The period

The incident

The incident happened in a village in India. I was there for a wedding. I was so happy to meet my cousins that I hadn’t seen for many years.

Two days before the wedding the festivities start – rituals, party, dance, music etc. I go into my grandmother’s bedroom to dress myself and I see a cousin alone, watching TV. I was surprised because everyone was partying outside except her. I asked her why she preferred to stay alone. She answered to me “I have my menses”. The elders (grandpas and grandmas) in the family had forbidden her to partying because she had her menses.

1. Identities of the actors in the situation

Narrator: a woman of 24 years old from India but she was living in France since four years. She’s a student of psychology.

Person triggering the shock experience: the cousin of the narrator, a language teacher, 26 years old, recently married, lives in India.

2. Context of the situation

Physical context 

Two women are present in the situation and they are cousins. One of them, Harj, came from France to assist at the wedding and the other never left India. The scene took place in the grandma’s room and Harj came into this room to dress up for the party. Her cousin was alone, watching the TV.

Family context

The family is from a little town in India and is quite conservative in terms of the respect of traditions. There is a deep respect for authority in the family: the younger have to listen to the elders. But there are some differences between the members, in fact the grandma is more open-minded concerning the respect of tradition and the menstruation issue, whereas other members like the cousin’s mother are very orthodox with whom it is impossible to talk of this issue, it is a taboo.

3. Emotional reaction

“At the beginning I was surprised because I didn’t understand why my cousin had to stay alone, I thought she was sick. But when she said to me the true reason, I was angry because I want to share this moment with her. Also, I was sad for her, she said that she accepted the situation and that shocked me a little bit.”

4. Representations, values, norms, ideas, prejudice: The frame of references of the person who experienced the shock.

Freedom of choice: adults have the right to make choices for themselves in particular when you are an adult, married, and you have all the capacities to think your life by your own way.

Preference for short power distance, equality: adults should be able to make decisions concerning their own bodies without consulting higher authorities such as the elders of the family.

Gender equality: gender equality is achieved when women and men enjoy the same rights and opportunities across all sectors of society. In this case, if the menstruation of women involves a kind of social exclusion, it can be considered as gender discrimination.

Menstruation is natural: women’s menstruation is part of the life cycle and is something natural, so it can’t be a source of shame. There is no reason to think the menstruation as a taboo, it’s just a biological particularity of women.

Direct communication: talking about taboos such as menstruation can permit to break free from the prejudice.

Tradition is flexible: the tradition is something negotiable, and this flexibility permits to be more open-minded and to adapt the tradition at different contexts and situations. There isn’t supremacy of the tradition.

5. What image emerges from the analysis of point 4 for the other group (neutral slightly negative, very negative, "stigmatized", positive, very positive, real, unreal) etc?

Strange. Because it’s the liberty of a woman to do what she wants and the negative image is more about the parents of the cousin, and the tradition they decided to perpetuate, than about the cousin herself.

6. Representations, values, norms, prejudice: The frame of references of the person or group that is causing the shock / that caused the shock in the narrator.

1) Respect of the tradition: in India you can find some specific traditions concerning the perception of women’s menses. There are influenced by the Hindu religion which gives an ambiguous status to the woman during her menstruation: she is simultaneously associated to life and death because of blood’s symbolism. So the menses are perceived as an obstacle to continue a “normal life” and as something impure. To respect the tradition in an orthodox way the women have to be isolated during their menses, whatever the context.

2) Hygiene norms are also referred to: according to traditional representation a woman with their menses can contaminate others, and also objects. For example, a myth exists concerning food: a woman can’t touch a pickle jar during her menses because after that the pickles are not eatable yet.

3) Community respect: if a woman with her menses can be considered as a kind of “risk of contamination” for the others or the food around her, the decision to order at the cousin to stay in the room during the wedding is not only an individual decision. It can be interpreted as the respect of the community. So the community interest comes over the individual one.

4) Parents’ authority: the parents have a particular status concerning the authority; they have the power to make a decision instead their children however the age of them. The elders because of their experience of life have the traditional legality to make better decision than the younger. It’s a kind of role given to perpetuate the tradition, the mother’s cousin said: “I did the same. When I have my menses I can’t go out and so she just has to do the same”.

7. Does the situation highlight any problem concerning the professional practice, or in general about the respect of cultural differences in intercultural situations?

The incident highlights how acculturation to a new cultural environment can change the perspective of the person on the values, traditions of their culture of origin. Acculturation processes can trigger fault lines within the same family, between different generations or between the family members that spent more and less time in the new environment. Changes can occur on various value orientations: such as the focus on individualism vs interdependence, or the respect of hierarchy, traditions etc.

The incident also highlights the existence of taboos concerning bodily functions, such as menstruation. From the modern Western vantage point some of these practices seem superstitious and even oppressing, a threat to women’s equality. In any case they offer an interesting window on the social cultural construction of the body – which characterizes as much the modern societies as the more traditional ones.