Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Menstrual huts (Ponulu)

Menstrual huts (Ponulu)

Location: Among the Dogon people of the central plateau, Mali, West Africa

Opened/Closed: Not completely lost yet, but certainly endangered due to urbanization and western cultural/religious influences

The menstrual hut may be found in many "pre-modern" cultures--some 12 percent in total based on one estimate. But here we are focusing on the menstrual huts (ponulu) of the Dogon people of West Africa. Among the Dogon, the menstrual hut is situated out in the open, just outside the compound walls of the village. Women having their periods are considered "impure," so during these times, the women are restricted to the ponulu. This is where they sleep and have their meals during their so-called "state of impurity." These dwellings are circular in design--unlike other Dogon structures which are rather rectangular--and the outside walls are often decorated with symbols of fecundity, such as individuals with oversized sexual organs.

According to anthropologist Beverly I. Strassman, Dogon women are required to sleep in the menstrual huts for five nights. During this time, the women get no reprieve from agricultural labor and spend most days working in the fields. However, the village streets and family compounds are off limits and sexual intercourse and cooking for a husband are strictly forbidden. So in a sense, the women are still required to work; they just can't go home or participate in village life. 

Strassman does not see the ponulu as "positive" women's spaces, or spaces promoted or created by the women themselves. Rather, she argues that Dogon menstrual taboos serve the following purposes, all of which enforce male domination:

1) The function of Dogon menstrual taboos is to force females to signal their menses.

2) Menstrual signaling is imposed on senders (females) by receivers (husbands and their male relatives) through the use of social reprisals and supernatural threats. Within the Dogon animist belief system, women who stay home during menstruation desecrate the animist fetishes (magical objects) that protect against famine and illness. But there are also serious social penalties. If a woman is caught not going to the menstrual hut during menstruation, she is fined one sheep which is sacrificed by the male elders to "restore the fetishes" (and males alone consume the meat). But women are also punished for going to the huts when they are NOT menstruating. In fact, this is considered an even more serious violation and the woman who does so risks social ostracism. As Strassman concludes, "Thus, the taboos establish a rule that women must always signal menstruation, and they provide a way to punish women for false signaling."

3) The Dogon (men) use knowledge of the timing of menstruation in relation to the timing of copulation to make paternity assessments, so that men can avoid making any investment in genetically unrelated offspring. This is essential in a culture in which inheritance is restricted to the patrilineal lines.

Based on her research and her contacts with Dogon women, Strassman rejects the possibility that the Dogon women themselves are promoting these menstrual taboos. In fact, Strassman found that menstrual hut use is predicted by the religion of the husband, not by the religion of the wife. Women who had animist husbands used the huts; women whose husbands were not animists did not. Her women informants clearly indicated to Strassman that they themselves did not like using the huts, but were obliged to do so by their husbands and fathers-in-law.

Ironically, the women did not actually use the huts much because they are constantly pregnant. For women between the peak reproductive ages of 20-34, there was a median of only two ponulu visits per woman over the two years of Strassman's research. In addition, the ponulu do not provide any unique opportunity for meditation or reflection or time away from the men, because Dogon culture is already split along gendered lines. Dogon husbands and wives usually live in separate dwellings, and work, eat, and socialize in same-sex groups.

In the final analysis, the ponulu are not so much  "womyn's spaces" as points of patriarchal surveillance (shades of Foucault). Because they are outside the compound walls of the village, there is no privacy. On the contrary, the ponulu are usually constructed next to the shade shelter (loguna) belonging to the males. This puts the women in the menstrual huts in direct view of their husband's male kinsmen, so they can monitor what women are in attendance. Though the women are gone from the menstrual huts during the day when they are out in the fields, the women are still highly visible and exposed the rest of the time. In fact, the very architecture of the ponulu promotes the women's visibility. Because the huts are cramped and windowless, women are discouraged from remaining inside. So they usually make their cooking fires outside on the rocks and sleep in the open air.  

Photos:  Dogon ponulu in Tabitongo

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.