Menstrual Misogyny: Redrawing the Lines of Tradition
Saloni Saraf investigates the roots of the misogyny that surrounds menstruation in both her own religion and religions around the world.
[A version of this article first appeared here, in Artefact Magazine.]
Every year from July onwards till the end of October (or even November, depending which part of the country you hail from) Hindus celebrate what is one of the most festive and religiously heightened phases of the year.
It is a time for celebration, spirituality, and family - a time to feast on the best food, visit the most stunning temples, and pray for the good health of your loved ones.
Except if you’re on your period.
We teach our daughters to be proud of their bodies; we challenge inequality, and we stigmatise discrimination.
Yet, we ignore what can only be described as misogynistic beliefs that are buried deep into our tradition, and train our women to believe that menstruation is impure and unclean.
“Don’t enter the temple as it will not be right. Don’t touch the kitchen utensils as you will stain them.”
Growing up surrounded by a traditional religious family, whilst immersed in a liberal, feminist society, can confuse anyone who’s genuinely interested in following a religion that runs through the family.
This whole attitude has sadly fallen in the bracket of extremist rules that should not exist within a religion.
Yet for some reason, women everywhere – old and young – follow it blindly as if they themselves agree that they are unclean.
After many debates and unsatisfactory reasons as to why some will not change their mind about it, I looked up why this even began.
Historically this stage of the month was treated almost like a holiday. Five days where the pain that some women went through was taken into account, and they were allowed to take a break.
They didn’t have to carry heavy items, spend their entire day cooking, or walk miles to the nearest temple
But when did it mutate into a rule? When did something that was meant as a kind favour to a generation of submissive women become part of the law and order of religion?
This taboo however, is not restricted to just Hinduism. The perception that a woman on her period is unholy exists in many religions.
Ayesha Soleija is a devoted follower of Islam, and has been affected by this specific tradition.
She told us that in ancient Egypt, a menstruating woman was considered dirty. She was not told to eat, and to sleep alone. Her husband would avoid her as it was believed that she was ‘excreting poison’.
"It’s frustrating that something which affects half the population of most households, has taken years of silent confusion and reluctant compliance for people to finally start speaking out against."
However, as Islam developed, the prejudice against menstruation also reduced in the eyes of many, as now the only thing that is prohibited is for a man to have sexual intercourse with his wife.
Though the concept of it being ‘unclean’ still exists, Ayesha says she will not be allowed to enter the Mosque if she is on her period. And during the time of prayer, ‘Sajda’ which is the part in which a person really connects with God, is avoided.
“I’ve never completely understood it, but it’s something my Mother, her Mother and everyone in my family has always followed.”
She goes further to say how it’s hard, to fight against something you’ve learnt to accept your entire life.
“When you tell a lie enough times, you yourself start to believe it’s true. I guess this works in the same way. I’ve spent my whole life believing that I am indeed unclean when I’m on my period, so no matter how much I convince myself that this tradition has no validity, I will always feel uncomfortable stepping into the mosque on my period.”
The worst part about this tradition is that no one genuinely understands it; no woman believes that they are ‘dirty’ when they are menstruating.
This culture is so deeply ingrained in our lives that feeling uncomfortable fighting against it is inevitable.
A ten year old will cringe at the idea of his or her sister being on her period, and that stems purely from the fact that they haven’t been taught about why it happens.
Is the lack of sexual education in our communities so telling that even fully grown adults can treat a woman on her period like she is unfit to exist in a place of worship?
In Judaism, a woman in the period of her menstruation is referred to as ‘Niddah’.
The Old Testament specifies that a woman is unclean during this period, however the Talmud, a huge collection of ‘laws’ written before the eighth century AD, stipulate that a woman’s ‘uncleanness’ continues for a whole week after her period has ended.
It’s frustrating that something which affects half the population of most households, has taken years of silent confusion and reluctant compliance for people to finally start speaking out against.
We’re developing our mindsets, our lifestyles and our behaviour towards the world.
Let’s develop our religions too.