Menstruation is a natural biological process that women undergo during a major period of their lives. In many a sense, menstruation, owing to its relationship with fertility and motherhood, is something which is closely associated with womanhood and which indicates how women as individuals are different from men at many levels. Hence, menstruation has always played an important role in how various societies and cultures across the world has perceived women, man-woman relationships, and the role of women in society as a whole.
In the recent times, menstruation has been in the middle of the controversy that is going around temple entry, gender equality, etc. These controversies have resulted in many people, both men and women, to question various accepted notions, traditions, and practices surrounding menstruation. In the light of this, this article seeks to examine briefly various menstruation practices present across the world.
In her paper, ‘Menstruation, Religion and Society’, Aru Bhartiya briefly examines the menstruation practices prevalent among major religions. Examining Christian menstruation practices, she writes:
“The history of menstrual taboo has been a major reason to keep women from positions of authority in Christianity. Just like in Judaism it’s the belief of many Catholics that woman should not have sexual intercourse during her menses.
“In the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, menstruation is considered unclean. Partaking of sacraments, especially communion, or touching holy items like Bible or religious icons are not allowed for menstruating women. This is not a universal practice, but it hasn’t gone away entirely.
“Russian Orthodox Christians believe in menstrual taboos. Menstruating women have to live in secluded huts during this time. They don’t attend church services, cannot have any contact with men, and may not touch raw or fresh food. A menstruating woman’s gaze is also thought to affect the weather negatively.
“While western Christian denominations are less extreme, some negative attitudes still remain.”
Similarly, Renee Pinkston in her article. “Menstrual Taboos – Anthropology of Gender”, writes: “Many menstrual taboos also exist in Christianity, although they are often overlooked or not thought of as taboos. One of the most well known ideas of menstrual taboo within Christianity is in the Catholic denomination. Within this sector of Christianity, women are not allowed to have any „high‟ standing within the church; women are in fact, excluded from the sanctuaries of many dioceses in the United States. Many sisters in the church believe that this is because women are seen a dirty and polluting due to their monthly menstrual cycle (Phipps 1980). In fact, many older documents on Christianity as well as the Bible itself states that women are seen as unclean, especially during their monthly menstruation period. According to a survey that the author of an article written about menstrual taboos in Judeo-Christian religion, it was stated that “[many Catholic] women tend to feel ritually unclean [during their menstrualcycle]” (Phipps 1980:301).”
Regarding the menstrual practices followed in Islam, Aru Bhartiya writes: “From what I gathered after interviewing a few people is, that in Islam menstruating women aren’t supposed to touch the Quran, enter the mosque, offer the ritual prayer or have sex with her husband for seven full days. The woman is exempted from rituals such as daily prayers and fasting, although she is not given the option of performing these rituals, even if she wants to.”
Expressing a similar view, M Guterman and others in their article “Menstrual Taboos Among Major Religions”, write: “In Muslim cultures, “impure” (i.e., menstruating) women are to be avoided by men (Whelan, 1975). These laws are derived from the Qur’an (2:222), which reads, “They question thee (O Muhammad) concerning menstruation. Say it is an illness so let women alone at such times and go not into them til they are cleansed. And when they have purified themselves, then go unto them as Allah hath enjoined upon you.”
They continue: “There are two main prohibitions placed upon the menstruating woman. First, she may not enter any shrine or mosque (Engineer, 1987; Fischer, 1978). In fact, she may not pray or fast during Ramadan while she is menstruating (Engineer, 1987). She may not touch the Qur’anic codex or even recite its contents (Fischer, 1978; Maghen, 1999; Whelan, 1975). Secondly, she is not allowed to have sexual intercourse for seven full days (beginning when the bleeding starts). She is “exempted” from rituals such as daily prayers and fasting, although she is not given the option of performing these rituals, even if she wants to (Azeem, 1995).
“In addition, the woman must complete a “ritual washing” before she becomes “clean” again (Fischer, 1978; Whelan, 1975). Following this washing she is able to perform prayers, fasting, and allowed to enter the mosque.”
Commenting on the Judaism’s view on menstruation, M Guterman and others state: “Jewish law expressly forbids literally any physical contact between males and females during the days of menstruation and for a week thereafter (Eider, 1999; Keshet-Orr, 2003). This includes passing objects between each other, sharing a bed (most couples have two separate beds, which can be pulled apart during Niddah), sitting together on the same cushion of a couch, eating directly from the wife’s leftovers, smelling her perfume, gazing upon her clothing (whether or not it has been worn), or listening to her sing (Steinberg, 1997). According to stipulated ritual, an Orthodox Jewish wife is responsible for immersing in the Mikvah, the ritual bath, following these 2 weeks. This entire period of time, from the beginning of the “bleeding days”, until the end of the 7 “clean days”, when the woman immerses herself in the ritual bath, is called the “Niddah (ritually unclean) period” (Guterman, 2006). “
Writing about the Buddhist view of menstruation, Aru Bharatiya notes that though it is considered a natural process, at many Buddhist temples, circumambulation of stupas are not allowed. She further notes that: “During menstruation women are thought to lose Qi (commonly spelled as chi, is believed to be part of everything that exists, as in ‘life force’, or spiritual energy.) There’s a Buddhist belief that ghosts eat blood. A menstruating woman is then thought to attract ghosts, and is therefore a threat to herself and others. An example cited by the Buddha Dharma Education Association says, that while fermenting rice, menstruating women are not allowed near the area or the rice will be spoilt.”
