Bloody Hell: Does Religion Punish Women for Menstruating?
Exploring the faith-based limitations placed on menstruating women in nearly every major religion—from Islam to Judaism to Christianity to Hinduism.
Photo via Flickr user Jo Naylor
"You're going to be hungry if that's all you eat," one of my younger brothers tells me at sahoor, the pre-dawn meal Muslims eat before abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset as required by the faith in the month of Ramadan.
"I'll be fine," I lie, forcing down one last bite of oatmeal. A few spoonfuls are all I can stomach of the farce. My mother won't let me break it to my brothers, but Muslim women are prohibited from fasting while menstruating.
Fasting isn't the only one of Islam's main tenets that's off limits to women during that time of the month; the five daily prayers are similarly banned, as well as reading from a copy of the Quran and stepping into a mosque, depending on who you ask.
Any sort of bleeding defiles the state of "purity" required for these acts of worship, even if its from a cut. The same is true for urinating, defecating, vomiting, or passing gas. But while a quick ablution restores purity after taking a leak, Muslim women are essentially barred from these acts of prayer for days each month by a fact of their anatomy. While some see their time off as a sort of lucky break, others struggle with the idea that they can't reach out to God through formal worship at all times—especially when faced with personal difficulty or loss.
Religious restrictions surrounding a woman's monthly cycle aren't only found in Islam. There are, or have been, faith-based limitations on menstruating women in nearly every major religion from, Shintoism to Judaism to Christianity to Zoroastrianism. The internet abounds with anxious questions posed by women from a wide array of religious traditions seeking specific answers on whether or not they can attend funerals, bake bread, pickle vegetables, recite scripture, or touch their partners while menstruating.
These restrictions don't always sit easy with the contemporary practitioner of these religions—especially those seeking to reconcile feminist beliefs with their religions. While I'm invariably grateful for a few days of food during Ramadan, the idea that a natural—and until very recently, uncontrollable—bodily phenomenon renders me "impure" has been difficult for me to accept. In recognition of this sentiment, some religions have been reformed to be more accommodating of women and their menstrual cycles, while others, including Islam, have left these issues for women to reconcile with on a personal level.
"This is something that Allah the Mighty and Sublime has decreed for the daughters of Adam," Islam's Prophet Mohammad reportedly told his wife Aishah to console her after her menstrual cycle prevented her from being able to fully partake in the pilgrimage to Mecca, another spiritual act prescribed to all Muslims. The "because God said so" argument is sufficient for some Muslim women, while others claim the forced exile from worship comes from a place of understanding.
"I see it as a sort of holiday," one of my friends told me. "God understands what we're going through, so he gave us a break during that time of the month." While I see her point, the "holiday" argument doesn't add up for me. Muslims are offered the option of not fasting during the holy month if they're traveling or ill. Menstruating women are not given the option for a free pass; they're ordered to take leave.
"Our sisters should not feel anguished, nor sad, nor depressed," the Islamic scholar Ahmad Jibril said in a talk on the matter, "Nor think that others beat you in [worship] because you were ordered not to fast and pray by the same one who ordered others to fast and pray so you're... in a worship by obedience to Allah."
Still, it's hard to reconcile with the idea that a God-given bodily function necessary for procreation would be shunned by faith traditions. To be sure, both men and women must perform ritual washing post-coitus—but menstruation is rather more ongoing, and women must wait for their periods to end before they can resume performing ritual acts of worship.
God told Eve, "I shall give you intense pain in childbearing, you will give birth to your children in pain."
The Prophet Mohammad said women are "deficient in intelligence and religion," in part because they can't pray while menstruating. That's a "go-to passage" for Islamic scholars who want to "want to make the point that men are somehow superior to women [in Islam]," Celene Ayat Ibrahim-Lizzio of the Andover Newton Theological School told VICE. But, she adds, "The most reliable opinion is that it was completely and utterly said in jest."
For Ibrahim-Lizzio, that means it's absolutely absurd to think the prohibition on worship while menstruating puts women at a second-tier status in Islam. In fact, having studied the issue extensively, she interprets the rule very differently.
