Eastern and Western patriarchal constructions of the womb
It is not just religious practices and interpretations of belief systems around the menstruating woman and her womb that carry such baggage but also the origins of thinking around it from a psychological perspective in a Western context. Stubbs and Costos’ (2004) research is concerned with negative attitudes towards menstruation causing a sense of “disconnectedness” amongst women and within themselves. They suggest that a biopsychosocial exploration of menstruation in feminist therapy is warranted and that mental health professionals can benefit from using such a framework as they seek to understand the presenting difficulties of female clients (Stubbs and Costos (2004, p.38). This supports the need for a wider definition of Menstruation and also links to the first section on defining menstruation. Additionally, this widening of the definition would allow for an inclusion of the dynamics of the biopsychosocial cultural and religious beliefs and values of women.
For example, enquiring into the intense interplay of Eastern and Western patriarchal constructions that Muslim women are doubly exposed to. To extrapolate further, Kerkham (2003) explores the legacy of Freud’s psychoanalytic thinking and the mark it has left on how menstruation and womanhood is perceived psychologically in the West. Such seminal work as that of Freud’s has shaped the history of psychology in the Western world and therefore is important to keep in mind as underpinning many psychological schools of thought, health and social services and general gender relations. She examines at the context within which Freud’s opinions on the matter emerged and were influenced that could have biased and distorted his perception in the religious and politically charged community of his time that he was reacting to. For example, Delaney et al., (1988) relate how in psychoanalytic thinking historically the menstrual period has been associated with; penis envy, castration anxiety, and a variety of other disorders and labelled as “the first pollution” by Otto Fenichel2 (Delaney et al., 1988, p.73). This is mirrored in the language of a number of English translations, particularly the infamous Yusuf Ali version3 of the Qur’an that use the word “pollution” as referring to menstruation. Incidentally Ali was from the same era as Freud so the language used may have been common to the era. Furthermore, Freud in his works Civilisation and its Discontents (1930, in Delaney et al., 1988, p.74) is said to have ‘examined’ the unpleasant effect of menstrual odour on the male psyche. It is not possible to know how this examination occurred, how large the sample was and what the variables were in this ‘examination’. Again this seems to be coming from a male centric dominant view. Where is the woman’s voice? What does the menstrual odour mean to her and how does it affect her relationships and sense of self. It seems as though the woman is a subject discussed about but not engaged with except through a male-centric lens.
In keeping Muslim women in mind, not only are they impacted in a British context where seeking help in psychological or medial terms is influenced by the dynamics of Western thought, they also have lived experiences and a history that is in some ways divergent and in some ways convergent. In terms of patriarchal influences it would be strongly convergent, with similar, if not arguably more oppression, almost stuck in a double bind. In terms of spiritual and psychosocial elements and lack of Medicalisation in previous generations there is divergence.
Moving onto embodiment, Kerkham (2003) interestingly highlights the concept of time and space and the differences for men and women and the idea that a woman is more in tune with a cyclical mode and men tend to be chronological and linear in time. The fact that women are then judged according to a male model could be rather problematic. Kerkham (2003) is arguing a number of factors that seem to be rooted more in a gender dynamic; whether it is the gender difference of perception of time, or that much of psychology is based on Freud’s inherently male bias. Kerkham (2003, p.281) states that, “Mary Chadwick commented on how surprising it was that there had been so little psychoanalytic research carried out on the ‘important subject of the psychological effect of menstruation upon the woman” (Chadwick 1932, p.8 in Kerkham 2003, p.281).
A discussion by Purdy (2006) raised pertinent questions regarding the overall autonomy of women, of choice, and who makes the decisions and why. Purdy’s (2006) paper examines a large teaching hospital in the US’ policy of reducing multifetal pregnancies from triplets to twins but does not allow twins to singletons. There being little difference in morality of the process of reduction between triplets and twins. Purdy (2006) believes that there is evidence for inappropriate Medicalisation which can still limit women’s autonomy in undesirable ways:
“Reproductive autonomy is central to women’s welfare both because childbearing takes place in women’s bodies and because they are generally expected to take primary responsibility for child rearing… factors that influence their autonomy most strongly are poverty and belief systems that devalue such autonomy” (Purdy 2006, p.287).
Purdy (2006) highlights the role of inappropriate Medicalisation and how it can be a major factor in subtly altering (or more drastically erasing altogether) women’s voices.