, faith will cure you… and on the other, it would be seen to emphasize  that it was not magic that cured the woman, but her own faith.

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