"I think it's a profound affirmation of the experience of womanhood," she says. Ibrahim-Lizzio notes that the only verse of the Quran where the period is mentioned outright—a line demanding abstinence during its course—bids men to steer clear of their wives during their periods because, as Ibrahim-Lizzio puts it, menstruation causes "pain and trouble"—not because it brings about defilement and impurity.
"If you take the position that [the prohibition on worship] is meant to be a mercy, then it's something to be very joyous about, actually," Ibrahim-Lizzio tells VICE, "To think that the divine considered my needs even down to the details of my physiological being."
The idea is a radical one. Even if you believe that the restriction was originally meant to honor women and their monthly cycles, many teaching and preaching Islam have imposed unnecessary restrictions—and undo shame—on women. The one description of menstruation in the Quran cited by Ibrahim-Lizzio has been translated varyingly as a "hurt," a "discomfort," a "harm," an "illness," and a "pollution." Unsurprisingly, each of these translations was put forth by men.
The dominance of men in founding and shaping religions across the world seems to play a major part in the expulsion of women from houses of worship and from the beds of their partners during menstruation. Even where the religious restrictions are squarely outlined, the sense of defilement that underlines the rules has largely been imposed by male religious scholars or leaders.
"[M]en shore up masculine identity, which appears derivative and marginal in the face of women' reproductive role" by trying "to deny or to minimize women's intrinsic reproductive power by calling it polluting," writes scholar Katherine K. Young in an introduction to the book Religion and Women.
Christianity initially sought to quarantine menstruating women for seven days lest they render others impure. The Book of Leviticus outlines the spread of menstrual impurity, stating that anyone who touches a menstruating woman or touches the places where she slept or sat will be unclean until evening, and that a man who sleeps with her will be unclean for seven days. On the eighth day after her period, women are told to take two turtledoves or two pigeons to a priest as a sacrificial offering to return them to a state of purity after menstruation.
Christianity's condemnation of menstruation comes in part from the notion that it is Eve's "curse" for having eaten the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. God told Eve, "I shall give you intense pain in childbearing, you will give birth to your children in pain," according to chapter three of the Book of Genesis. The part the period plays in reproduction may be seen as a part of this decree, which is widely known as "the curse": a collective punishment of all women for the sins of one.
While the prohibitions on menstruating women were repealed over time by the Catholic Church, such restrictions remain for some Orthodox adherents. Sister Vassa Larin, a nun in the Russian Orthodox Church, explains in a blog post that while the customs vary from parish to parish, menstruating women are generally allowed to attend services in Russia, but should not "receive communion, drink holy water, or kiss icons, relics, or crosses."
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, at least as it is practiced in the United States, these restrictions have been done away with in large part. "For lack of a better word, we don't look at menstruation as a curse anymore," Ari Damaskos, a dean in the Eastern Orthodox Church, tells VICE.
"The whole issue was when receiving communion," he explains. "You're receiving the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and then it was thought was that the blood was coming out of you then, through the period. It's just one of those traditions that's been passed down." Damaskos adds that it's one that is not formally upheld by the church anymore.
The Jewish tradition also draws on the notion of impurity outlined in the book of Leviticus, but has interpreted its practical ramifications rather differently. While menstruation might have posed barriers to worship initially, for many Jews today, that time of the month now requires only a temporary hold on intimacy among married couples.
Talking about menstruation like the normal, healthy, and even miraculous thing that it is might help separate it from the shame it's come to bear.
According to Orthodox Judaism, a woman must refrain not only from having sex, but also kissing, hugging, or touching her husband for the five days of her period, plus an additional seven days. Only after she's immersed herself in a mikvah—a small pool with water from a natural source—can she and her husband reconnect physically.
In the Orthodox Jewish tradition, the construction of a mikvah takes precedence over building a house of worship. It's easy to see why. The schedule laid out by the Orthodox laws around ritual purity lines up pretty seamlessly with a woman's fertility cycle: The return to intimacy coincides with the peak days for conception.
For many couples, spending half of their time without any physical contact was just too much. As a way to reinterpret the ritual for modern times, the Conservative tradition cut those two weeks down to one and allowed for non-sexual touching during the time of time of separation.
