On my twelfth birthday, my mother took me to an amusement park in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I spent the day on questionably built spinning rides and even took my first, and last, trip down an actual “grown-up” roller coaster. By late afternoon, my stomach hurt and we chalked it up to motion sickness and overindulgence in soda and funnel cake. But it wasn’t the third ride down the “Steel Force” that had my stomach feeling…off. By the end of the day, my mother already spilled the beans to most of the family matriarchs that I had received one last surprise birthday gift- my first period.
Whether it’s cramping or bloating, menstrual periods are one thing that connects the more than three billion women and girls across the globe. It goes by many colloquial names from Aunt Flo to the charming “La semaine Ketchup” in France (or ketchup week). Every month, a woman’s body prepares for a possible pregnancy. If it doesn’t happen, the uterus sheds its’ lining that was intended to nourish a newly fertilized egg.
While the monthly biological process exists as an annoying afterthought to the women fortunate to have reliable access to facilities and supplies, for the majority of womankind, each month often brings a share of difficulties for those in lower incomes or developing countries. It is hard to get through 4 to 8 days of menstruation without running water and feminine products.
Even worse, some cultures isolate women during this time. Remote regions of Nepal practice an ancient Hindu ritual called, chauupadi, where menstruating women are segregated from their homes to chauu goths, windowless mud huts. Although the Nepali Supreme Court banned the practice in 2005, many women still voluntarily confine themselves away from their communities during their periods. On January 8, after student Gauri Kumari Budha was found dead in a chauu goth due to smoke inhalation after she started a fire for warmth, officials passed a law criminalizing chauupadi- a three-month jail term or 3,000 rupee ($30) fine.
For many cultures, however, menstruation is a rite of passage, an entryway into womanhood. My cycle was commemorated with a hug from my mom and a Kotex “first period kit” commandeered from the school clinic she worked in at the time. While there are still many taboos and biological misconceptions worldwide, let’s explore some of the beautiful and interesting rituals that mark puberty and menarche.
Ghana, West Africa
Puberty rites mark a stage of social status transformation in many Ghanaian communities, like the Dipo of the Krobo ethnic group and the Bragaro of the Ashanti’s. Young women are secluded for two to three weeks during which elder women teach lessons on birth control, good marriage skills, their dignified space within society and sex. After this time, a ceremony takes place including the chief and most of the community, where the young women are adorned with beads and cosmetics to unveil themselves to society. There is drumming, dancing, and blessings bestowed by the spirit of Oynankopong Kwame, Asase Yaa, and deceased ancestors. Young men use this time to participate and potentially seek a prospective wife.
First Nations, North America
One of the largest groups of First Nations people in North America, with over 200,000 members living near James Bay in Ontario and Quebec, Canada, celebrate first periods with a rite of passage called a Berry Fast. During the ceremony, generations of Cree female family members pray for the future of the young woman, encouraging her to reflect on life plans. It is a fasting time, and family members bring her soup and water. At the end of the event, the participating young women are treated to a feast. Historically, many indigenous North Americans treated women with honor during their menses, with a belief that they had otherworldly powers for her ability to bleed, continuously and regularly, without dying.
First periods call for a celebration in many Tamil communities in South India. Young women are treated like princesses. When a girl reaches puberty, she is bathed by her close family and fed a hearty and nutritious vegetarian diet of foods such as Ragi and urad lentils cooked in sesame oil. She is kept in isolation for 15 days in a room that only women are allowed to enter. On the 16th day, guests are invited to a party in her honor. To prepare, she bathes again, receives her first silk saree, decorated like a bride, and receives gifts and blessings. It turns into a social affair, complete with relatives, a feast, and blessings bestowed by priests.
It was common for many Japanese mothers to prepare a traditional disk called sekihan for their daughters going through menarche. Sekihan is sticky rice steamed with adzuki red beans, which give the rice its characteristic color. It’s usually served during New Years, birthdays, weddings – any time where there is something to celebrate for good luck. When a Japanese girl reaches puberty, serving sekihan at the dinner table is essentially a silent announcement to the family that the young woman has had her first period.
Years ago, many of the celebrations and rituals that still take place globally were used to announce a young girl’s eligibility for marriage and motherhood. Now, they are a sacred reminder that menstruation is a special moment in a young girl’s life that should be respected, not taboo.