Robert Briffault, in his book ‘The mothers: a study of the origins of sentiments and institutions’, examines Menstruation practices prevalent in various cultures and societies across the world. He writes that among the Eskimos, separate huts are built for the use of menstruating women and special dietary regulations are prescribed for them. Further, the women use cups and utensils that are kept exclusively for their use. Similar isolation was also observed among the Tlingit, an indigenous group of people present in Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. Tlingit women were not even allowed to lie down or chew their own foods. They had to sleep propped up with logs and masticated food was supplied to her. Pima Indian women, who are Native Americans who live in what is now central and southern Arizona, retire into the bushes for several days during menstruation. Among the Canadian tribes, menstruating women are not even allowed to travel the same path as men.
Thus, Robert writes: “The seclusion of women in a special hut or shelter during the period of their menstruation was practiced by all North American tribes.”
Similar practices could be observed among various indigenous people of South America as well. For example, tribes of Uaupe have separate menstrual huts for women. Ticunas go a step further and subject menstruating girls to flagellation and plucking of hairs along with seclusion. Araucanians of Chile debars women from visiting sick people and attending any public amusements.
Further, Menstruation restrictions could be observed in the indigenous tribes of Siberian region as well. Kamchatka, Yukaghir, Koryak, Somayeds, etc. all segrated menstruating. A Yukaghir woman was barred from touching fishing and hunting implements during menstruation. Somayed women were segregated into the inner chambers of the ‘yurta’ and had to fumigate with reindeer hair before they could be considered pure after menstruation. Similarly, various tribes in Africa, be it Bushmen, Bakongo, Baila, Akikuyu, etc. all place menstruation restrictions on their women.
Ancient Arabia was also not free of menstruation practices. Among other things, they also isolated menstruating women into special huts. Ancient Persia went a step further and believed that even the very glance of menstruating women was polluting. Regarding the restrictions placed in ancient Persia, Robert writes: “Women in ancient Persia were confined to an isolated portion of the house, known as ‘dashtanistan’, during menstruation, and had to remain there until twenty four hours after the cessation of the menses. No fire was to be kindled in the house during that period, and they were to remain at least fifteen paces away from any fire or any water; all wood was to be removed from the place and the floor strewn with dust. Her food had to be cooked separately; when it was handed to her, the attendant may not approach her closer than three paces, and before receiving it she was to wrap her hand in a cloth. After the period was over all the clothes, which she had been wearing must be destroyed, and she must be purified by being washed with bull’s urine.”
Now, coming to menstruation restrictions in China, Renee Pinkston writes: “The Chinese today see all body refuse as being dirty because it was rejected by the body and ejected from the body by natural and normal systems. Of all the dirty bodily refuse, menstrual blood is the worse because it is dirty and it is also polluting and the blood that flows out is associated with danger, pain, and death, which in some cases would be also seen as the unborn fetus. The Chinese also believe that during her menstrual period, a women is very unbalanced, or liminal. Among the Chinese, the menstrual taboos are rather general. Menstruating women are not to wash their clothes and their husband’s clothes together; they are not allowed to sit on a chair that a man will occupy. Menstruating women are not allowed to worship gods in public ceremonies, public temples or even ancestral halls; however they can worship the gods in private. Along the lines of public, they are also not allowed to attend weddings, funerals, birthday celebrations, or open houses. Sexual intercourse during menstruation is also taboo for the Chinese. It is believed that during sexual intercourse the man absorbs part of the woman essences and the woman does the opposite. If sexual intercourse occurs during menstruation then the man will absorb the polluting essences of the woman and he will become polluted which results in penis sores and a condition called crushing red which results in other diseases and even death.”
From the above, it is quite clear that menstruation is associated with impurity in one or the other form among most of the world’s religions and cultures. More importantly, menstruation practices always included some form of restrictions being imposed on women, though at times these restrictions bordered on taboo and excesses.
Thus, in almost all religions and cultures there appears to exist a notion of impurity attached to menstruation. From the organized Abrahamic religions to unorganized Dharmic traditions, from the Eskimos in the far West to the Siberian tribes in Far East, almost all cultures, tribes, and religions, share this notion to varying degree. In Hinduism, as we shall see in the next article, though menstruation is associated with Ashaucha (ritual impurity), it is taken beyond the notion of impurity and is celebrated as a purification process. Nonetheless, it is clear that in cultures throughout the world, menstruation had special significance in relation to sacred activities. It is worth studying if there exists some essence, some nuance, which was obvious to these cultures, but is completely missed or sometimes deliberately ignored by both the modern day feminists who completely discard these practices, and those orthodox people who practice these traditions mechanically and at times take it to the extreme.
At the same time, there are movements within Western feminism that are starting to explore this special significance. One such movement is the Red Tent Temple Movement, wherein women can spend their menstruating days in huts away from their family. Thus, women in the west are beginning to recognize that they need ‘self-time’ and rest during menstruation, without having to perform daily chores and away from their family. This is being celebrated as “women emancipation”, which, ironically, is quite similar to some of the Hindu notions and practices related to menstruation. It becomes vital that a serious examination of the Hindu view of menstruation is carried out so that “modern” Hindus learn about their own religion and practices. Such, an examination of the Hindu view of menstruation will be taken up in the next article.
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With a degree in civil engineering, and having worked in construction field, Nithin Sridhar passionately writes about various issues from development, politics, and social issues, to religion, spirituality and ecology. He is based in Mysore, India. His first book “Musings On Hinduism” provided an overview of various aspects of Hindu philosophy and society. His latest book “Menstruation Across Cultures: A Historical Perspective” examines menstruation notions and practices prevalent in different cultures & religions from across the world. Tweets at @nkgrock