Belizean customs very often focus on blood. You will hear people talking about ‘strong blood’, ‘bad blood’ and ‘weak blood’. This life giving liquid, gives life to many customs. It is only logical therefore that a topic such as menstruation, involving the monthly passing of blood, will be surrounded with customs and taboos.
Coming from a Western culture I grew up thinking that menstruation was a normal bodily process, it didn’t really limit what I could do or whom I could do it with. It was a strange experience for me to discover that some Belizean men and women I met had a very different view. It is not really the kind of topic you bring up with strangers so I carried on my usual practises without realising I should be acting any differently.
The first time I encountered a new opinion on the cleanliness of my ‘normal’ bodily functions was when a friend came to visit me for dinner. I explained to him that I had been sleeping in the afternoon as I had been suffering from stomach cramps, ‘the joys of being a woman’. He asked if I had cooked already, I said no, he looked very relieved and said he would cook as he would not eat food cooked by a woman on their period. I must have looked slightly offended as he started explaining that it was unclean for a woman to cook on their period. This occurred again another time when I was making a dish called sere. The person I was cooking for said that he would have to add the coconut milk as it would ‘split the dish’ (curdle) if I were to cook whilst on my period. The two reasons offered for the reactions were very different. One viewed the blood as “dirty” whilst the other viewed the blood as “too strong”. After speaking to various women about the topic, there seemed to be three distinct cultural views about women around the time of their menstruation. The first views the menstrual blood as unclean and therefore a pollutant, the second idea sees the menstrual blood as having magical properties and finally the blood is seen as being too “strong”.
Blood as unclean
The idea that blood is unclean has origins in a range of religions. In the biblical book Leviticus a woman’s body is seen as unclean for seven days from the start of the bleeding. “If a woman has a discharge, and the discharge from her body is blood, she shall be set apart seven days; and whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening. Everything that she lies on during her impurity shall be unclean; also everything that she sits on shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. And whoever touches anything that she sat on shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. If anything is on her bed or on anything on which she sits, when he touches it, he shall be unclean until evening. And if any man lies with her at all, so that her impurity is on him, he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed on which he lies” (Leviticus 15 v19-24)
If the text is followed literally then it would follow that such blood is dirty. Many Belizeans I have spoken to about this subject regard the menstrual blood as particularly unclean, one source stating that “the blood comes down to clean out any dirt in the woman, that is why the blood is so dark to start”. This is a very common perception throughout many cultures worldwide. This dirty blood is seen to pollute the woman and all she may touch while she is on her period. I was told “you cannot go to church during your period, it is disrespectful”. Proper bathing and hygiene are of utmost importance during the menstrual cycle. Some men will even refuse to sleep in the same bed as a woman on her period. This might also reflect many of the taboos around oral sex in Belize, many men believe that it is wrong to practice such activities, at any time. As it involves the ‘area’ where the polluted menstrual blood leaves the body, the mouth may become contaminated resulting in sickness.
The idea that the blood is a dirty pollutant also has an affect on modern practices for women. Many women find the idea of using tampons also contradictory with the polluting nature of the menstrual blood, “the blood should be free to flow out of the body… it is dirty it should not stay there for any amount of time”. Menstruation is seen as a natural cleansing process and the process should be allowd as nature intended. This can also influence women’s views on contraception. The contraceptive pill for example is often viewed as a poison that is against the cycle of nature.
A popular religion in Belize, Rastafarianism, often promotes that idea that “women are expected to follow a modest dress code, and to avoid certain responsibilities, such as preparing food when menstruating” (Reprecht, A. The reordering of Culture; Latin America, The Caribbean and Canada in the Hood). These guidelines tend to by followed by Orthodox Nyahbihgni Practitioners within the Rastafarian movement, Nyahbihngi embodies a life that is built around Old Testament Practices. Many traditional religions; including Judaism, Christianity and Catholicism follow the view that the menstrual blood is a negative consequence of sin, bought about by Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. In Belize menstruation I often heard menstruation being called the curse. There are other religions however that honour women and her role in fertility.
