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Menstruation celebrated by pre-colonial Maori.

Maori women's shame about menstruation and their sexual body did not exist in pre-colonial society, when their reproductive cycle was a celebrated part of the culture, keynote speaker Ngahuia Murphy told the NZNO conference.

In her address, titled Te Awa Atua: The River of Life--Menstruation in the Pre-colonial Maori World, Murphy said Maori women had been taught this shame by colonising Victorian, Christian notions of the inferiority of women, and the dirty and dangerous nature of their bodies and sexuality.

Murphy (Ngati Manawa, Ngati Ruapani ki Waikaremoana, Tuhoe, Ngati Kahungungu), an academic, educator and performance artist, said nurses needed to be sensitive to this history when providing sexual and reproductive health services to Maori women and girls.

In 2011, she gained her master of arts (first class honours) with a groundbreaking study of Maori pre-colonial stories, ceremonies and practices around menstruation. Her dramatic and charismatic presentation to the NZNO conference was based on her masters thesis.

Tackling any shame or embarrassment among conference delegates head-on, she exhorted them to shout "menstrual blood" at the top of their voices, before launching into an ancient haka. She said the haka, believed to be the first ever, was composed by a woman, Hineteiwaiwa, revered as a goddess, and celebrated her sexual body. The haka "demonstrates the boldness and shamelessness with which our ancestresses celebrated their reproductive bodies".

Today was very different--"Maori women stammer and shuffle round the subject of their reproductive bodies", no more so than on the subject of menstruation and its blood. The subject was "engulfed in silence" to the extent that they had lost the words for "the blood down there". Murphy said she wanted to shatter that silence and "speak the unspeakable".

She said Maori women's reluctance to say those words was political, arising out of a history of menstruation being presented as "putrid, dirty and even demonic". And many Maori had been led to believe that this view of menstruation was a traditional Maori view.

However, her research showed in pre-colonial Maori society, menstruation was "a symbol of the mana and tapu of Maori women, it bound the genders together through nurturing tikanga (practices) and was the subject of ceremony and celebration. "Our tipuna saw menstrual blood as an ancient matrilineal river of power and a medium of evolutionary expansion, ushering in a new world beyond the primordial womb."

In traditional Maori society, the onset of a girl's menstruation was celebrated with rituals including a naming ceremony, her hair was ritually cut and ears pierced, she was initiated into new arts and knowledge, given new responsibilities, and was tattooed on the chin and lips (moko kauae), alongside feasting and gift-giving.

She quoted Maori ethnographer Makareti Papakura's 1938 published work, The old-time Maori, which looks at Te Arawa family life from a woman's perspective: Every phase of life was freely discussed by the parents in the presence of the children, even things which western people deem most intimate ... there was no word considered rude; in the body there was nothing unclean; no bodily functions were treated as being unworthy of mention in plain language.

Not a curse but a blessing

Murphy said menstruation was not seen as a "curse" but as a blessing--a time when women could rest and take time for themselves, while the men took care of the meals and heavier work. She also discovered traditions across the country of men as midwives. "Birth was not a women's issue, it was a whanau issue, because it is about whakapapa which is essential to our world view."

Murphy said the patriarchal views of colonists smashed this bond between the genders. Colonial ethnographers took Maori sacred stories and philosophies and rewrote them, erasing any language of female power and inserting a patriarchal language. Their dualistic thinking divided the world into a superior male, logical, white, Christian, civilised adult side, and an inferior female, dark-skinned, savage, immoral, child-like side. They rewrote the definition of tapu as sacred and superior when it applied to men, but as "unclean" when it applied to women, in the same way that Eve was portrayed in Christian teaching. Murphy said these attitudes were designed to "control the dangerous, uncivilised female body".

Discussing how nurses could use her research to enhance their practice, Murphy acknowledged it could be "tricky" because the history of colonial redefinition had created legacies of shame. She advised sensitivity when providing health services to Maori women and stressed the importance of using kaupapa Maori sexual health resources such as Waiwhero: A Celebration of Womanhood, based on her research but written for whanau and the health sector.

Report by co-editor Kathy Stodart
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Title Annotation:NZNO conference; New Zealand Nurses Organisation
Author:Stodart, Kathy
Publication:Kai Tiaki: Nursing New Zealand
Article Type:Conference notes
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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