Menstruation Is Not A Taboo But A Power For Women
by Camelia Nathaniel
As children too we were taught that God is genderless because he created both women and men in ‘his’ image. It is hard to fathom why God would make a woman in his image, make her menstruate for a sixth of every month, and then reject her in any way during that time because she was suddenly ‘religiously unclean’.
While the practice of forbidding menstruating women to enter places of worship were widely practiced by many religions including the Catholic church, today the practice of not allowing women to participate in religious rituals and prayer during menstruation, is mainly practiced in Hinduism and Islam. As a result so many Hindu and Muslim women have internalised the notion that they are unclean during menstruation that they voluntarily stay away from temples and mosques when they have their periods.
For Rajeswarie from Achchuweli in Jaffna, growing up as a woman in a Hindu family was a horrific and degrading experience, during her menstruation. In her 80’s now, she says that although the practice of preventing women from entering places of worship and auspicious activities, still exists, it is not bad now as it was in the past. “I remember in my day, we had a separate room in the house for the females to live in when they get their period. I used to hate being a woman as we were not allowed to come out of the room until we finished our period and took a bath.
Even if something special was happening in our home, I was not allowed to participate during that time, and could not even come to be seen by the rest of the family as it was considered bad luck. My father was a farmer and even when he left for the farm for his day’s work, he would beat me it I showed my face or came before him when he was leaving for work, as he believed it would bring him bad luck and destroy his crop too. Even after I got married the ritual was the same and I remember my sons always coming and pulling me out of the room wanting to know why I was not coming out of the room and I used to tell them I was ill. Although I hated it though sadly, I had to put my daughter through it too. However now it’s not so bad, but during that period we are not allowed to pray or enter a temple or shrine room, or attend auspicious events.”
Being a Hindu, she says that at least for her and her family, there was a room inside the house. But she adds that for many other females during her time, they had to sleep in a shed outside the house during menstruation.
In Hinduism, menstruating women are not supposed to enter the temple because they are ‘unclean’, and menstruating women keep away from sacred objects in their homes.
As for Aidila Razak she feels that as a Muslim, she does accept that some things are considered to be ‘dirty’ or ‘impure’ and that when facing God in prayer, one would need to be “clean”. “After all, I would be clean if I am to meet someone I respect, so why wouldn’t I do the same when I am ‘meeting God’ in prayer?
Therefore I accept that things like faeces, urine and blood (menstrual or otherwise) are “unclean”, and one should be free of this when in prayer.
The point, however, is that it is the blood that is ‘unclean’, not the person who is bleeding. So, I do not subscribe to the belief that women are ‘unclean’ while menstruating.
Women do not perform the five mandatory prayers a day while menstruating, and I accept that because I accept blood is an impurity. Likewise, a man who has blood on his shirt would have to change before performing prayers. A woman on her menses can’t change out of herself or put a pause on the bleeding so she opts out prayers for that period. It is not discriminatory.
However, I believe barring a woman who is menstruating access to a mosque is. Perhaps, centuries ago, there was a worry that a woman might bleed onto the mosque floors. This concern is completely invalid today. With tampons, women even go swimming while menstruating, so it is archaic and illogical to believe one could bleed out onto a mosque floor while menstruating. In the unlikely event that one does, religious bodies should worry more about whether a woman is too poor to afford female hygiene products than about the sanctity of a mosque,” she added.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader she said however that she also sees the logic of allowing women who are menstruating not to fast during Ramadan as it is a strain to their bodies but added that she is unsure about restrictions on touching the Quran or reading verses of it while menstruating.
“In any case, I am generally pragmatic about this and don’t see why my menstrual cycle is anyone else’s business – what’s the need to advertise it? If I am menstruating but want to read the Quran, any sin/reward I derive from it would be for Allah to decide.
What I am certain of, however, is the fact that Allah dedicated a whole chapter of the Quran on women and how they should be treated with respect and dignity. Perhaps this deserve more attention rather than pre-occupation on whether someone is having their period or not,” said Adila.
Lina Nursanty speaking to The Sunday Leader said that being born to a moderate Moslem family, no one in the family was forced to even wear the hijab. Even though, I was introduced to Moslem praying rituals since birth, when my father recited azan (a call for prayer) close to my ear, with the hope that it will protect me as new born baby from evil.
I had my first period when I was nine. I’ve been taught not to enter a mosque or practice any religious rituals such as Solat (the five times a day pray) during my period because all women/girls in their period were considered haram to enter mosque. I raised my objections with my religious teacher, as I wanted to play with my friends in the mosque and recite the Quran together with them. But the teacher kept forbidding me from entering the mosque. I argued that it’s not fair for girls. But he said it was stated in the Koran.
