How femininities are shaped by religion and culture: a comparative study of beliefs on 'pollution' during childbirth and menstruation in Hinduism and Christianity

Master Thesis


Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title
Link to Journal
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

University of Cape Town

This dissertation is a qualitative study of how femininities are shaped by religion and culture. Since religion and culture is a very broad field, this study attempts to examine how femininities are shaped by notions of 'pollution' during menstruation and childbirth. These beliefs about pollution are thought to be part of religion and culture. This comparative study examines how beliefs on pollution differ in two groups of women namely Christian and Hindu women. The sample of women for this study was chosen purposefully using the snowball sampling technique. A sample of six Hindu and six Christian women who were relatively similar in terms of education and income was chosen from the Rylands/Athlone area in the Western Cape. The limited size and nature of this sample makes generalizations difficult. Individual interviews using in-depth, open-ended questions were conducted. The questions were aimed at providing insight into women's experiences of menstruation, menarche, sexual intercourse during menstruation and pregnancy, childbirth and the religious restrictions and taboos these experiences entailed. The aim was to describe women's subjective experiences of 'pollution'. The interviews were conducted in the homes of the women as this was likely to be an environment that respondents would feel comfortable in. Interviews were tape-recorded and then transcribed in order to present the findings in the respondent's own words as far as possible. It was found that Hindu women faced religious and cultural restrictions where menstruation was concerned. They did not light the lamp in their shrines at home or attend temple services until the cessation of menstruation whereupon a ritual bath was taken. During childbirth Hindu women were seen as being 'most polluted' during the first ten days after giving birth. This period of ritual impurity ended forty days after giving birth. During this time, all the women in this study did not leave the house, cook, attend temple or light the lamp as a result of this ' impure' state. After performing a ritual bath and shaving the newborn's hair, these women were reintroduced into the community. In contrast, the Christian women in this study did not face any religious or cultural restrictions during menstruation and childbirth. The Christian women were actually encouraged to attend church as soon as possible after giving birth. Beliefs about 'pollution' during menstruation and childbirth were analyzed using structural-functional theory. It was argued that 'pollution beliefs' serve various functions in society, mostly to ensure gender inferiority and male dominance. There were also differences in the Hindu and Christian respondent's views on marriage and the sex of their children. It was found that the women's experiences of menstruation and childbirth were shaped to a large extent by religion and culture. Femininities were linked to religion and culture as attitudes on 'pollution' stemming from culture affect the way women view themselves and their bodies.