A/N: This has been edited to clarify re: Russian Orthodox experience and menstruation. One reader also called to my atrention issues in wording re: voodoo. Voodoo has been changed to New Orleans Vodou for more specificty.
I first learned about menstrual taboos while reading Leviticus. Honestly, it’s never been my favorite part of the Torah. As crazy as Genesis and Exodus can be (incest, slaughtering entire cities, fights with angels), Leviticus is a sleep inducing legal slog, or nauseating precursor to WebMD’s symptom section. It didn’t help that menstruation is an issue that comes up in the middle of this disease section.
For multiple verses, the bible goes into detail about how a woman on her period is unclean. Her uncleanliness doesn’t stop with her body: anything she touches while on her period is unclean. Like an extreme form of cooties, anyone who touches an object she has touched also becomes unclean for a day. If a man has sex with a menstruating woman, he’s unclean for seven days. Once her period is over, the woman still has work to do. She has to give a sin offering to atone for the impurity. That seemed to me the worst part. Here was my holiest text saying that a natural part of my experience was somehow wrong, keeping me from the divine. Worse, I had to atone for it.
To be fair, I’m not expected to offer a sacrifice each month. Yet, this idea still impacts many traditional Jewish women. As purification requirements for men diminished, the ritual around menstruation, Niddah, has grown. For many it includes, avoiding physical contact with family while menstruating, special cloth and examination ritual, and finally purification in a mikveh, a ritual bath. The menstrual cycle is still a problem we have to overcome in order to become right with God.
A little more digging brought me another shock: This idea isn’t unusual to Judaism and these religious taboos impact women’s lives today.
Not just Judaism: Islam and Christianity
Christianity may have decided that Old Testament rules like circumcision no longer apply but they still clung to ideas of purity and impurity. Leaders in the church used menstruation as an example of “the sinfulness of corporeality”. In plain English? Menstruation showed that the body is inherently sinful, women even more so.
Thomas Aquinas, an influential Catholic philosopher, took this idea even further. He believed that menstrual blood was a biological example that women were meant to be passive and inferior to men. Part of this was taken from Ancient Greek science. Though our science has improved, his thinking is a major reason for why women cannot be priests.
Menstruation barred women from leadership roles but also access to church. In the early centuries of Christianity, menstruating women were banned from entering. This practice still occurs in some denominations. They are barred from the sacraments of communion in some Eastern Orthodox churches. One friend of mine who’s Russian Orthodox also shared a similar experience. When she was menstruating, she would skip church because she wasn’t supposed to take communion or take sacraments as recently as 2016. Like Niddah, these practices emphasize that a natural female experience is a spiritual block. Add a male only leadership and you have a dynamic where women need men to overcome defilement and access God.
Islam also finds purity issues around menstruation. The only mention in the scriptures says that menstruation is painful so men should avoid having sex with women during this time, says Professor Sonn, Professor of the History of Islam at Georgetown University. Still, interpretations vary and many go far beyond this. Women can be prohibited from fasting, participating in the five daily prayers, reading from the Quran, even entering a mosque. Many of these stem from reported sayings of the prophet Muhammad. He reportedly told menstruating women to abstain from religious practices. When her period has ended, a woman must do full body wash, a ghusl.
Ghusl, means that menstruating is a major ritual impurity. Other impurities that require this type of wash include:
· Post-natal bleeding
· Irregular bleeding
· Touching a dead body
To be fair, some women see these rules as a relief from religious duty. They see that God has taken their physical needs into consideration. Others, however, feel guilt for not fasting during Ramadan.
Like Christianity, some Muslim cultures take these taboos further, creating more issues for women. For instance, some argue that women shouldn’t be religious judges: they believe menstruating women are unstable and emotional. This extrapolation also becomes evidence that women are emotionally suited to raise children. Whether positive or negative, ideas around menstruation and its effects on women can define women’s lives.