This criticism remains in my mind until now. It was almost 25 years ago, but still I question my superiors. I don’t think God will consider his creations as haram, simply because of their physical condition. I refuse to believe that this is god’s command because I deeply believe that Islam as other religions in the world teach only good things such as equality, humanity, and peace.”
In Islam, menstruating women are not supposed to touch the Quran, enter the Mosque, pray the ‘salat’ (the ritual prayer), or have sex with their husband. They are allowed to meditate or pray in other ways. They may read the Arabic Quran as long as they don’t touch it, or touch and read a translation of the Quran. The only specific restriction on menstruating women that is in the Quran itself however, is that menstruating women should not have sex with their husbands. All the other restrictions are mentioned in various hadiths, which are tools for understanding the Quran.
According to Ven Orupotha Damayanthi Bikshuni of the Gampaha Ihalayagoda Bikkhuni Aranya, however in Buddhism there is no mention of menstrual restrictions at all and menstruation is just seen as a natural bodily process. But some Buddhist temples do restrict menstruating women from entering them, perhaps because of the influence that Hinduism has had on Buddhism, and the various devalayas within the temples.
In modern Christianity although there are no restrictions around menstruation except in conservative Orthodox parts of the Catholic Church, the idea still exists that menstruation makes women ‘unclean’ and this has been used as a reason why women shouldn’t be ordained as priests.
In India too many Hindu temples prohibit women who have their period from entering. Shockingly the Sabarimala temple in Kerala goes a step further since it is impossible to know whether a woman is menstruating, it has banned all women aged between 10 and 50 from entering the temple. Prayar Gopalakrishnan, president of the board that manages the temple, said women will be allowed to enter only after a machine has been invented and installed to detect if they have their period.
This statement created a huge outcry from female activists and they started a social media campaign to tell the world that they’re not ashamed to menstruate. Using the hashtag #happytobleed, the women are making a stand against ‘rules’ introduced by the chief of the temple.
SadhanaThippanakaje raises the question about goddesses “Does she bleed? If she is bleeding, will the men also make her to sit aside?
For me, Menstruation is a normal thing and although such a fuss is made about female menstruation, if any girl is not bleeding, will any family accept her as daughter in law? ‘No’ because they want her for child bearing. Menstruation is an important biological cycle so men, accept it.
Alka Dhupkar, spoke to The Sunday Leader on this issue and shared her experience. Chumming is an easy and trendy word now to describe our menstrual cycle, but says that when she was in school it wasn’t that easy. It was a lifetime taboo. ‘MC’ or ‘Period’ we used to call it. Lots of guilt was associated with every month’s cycle. I had four sisters and my mother used to sit outside the house in the corner of veranda for three days once MC started. Nobody was allowed to touch us unless a naked kid! If anyone touches by mistake then he/she has to take bath immediately. On the 4th day I had to get up early to take bath, but before that all my bed sheets, cloth mattress, and pillow cover had to be washed. Then someone used to pour water on the stuff and even on my head from another bucket and then I could enter the house with restricted entry that is no entry to shrine room or similar restrictions if there is a religious function or if someone died. If a wife is chumming she can’t touch her husband or even see him from distance. Even a shadow of a chumming woman is considered as a bad omen. When I used to sit outside for three days, everyone who was visiting my home used to know that it is that period of month in my life, everyday someone or other used to have periods considering the five chumming candidates in my home! If a function is arranged in my home, my mother or sisters used to take medicine to post pone periods, I never took such pills though. They used to cause severe pain so I was scared. When for the first time I got my periods my mother cooked sweets and did some small events to celebrate it, but I was feeling exactly the opposite, I didn’t like all the restrictions which came along with MC in my life. So, in my mind I was always rebellious. Once I went to the temple when I was chumming. After graduation I stopped following all these restrictions.”
According to Shova Sharma, many women in Nepal are still forced to stay outside during menstruation, they eat outside and they sleep outside. “They have to live in the sheds during their period. They don’t wear clean clothes, and some even don’t take regular baths.
School-going adolescent girls cannot attend schools during monthly discharge. Because it is believed that they are not allowed to touch others, parents themselves restrict their daughters from attending schools. Moreover, there is a belief that females should not study during this time. A simple calculation of number of periods in a year would show that a girl would miss 72 days of school in a year due to such restrictions.
Women still believe that if she enters the house while she’s menstruating, the people and animals will get sick. The gods will be angry and she’ll bring a curse onto the house. She’s also been told her hands will curl up and become deformed.”
While women have to face restrictions and are branded ‘unclean’ for bleeding, all men are a product of sexual intercourse done by a man and a woman. It is the woman’s bleeding that is part of the process of fertility and child birth. Aren’t all the men who so brand women, but products of the blood formed in their mothers’ uteruses, or is this Menstruation taboos just one of the ways in which patriarchy oppresses women?