Gender & Food

While reading up on the various aspects that revolve around food for this website, I came across a quote that took my thought process to a whole new level.

“Be plain in dress, and sober in your diet;
In short, my deary, kiss me, and be quiet.”

This quote indicates that discrepancies on the basis of gender, restrict not just to societal ideologies but also extend to food. Food has often been associated with the representation of masculinity as well as femininity. While some foods, mostly heavy animal fats are considered suitable mostly for men, women are associated more often with vegetarian foods such as light salads. Also in many cases the choice of being a vegetarian is not in the hands of the woman, post marriage as she may have to adapt to the eating habits of her husband.

A contrasting view to this respect is also, that the woman of the house is in most cases the provider of the family in terms of food. As she cooks the food, she decides what is to be made, and a reflection of her choices is seen on the entire family, especially on the eating pattern of her children.

The intrusion of masculinity in matters of food does not restrict merely to the facts mentioned above, taboos related to a woman’s menstruation the world round are said to have risen from ideologies that have emerged from a male dominated society.
Varied cultures restrict menstruating women from carrying out food related activities that include hunting, growing, preserving, cooking and even the consumption of good food. An example of such taboos can be seen among Eskimos, which from the olden days believe that any kind of contact with a menstruating woman can lead to bad luck in hunting. The so called contamination, is said to form a vapour that attaches itself to the hunter, making him more evident to the pray and thus making the task of hunting tougher. Similarly the Sekani Indians of British Columbia would let menstruating women eat only ‘dry’ meat or fish, as eating fresh animal meat would spoil a hunter’s luck.

Food in the state of transformation from one state to another is in many countries kept away from a woman during her period. Many people in Southern Europe, parts of America and even India do not allow women to pickle food while menstruation as the common belief is that proper preservation will not occur.

The notion of menstruation came to be associated with ‘impurity’. As a woman who is menstruating is considered impure and to some people even unclean. In India taboos associated to menstruating women extend to not allowing a menstruating woman to even enter the kitchen of her own house, as by doing so she will pollute the cooking atmosphere.

If looked into, one can trace the commencement of this practice to the time when people did not have personal sanitary facilities in the privacy of their homes, and ladies would bathe together in common places such as lakes, ponds or near wells. In such situations a woman during her period would feel uncomfortable bathing in front of others, hence with no alternative options available they would not bathe till the end of their period. This led to the elderly members of the household barring them from entering the kitchen.

Even though I come from a Marwari family having lived in places like Delhi and London my family has always had a modern outlook to life. When I was growing up in Kolkata, among a close nit somewhat orthodox Marwari community I realised the existence of this phenomenon for the first time. None of my friends were allowed to so much as open the refrigerator door during their menses let alone being allowed to enter the Kitchen.

This lead me to research further into this topic which lead me to the discovery of a book called, The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation by Janice Delaney, Mary Jane Lupton, and Emily Toth. The following is an online preview of the book available on Google Books.

According to the book amongst the many taboos that have come to be associated with food one is that of a menstruating women not coming in contact with the food that is to be consumed in a house hold. A paragraph from the book reads,

“In many primitive societies, the menstruating woman was excluded from the most ordinary life of her tribe for four or five days every month. Unable to plant, harvest, cook, associate with her husband, or wander freely around the village.”

A very intriguing book, the text goes on further to describe how food taboos are much more than restriction posed on a certain section of the society, they themselves lead to shaping many ideologies that our entire civilization has abided by for years. It says,

“It should be noted that food taboos are not restricted to menstruating women. Food taboos were useful in preserving society’s totemic animals, in preserving the plants and animals most important to the economy of the group, or in teaching the society how to govern itself; perhaps, because food was undoubtedly the first form of property, the first human laws were these food restrictions, imposed and maintained by the tribal authorities.”

The following video projects the discrimination posed on women during their menses with regard to food, highlighting issues such as restriction from touching or washing utensils or even entering the kitchen –

(video credit – India Unheard)

This other video projects the shocking state of women in a village in Kenya with respect to menstruation. It mentions how they are kept away from the cattle and livestock as it is believed that they will make them impure and unfit for consumption and milking.

(video credit – Vprometropolis)



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