Beyond the Abrahamic Faiths
Menstruation is also a purity issue in India. Hinduism’s emphasis on purity has led to various regulations. One temple in Kerala refuses to allow women of child bearing age to enter the temple at all. In higher cast families, women are expected to stay separate and avoid contaminating men. This taboo can have dramatic effects: In western Nepal, some women are forced to stay in a hut while they menstruate. They are forbidden from entering people’s homes for fear of causing illness or bad luck.
Yet, how it evolved isn’t clear. Some say that menstruation was how the king of the gods, Indra, atoned for a sin. Hinduism’s texts don’t provide the answer. The oldest Hindu texts, The Vedas, refer to menstruation in euphemisms. The Laws of Manu, which are incredibly detailed about caste and marriage, only emphasize avoidance. Men shouldn’t talk to a woman on her period nor eat any food she has touched. Whatever the source, menstruation makes women impure and dangerous to male purity.
This fear of contamination also exists in Shintoism. Women were quite important as shamans and mediums in some of the ancient chronicles. By the 8th century, however, women were pushed out of the organized system. One major reason given was that menstruation was a sign of their uncleanliness.
Today, women are allowed to join the priesthood though they still make up a small fraction. The issue of menstruation remains: Priestesses use medication to control their monthly flow and ensure they don’t defile the shrines. The female body, in both cases, has to be regulated because menstruation is a religious risk, impacting spaces and people around them.
More than a taboo
While these taboos run through many religions, they aren’t the only way religions view menstruation or the female body. Practices vary but Buddhist texts see menstruation and blood as one part of the body without any special ritual aspect. It doesn’t impact a woman’s ability to achieve enlightenment. Instead, most writing focuses on practical cleanliness.
Sikhism as well doesn’t see an issue. Women are free to enter temples at any time, menstruating or not. In fact, their gurus saw menstruation as a natural process critical for life. They even criticized those who believed it was a pollutant.
Both Sikhism and Buddhism’s views show a different world view about the female body. Menstruation isn’t something to be hidden or ashamed of. It’s just dealt with the way you’d deal with a cold or going to the bathroom, as a hygiene not a purity issue. By normalizing menstruation, they also normalize women.
In some religions, menstruation can even be a powerful tool. Some New Orleans Vodou rituals may use menstrual blood. Wiccans see menstrual blood as powerful and is connected to wisdom. Whether it’s a reinterpretation or reclaiming the female body, these two faiths show another option for women. Menstruating isn’t a block to the divine. It can be a part of the spiritual journey.
Menstrual taboos impact everyone
Whether you believe in God or not, these taboos matter: In 2010, there were 1.6 billion Muslims, 1.03 billion Hindus, and 2.17 billion Christians. That’s 69% of the total world population. Every day, these taboos impact millions of women. Some of it isn’t as drastic as being kicked out into a hut: one study shows that women are seen as less human when seen holding clean menstrual products.
More importantly, taboos shape how we view our own bodies. Another study showed that women from traditions with rules around menstruation were more embarrassed, ashamed, and secluded compared to other women.
So should women around the world abandon these rituals? Not so fast. The same study also found that women had a stronger sense of community than those without menstrual rituals. Though these rituals keep women apart it also gives them a space with each other. Ritual, in my opinion, isn’t the issue. The problem is the taboo and shame underlying it. Combining silence and seclusion marks our natural cycle and bodies as alien and different.
America, in some ways, is a perfect example of this. As a country with a strong Christian heritage, we no longer have rituals keeping women apart but the taboos still impact our society. It’s inside my embarrassment holding a tampon while walking into a bathroom. It lives in the crazy PMS woman trope. It sits between my teeth as they clench, struggling to deal with cramps while in a meeting. We aren’t excluded anymore: we just have to pretend it isn’t happening.
Religious menstrual taboos are still an obstacle for women, keeping us from being seen as fully human. Yet, I’m still hopeful. After all, the variety of religious views on menstruation shows our taboos aren’t the only way.
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