Female biology as sacred: Australian women's bio-spiritual experiences of menstruation and birth

Moloney, Sharon (2009) Female biology as sacred: Australian women's bio-spiritual experiences of menstruation and birth. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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This thesis illuminates the spirituality of women's experiences of menstruation and birth. In Western, patriarchal culture, these female body processes are usually seen as non-spiritual and medical concerns. Women learn to devalue and detach from our menstrual rhythms which become associated with pathology, shame and the profane. In contrast, pre-patriarchal cultures and some Indigenous and Eastern traditions have recognised menstruation and birth as times of heightened spirituality. For many women, myself included, birth is something of profound spiritual significance. Yet obstetric medicine, which is widely accepted as the norm for our birth practices, does not regard spiritual experience as its domain. For most Australian women, birth occurs in hospital with an intervention model that treats the process as purely physical. As a consequence, many women experience high rates of intervention, birth trauma, spiritual distress, lactation problems, difficulties bonding with their babies and post-natal depression.

The aim of my qualitative feminist study was to explore how patriarchal constructions of female body processes influence women's experiences of menstruation, birth and spirituality. To examine the links between cultural attitudes to menstruation, women's birthing experiences and spirituality, I used a cultural feminist perspective. Cultural feminism views patriarchy as the cultural dynamics that devalue women, rather than supposedly inherent male characteristics. Affirming the affinity of the female body with the Earthbody, it studies both pre-patriarchal and Indigenous cultures that have honoured the sacred aspects of the female dimension of being. Quantum theory, with its assertion of a fundamental underlying unity in the universe and its radically different conceptualisation of order, was the paradigm underpinning the research.

The methodology I used was Organic Inquiry, a new and emerging methodology which presumes research as a partnership with Spirit. Situated in a participatory paradigm rather than the modernist worldview, Organic Inquiry is ideally suited to topics with a psycho-spiritual orientation. It incorporates feeling, intuitive and body-based information alongside intellectual knowledge as vital aspects of human experience in both data collection and analysis. To my knowledge, my research is the first organic study to be completed in the Australian context. My study involved ten in-depth interviews and seven women's circles with Queensland women, with my subjectivity and personal experiences of the topic transparently included as part of the data.

My research findings exposed the cumulative gendered oppression that women experience through the patriarchal construction of both menstruation and birth. Menstrual shame was identified as a core patriarchal organising principle that inculcates and perpetuates male dominance and female subordination. Engendering the perception of female physiology - and thus womanhood - as inherently flawed, menstrual shame was a key factor that predisposed women to approach birth feeling fearful, disempowered and vulnerable to intervention. The dominance of obstetric discourse in the hospital environment, perpetuated by both obstetricians and midwives, was identified as a cultural maladaptation which is a major source of women's disempowerment at birth. Disguised under the rhetoric of 'risk' and 'safety', the patriarchal underpinnings of this discourse avoid detection and gain widespread acceptance. Women were often traumatised by their hospital birth experiences but interpreted the trauma as their own failure and subsequently felt disempowered as mothers.

However, despite the pervasive effects of these patriarchal constraints, my research also unearthed a robust counter-cultural group of women who had transformed their relationship with both menstruation and birth. Many underwent a remarkable transformation of meaning in which their bleeding became sacred. There were three main pathways for this change: the birth of a first or subsequent child, attending a menstruation workshop or ceremony, and a spontaneous spiritual awakening. Redesignating menstruation as a spiritual phenomenon enabled women to heal their menstrual shame, connect with their female spirituality and give birth fearlessly and powerfully. My findings also show how the process of labour, with its unique hormonal and physiological states, makes it possible for a woman to penetrate beyond the hubris of patriarchal conditioning into a life-changing spiritual experience of self. When women felt safe, supported and treated as the central person in the process, they described how labour and birth became an altered state of consciousness associated with intense pleasure,spiritual bliss and deep personal transformation.

In Western culture, the spirituality of menstruation and birth has been forgotten. This thesis recommends widespread cultural reform of derogatory attitudes to menstruation, beginning at menarche, as a precursor to confident birthing. Indigenous and Eastern spiritual traditions provide examples of cultural practices that honour women for the cosmological power of their bodies. These practices could be adapted to suit the contemporary Western context. Humanising birth and respecting its sacredness requires a major attitudinal shift by caregivers away from the positivist approach which is demonstrably damaging for mothers and babies. The quantum paradigm more accurately reflects the understanding that we exist in a web of relationships, that observation changes what is observed, that wholeness is the fundamental principle of the universe and that human beings - especially birthing women - can access this underlying wholeness in a special and trustworthy way during labour and birth.

This thesis recommends that the profound spirituality of birth be safeguarded by a revolution in caregivers' training. Recommended curriculum reforms are a shift to the quantum paradigm, the teaching of professional reflexivity and accountability skills, the presumption of birth as a trustworthy natural process for the majority of women and a woman-centred model of care. It is further recommended that accountability protocols be incorporated into existing maternity services. In addition, women and their partners need to put themselves back at the centre of the birth process, no longer looking to obstetrics as the expert authority on healthy birthing.

Unshackling female biology and the Sacred Female from their patriarchal moorings are critical feminist projects with global repercussions for the twenty-first century. When women reclaim menstruation and birth as our sacred territory, we recover our connection to nature, to the Earth and to our own life-giving power and authority. At this critical time in the history of our planet when climate change increasingly threatens our survival, the resurgence of this sacred aspect of the female dimension of being can playa pivotal role in countering the destructive aspects of patriarchal modernity and restore humanity's life-sustaining connection to the Earth.

Item ID: 5377
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Australian women, biology, menstruation, menarche, birth, spirituality, birthing experiences, feminism, patriarchy, patriarchal construction, female body, cultural attitudes, indigenous culture, organic inquiry, transformation, obstetric practice
Additional Information:

Restricted access - full thesis may either be requested via document delivery at your local library or viewed in the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library at JCU, Townsville.

Date Deposited: 04 Nov 2009 23:11
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1699 Other Studies in Human Society > 169901 Gender Specific Studies @ 50%
22 PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES > 2203 Philosophy > 220306 Feminist Theory @ 25%
11 MEDICAL AND HEALTH SCIENCES > 1114 Paediatrics and Reproductive Medicine > 111402 Obstetrics and Gynaecology @ 25%
SEO Codes: 92 HEALTH > 9205 Specific Population Health (excl. Indigenous Health) > 920507 Womens Health @ 50%
94 LAW, POLITICS AND COMMUNITY SERVICES > 9401 Community Service (excl. Work) > 940113 Gender and Sexualities @ 50%
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