It could be said that women are elevated to a powerful position during their menstruation. They can have power over men and magical spiritual qualities that are tied in with the mystery of childbirth and fertility. For thousands of years Goddesses of Fertility such as Ixchel Have been worshipped in the Mayan region of Central America. Ixchel, as Moon Goddess is linked inadvertently to the Lunar cycle and the menstrual cycle, the moon having a powerful affect on menstruation and both cycles lasting similar amounts of time, the lunar cycle 28 days and the menstrual cycle lasting 29.5 days (although this can vary). It is even considered that the Mayan calendar, based strongly on the moon was influenced by menstrual cycles.
Customs in Belize also have many African influences, due to the African slaves that were bought to Belize during the slave trade. Many of the cultural African practices were carried out behind the backs of the slave owners and to this day have been passed from generation to generation. The West African religion of Yoruba, which is commonly practiced throughout the Caribbean (also known as Santeria, although strictly speaking Santeria is often a syncretic religion merging Yoruba and Caribbean aspects and influenced by Catholicism) is a system with many female deities. Yemonja, known in the Central and South America and the Caribbean as La Virgin de Regla is believed to regulate menstrual cycles. Oya, another Yoruba goddess, is known for wearing a skirt dyed red and said to be the blood pumping through the body. Finally a proverb commonly used to refer to the goddess Oshun is “Success is in your blood”. When a girl has her first period, it is often celebrated with a Full Moon ceremony, a rite of passage through which a child becomes a woman. Religious beliefs obviously have a strong impact on whether menstruation is viewed positively or negatively. This in turn influences cultural behaviours and taboos.
Magical properties of menstrual blood.
There are many taboos associated with menstrual blood, particularly its magical properties. A rather curious idea that gives menstrual blood such a bad reputation is its ability to ‘tie’ two people together. This idea gives the blood a sinister and mysterious quality and a rare opportunity for a woman to exert her power over a man. A very common superstition or belief is that a woman is able to use her menstrual blood to “tie” her to a man. This link obligates a man to the woman just as blood ties obligate kin to each other. By putting her menstrual blood into food, or using water which she has washed her genitals with to then cook with, women can enchant males. It is thought that once consumed the man will fall under the spell of the woman whose blood is used. In Belize rice and beans cooked this way is known as ‘sweat rice’. It is thought that if a woman is angry or wants to gain more control over her husband or partner, this is a good way to trick him. I was once told that another way to contaminate the food is by soaking a used sanitary pad and using the water in the cooking. This may seem a very off putting practice, hence why men find the time of a women’s period so uncomfortable and daunting. The idea that a woman may do such a thing is very repulsive to most men; hence another reason women are discouraged from cooking whilst on their periods.
Blood as “strong”
Whilst talking to various men and women about menstruation another theme arose, that of “strong blood”. Strong blood is seen as rich healthy blood, strong blood also has a strong effect on the surrounding environment and people. Women on their period are said to alter cooking processes, a cake will not come out light, bread will not rise, and sauces will split, if a menstruating woman comes too close. If a boat has been painted and a menstruating woman passes it the paint will start running and dripping and the paint job will be ruined. Strong blood also has an effect on new born babies, it is important that menstruating women do not come near a newborn baby as the strong blood is said to prevent the child’s navel from healing, the child could also catch sickness and diarrhoea and even die. Often parents place red bracelets around the wrists and ankles of young babies to protect them from such influences, also to protect them from the evil eye.
Jewellery to protect against strong blood and the evil eye is commonly seen on newborn babies in Belize (Photo courtesy of Kaj Expressions Belize)
Religion, taboos and myths surrounding menstruation all have a serious influence on behaviour and customs within Belize. Issues such as these are important when conversing with people, sharing food and engaging in health promotion regarding contraception and hygiene. However one views menstruation in Belize, it is clear that blood has powerful connotations, whether positive and negative, and remains an important factor in Belizean culture