Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Pregnant women told: Don't visit museum, it'll upset the exhibits

Women who are menstruating or pregnant have been asked not to look upon some Maori artefacts in a New Zealand museum in case it offends the ancestral spirits.

Of course, it's not worded quite like that. Rather, the instruction (later clarified as a "request") is couched in terms of cultural sensitivity. It's also said to be a condition of the museum's holding the objects that such strictures be applied to visitors. Nevertheless, that is what it amounts to. After all, who is to tell whether a female visitor is menstruating? Or is in the early stages of pregnancy? Museum officials are not (I hope) checking. Rather, the New Zealand Herald reports, "women who plan to attend the [invitation only] tour on November 5 are expected to be honest about whether they are pregnant or menstruating as a sign of respect to Maori beliefs."

And what if they decide not to defer to what is, on the face of it, a blatantly sexist piece of superstition? Stuff NZ quotes a feminist blogger who is urging pregnant and menstruating women to demonstrate their contempt for this "completely archaic belief" to attend the exhibition.

Well, they have been warned. The report quotes Jane Keig, from the Te Papa museum in Wellington, who declares (for all the world as though she believes it) "If a woman is pregnant or menstruating, they are tapu. Some of these taonga have been used in battle and to kill people. Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects."

Does that mean that any woman who disobeys the ruling and subesquently miscarries would be able to sue the museum on the grounds that bad juju caused the loss of her baby? Perhaps the museum would be able to point to contributory negligence on her part. But what if she doesn't even know she is pregnant? Will the magic still work?

Any malificent power possessed by the relics would certainly be down to suggestion. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. The negative power of suggestion (sometimes dubbed "Nocebo" and analagous to the better known Placebo effect) can be very powerful. It's how voodoo works. People have become seriously ill or even died as a result of being cursed, even (and this is the real frightener) people who consciously dismiss such things as mere superstition. Of course, not everyone would be affected; but it's not impossible that a woman might attend the exhibition, subsequently discover that she is pregnant, and that knowledge lead to illness or miscarriage. I doubt the museum considered such a possibility, but perhaps they should. And take out the necessary insurance.

But is this really about protecting women from dangerous magic at all? And what do Maori gods have against pregnant women anyway? Have they not read the Equality Act? Margaret Mutu, head of Maori Studies at Auckland University, offers a slightly different justification:

The reproduction area is extremely powerful and can do damage to things that are not tapu. It's about the power of women, not about stopping them... [the objects] are tapu and pregnant or menstruating women are tapu. It would be very unwise to put the two up against each other.

Mutu, who also noted that menstruating women shouldn't enter "gardens or fishing areas" (useful information, I'm sure you'll agree) is drawing upon a vast complex of primitive beliefs and practices surrounding women's biological processes. Such ideas aren't confined to Polynesia. Leviticus ordains (15;19) that menstruating women be sequestered; not only are they unclean, but any man who touches them is unclean also, as is anyone who touches an item of furniture she has come into contact with. To this day, orthodox Jewish women take ritual baths to purify them of the pollution of menses. Among many similar examples he collected from all over the world, Sir James Frazer tells us that

Among the Bribri Indians of Costa Rica a menstruous woman is regard as unclean. The only plates she may use for her food are banana leaves, which, when she has done with them, she throws away in some sequestered spot; for were a cow to find them and eat them, the animal would waste away and perish. And she drinks out of a special vessel for a like reason; because if anyone drank out of the same cup after her, he would surely die.

What harm could possibly befall the Maori sacred objects, though, is difficult to fathom.

Notwithstanding the fascinating subjects of taboo and the anthropological significance of mentstruation, most discussion about the Kiwi museum has focussed elsewhere: on the perceived clash between cultural sensitivity and gender equality. Should we respect the traditional (if from our point of view politically incorrect) beliefs attaching to Maori artefacts - whether or not most modern Maoris share those beliefs (another interesting question which does not seem to have been explored)? Or does the principle of non-discrimination override everything else? Who to offend: feminists or ancestral spirits? Who are we nowadays most afraid of?

One New Zealand feminist blogger had this to say:

I don't understand why a secular institution, funded by public money in a secular state, is imposing religious and cultural values on people. It's fair enough for people to engage in their own cultural practices where those practices don't harm others, but the state shouldn't be imposing those practices on other people.

One possible answer is that the museum has to recognise that these seemingly inert pieces of wood derive their significance - and much of their anthropological meaning - from the ritual context in which they originally featured. Moreover, there are still many people for whom these are no mere curiosities but are still imprinted with sanctity - are still the abodes of spirits. But in that case, it might be asked what they are doing in a museum in the first place.

The purpose of a museum is to hold, conserve and display human artefacts, not to serve as an ersatz place of worship. The notion that (because it offends the resident spirits, or otherwise) pregnant women should not approach these objects is a fact giving an added layer of interest to the objects being displayed. But it is (or should be) irrelevant to the museum's admission criteria, which must be based on the principle of equal access for all. If it is wrong to allow tabooed persons to view the display, it is equally wrong (and, I would suggest, offensive to the spirits) to keep them in a museum at all. There's something more than a little phoney about the argument from "cultural sensitivity", something equally patronising and hypocritical. And also irrelevant. Because - as anyone who was truly deferential towards Maori sensitivities would surely recognise - it's not the Maori who are offended if menstruating women or pregnant women look upon these objects. It's the objects.

I'd say both pregnant women and animistic totems have good reason to feel aggrieved. And as Margaret Mutu noted, they can both be pretty dangerous.