Menstruation through the Lens of Hawaiian Culture

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One of the negative impacts that Westernization and colonialism brought to Hawaiʻi was the way we understand women in Hawaiian culture. Take for example a womanʻs menses. There are several terms for a womanʻs menstruation. Hanawai, kahe, maʻi (wahine), heʻe koko, wai, wai ʻula, wai o ka wahine, waimaka lehua. We tend to think of maʻi as meaning solely diseased or sick but it also referred in general to the genitals of either male or female (i.e. hula ma’i). In the writings of David Malo, he uses maʻi (despite the other terms) and that is translated as unclean or sickly. Due to this translation and other Calvinist views on Hawaiian culture in our educational system, generations of women have been taught that they are to be ashamed of their bodies and of their gender. Most Hawaiians today actually use the term ma’i or ma’i wahine to mean menstruation. Malo and other noted Hawaiian writers of the 19th century should be taught within the context of their own biasnesses because to do so has lead to notions that ancient Hawaiians had some sort of patriarchal system and women in general were viewed unclean, dirty, flawed and diseased–all of which is wrong. The term kahe for example means menstruation as well as male circumcision/supercision (yes Hawaiians practiced that before Christianity). Nothing negative there. Hanawai means to irrigate or to flow as a river or ‘auwai as well as menstruation. Nothing negative there either.The other terms such as waimaka lehua, heʻe koko, etc all carry powerful positive connotations. Out of all the many other terms to use, the term ma’i with it’s connotations to diseases was used to refer to the menstruation cycle and many Hawaiians today know only that term–which is very unfortunate for the self-confidence of Hawaiian women who should be celebrated not admonished.

But Hawaiians did not have a negative or embarrassed view of a woman’s menstrual cycle. The menstrual cycle of women was a process that helped to ensure the coming of the next generation. Hawaiians thought it cleaned out the blood and helped to clean out the naʻau (conscience) of pilikia (problems). I know that when a woman had her first menstruation, she was taken to the Hale Pe’a (the Menstrual House) with her female relatives and they celebrated it because it meant that her body was preparing to become one with Papahānaumoku (linking her to the Earth Mother who births lands) and Hina (linking her to the Moon Goddess and the Eternal Woman). She was unclean in the sense that males were not allowed to touch a woman undergoing her menstruation and all her normal chores and duties would be suspended except for lau hala weaving and kapa making. Special sweet and fatty foods would be brought to her to ease discomfort, though in cases of severe pain or blotting, noni juice would be used. Softened lau hala mats and pillows on a raised bed made of rocks and wood was usually also found in a Hale Peʻa in order to make it easier for her to stand up or sit down. This was a time of reflection and being able to have a break from the issues of the community.

In larger settlements, the Hale Peʻa were also normally located near a womanʻs temple and a special pond or stream was dedicated to women undergoing their hanawai. The Hale Peʻa was also where aliʻi and makaʻāinana women could mingle freely without social distinction. In smaller communities, the Hale Peʻa would be located somewhere in the Western most side of the family housing complex–the Western direction signaled the realm of the ancestors.

The recent activity with Pele reminded me of this. The ways I know is that we were taught that the lava flows were like hanawai (menstrual) cycle of Pele because like a womanʻs menstrual cycle, it prepared for the birth of new life and it was cyclical. The thought was that there would be one major eruption every generation and just as a womanʻs hanawai cleaned out the blood to prepare for the next generation, Pele cleaned out the ʻāina. So in that a womanʻs menstrual cycle can be seen as powerful as Peleʻs eruptions and vice versa.

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