Female blood ties: ideas on menstruation and female initiation rites in the context of purity in Zambia

From Firenze university Press Journal: Storia delle donne

Thera Rasing, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Most anthropological literature about ideas on menstruation claim that in many cultures menstruation is associated with impurity, pollution, contamination, fear and danger, and therefore menstruation is surrounded by a lot of taboos. In Zambia, too, menstruation is surrounded by taboos, as is taught during female initiation rites, which is the main institute in which girls learn about these issues. However, these ideas and taboos are not only associated with concepts of impurity or contamination, but merely with inclusion as “pure” or “real” women. This is both on a bodily and sociological level. On a spiritual level, menstrual blood predominantly indicates relatedness to a spiritual and physical ancestral line, hence inclusion in the ancestral line as well as in an ethnic group.

Today, in Zambia female initiation rites are disappearing rapidly due to western influences. This means that girls lack knowledge about menstruation that is culturally considered necessary for women which can only be given during initiation rites, while this also leads to social exclusion from the socially ‘pure’ or “real” women, and also leads to cultural disorder. This article will revise concepts of purity and cultural (dis)order, using ideas on female initiation rites and menstruation in Zambia. It will show that mixing western and Zambian concepts of purity and pollution may lead to cultural disorder.

Since Mary Douglas’ work on Purity and Danger (1966),1 many scholars have been interested in concepts of purity, pollution, taboos and the danger associated with impurity and trespassing taboos. In the past three decades, there has been more attention to ideas of purity, particularly in relationship to the female body and female blood. Female scholars from various disciplines have examined concepts of blood and purity, especially those of the ancient Greeks up to 20thcentury Europe, in Judaism, in the biblical literature and in the Ro-man Catholic tradition.

These studies show that, even though cultural concepts of pu-rity, pollution and taboos seem to be fixed, they have changed dur-ing the course of history and vary according to different cultures. Yet anthropological literature about female blood often claim that in many cultures menstruation is associated with impurity, pollution, contamination, fear and danger, and therefore menstruation is surrounded by certain taboos.In Zambia, too, menstruation is surrounded by taboos, as is taught during female initiation rites, the main institute in which girls learn about these issues. However, these ideas and taboos are not only associated with concepts of impurity or contamination, but merely with inclusion as “pure” or “real” women.

This is on a bodily, sociological and spiritual level.This article focusses on female initiation rites and the perception of female blood in the matrilineal society of Zambia, predominantly among the Bemba. It discusses concepts of purity and cultural (dis)order. As I lived in Zambia for over twenty years, I observed how these ideas have changed in the past decade or two. The article will show these changes due to Western influences. It will show that mix-ing western and Zambian concepts of purity and pollution may lead to cultural disorder.

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