Naomi Malka, the mikvah attendant at Adas Israel, a conservative synagogue in Washington, DC, says she had never heard of a mikvah until she was in college. "Many of the women who now use the mikvah don't do so in order to maintain ritual purity. There are a lot of creative uses for it now," Malka says. "People who are going through any kind of transition in their lives will immerse in the mikvah to mark that moment of transition between different states, like before they graduate or when they reach a milestone birthday or anniversary. This is thought of as a progressive mikvah."
Some menstruating Hindu women also take leave from their families, temples—and even from household chores—as a tenet of their faith. Like the interpretation of menstruation as a part of Eve's "curse," the restrictions on Hindu women during their periods are also seen as the burden of guilt.
This guilt is for a sin that was not committed by a woman, but rather a male warrior named Indira, who, as described in the Vedas, killed a three-headed demon who happened to be enlightened, or a vrahmana. Indira felt an overwhelming amount of guilt for this murder, and was chastised by all beings for his crime. He ran towards a group of women and asked them to take a third of his guilt. They agreed. "The guilt of the brahmana-murder appears every month as the menstrual flow," Janet Chawla writes in an article on the mythic origins of menstrual taboo.
Despite its connotations with guilt, the first period is a time of celebration for many Hindu women. Though the notion that she'll be plunged into a milk bath, wrapped in an ornate sari, and made-up like a bride is not something that sits well with every young woman.
"I was mortified that all of these people were going to know that I got my period, and then that they were going to stand around and stare at me because I got my period," poet and lawyer Gowri Koneswaran told VICE, with a laugh.
But while Koneswaran takes issue with the tradition, she still refuses to "cross the line" and enter temples while menstruating, even when she was faced with the temptation to wander into especially ornate religious sites while traveling across South Asia.
"It just seems a bit funny to me to be like, I really want to see this temple and participate in my Hinduism, while basically violating what I've been taught is an element of the religion," Koneswaran says. The guilt associated with menstruation is seen as an impurity: one that many Hindus believe to be contagious.
Still, there are some cultural practices which praise the period, or revere it. In some of Tantrism's highest sexual rites, for example, a menstruating woman should be an active participant.
Among a group of people known as Ebrié who live on the Ivory Coast, fruits from trees protected with certain mystically powerful objects are not to be picked. If a man breaks the taboo, it's said that he'll suffer impotence. If a woman does, she'll suffer the loss of her period. "In this case menstruation would appear to be the female counterpart of the masculine erection: associated with fertility, not pollution; desirable; traumatic to lose," writes anthropologist Alma Gottlieb in the book Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation. "As the Ebrié case shows, menstruation is by no means coded as a universal negative."
Although my period will keep me from fasting, I don't think it should be kept from dinner table conversations with my brothers.
For some, menstruation offers a time of rest—and also reward. Among the Beng people of Cote d'Ivoire, with whom Gottlieb lived for several months, menstruating women are not allowed to work in the fields. Their periods give them time to relax with other women and prepare a special sauce.
"The more it cooks, the thicker it gets and the sweeter it gets. So when they're sitting at home with their periods, they'll stir this sauce all day long and by evening, it's the best sauce that anybody's ever eaten," Gottlieb explained to VICE in a phone interview. "So everybody is really excited about menstruating women making this really delicious palm nut sauce."
Gottlieb's work on how the period is perceived in various cultures around the world led her to believe that it's often "Western traditions where menstruation is seen as disgusting or something that should be banished and rendered invisible."
Although there are efforts to reform restrictions around menstruation or to do away with them as outdated, the period still has an outcast place in many religions. Whether it's a prohibition from entering houses of worship or a ban from the marital bed, the commands of many faith traditions seemingly seek to hide away a bodily function that stands unavoidably at the root of existence.
The notion of menstrual "impurity" is not one I've yet managed to come to terms with myself, but I'm determined to at least strip menstruation of the secrecy. I now believe that it's only considered impolite to talk about our bleeding because it's seen as impure. Talking about menstruation like the normal, healthy, and even miraculous thing that it is might help separate it from the shame it's come to bear. Although my period will keep me from fasting, I don't think it should be kept from dinner table conversations with my brothers, who should have to reconcile the exclusion of women from worship while menstruating with their beliefs, too.
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- Vice Blog