A look at major religions of the world shows that, without exception, they have placed restrictions on menstruating women. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism have all made statements about menstruation and its negative effect on women, leading to prohibitions about physical intimacy, cooking, attending places of worship, and sometimes requiring women to live separately from men at this time.
Hinduism views the menstruating woman as “impure” (Chawla, 1992), or “polluted” (Apffel-Marglin, 1994). In fact, menstruation is referred to in some places as a “curse” (Sharma, Vaid, & Manhas, 2006). The impurity lasts only during the menses, and ends immediately thereafter. During their menstruation, women must leave the main house, and live in a small hut outside the village (Apffel-Marglin, 1994; Phipps, 1980). They must rest, and do no work; they cannot comb their hair or bathe (Apffel-Marglin, 1994). They are not allowed to partake in the Naulas, or traditional water springs. In other words, menstruating women do not have access to water when they need it for personal hygiene. They are not allowed to cook food (Joshi & Fawcett, 2001), and must keep separate utensils (Sharma, et. al., 2006).
Women may not enter the pooja room (the prayer room within each home) and may not enter the temple (Chawla, 1992; Ferro-Luzzi, 1980; Phipps, 1980; Sharma, et. al., 2006). Women may not mount a horse, ox, or elephant, nor may they drive a vehicle (Whelan, 1975). Ferro-Luzzi (1980) also found various food restrictions during menstruation, including fish and meat. In particular, menstruation is to be a private event. There is a strong taboo against menstruation being made known in a public sphere (Apffel-Marglin, 1994).
The second author, a member of the Hindu faith from India, tells about her experience with menstruation. “When I was in the seventh grade, I remember my mother getting upset when I told her about the onset of my first menstrual cycle. My mother said that I had grown up fast and feared that I would not grow any taller. My mother also instructed me about rules for menstruating girls, that they are not supposed to enter a temple, participate in a religious ceremony and or get married while having their periods. Trips to religious places are scheduled so that no woman of fertile age is menstruating during that time.”
In Buddhism, menstruation is generally viewed as “a natural physical excretion that women have to go through on a monthly basis, nothing more or less” (Buddha Dharma Education Association, 2004). However, Hindu belief and practice has carried over into some categories of Buddhist culture.
In Taiwan, Buddhists characterized menstruating women as polluted, and restricted them with taboos. Women were taught that their menstrual periods were a dangerous vulnerability (Furth & Shu-Yueh, 1992). Menstrual blood, itself, was viewed as “dirt” or “poison” (Furth & Shu-Yueh, 1992). Japanese Buddhism, in particular, has been characterized by a persistent anti-feministic attitude (Jnanavira, 2006).
Buddhist scriptures state that all human bodies, male and female alike, are flawed and are leaking filthy substances. While authentic Buddhist sutras do not explicitly say the female body is polluted, many still discriminate against women because of their menstruation. Some common taboos include women being banned from participating in folk rituals, and that they must avoid temples (Furth & Shu-Yueh, 1992). Menstruating women cannot meditate (though some women do, as they feel particularly “connected”), nor can they have contact with priests (Furth & Shu-Yueh, 1992). They cannot take part in ceremonies, such as weddings, either (Furth & Shu-Yueh, 1992).
During menstruation, women are thought to lose Qi. (Qi, also commonly spelled chi, is believed to be part of everything that exists, as in “life force”, or “spiritual energy”.) There is also a Buddhist belief that ghosts eat blood; a menstruating woman, then, is thought to attract ghosts, and is therefore a threat to herself and others (Lhamo, 2003).
Women supposedly stop menstruating when they enter the first level of arhatship (“stream-enterer”
Furth & Shu-Yueh (1992) conducted interviews of Taiwanese Buddhists during which general questions about the nature of menstruation was addressed. Respondents differed in their comments, ranging from “a normal physiological phenomenon” to “you have to let it flow out or you will get sick.” However, almost all the interviewees agreed that the blood is “unclean”, and most added that it is “shameful;” some even went as far as to call it “dirty.”
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.”
Islam does not consider a menstruating woman to possess any kind of “contagious uncleanness” (Azeem, 1995). The Islamic law treats menstruation as impure for religious functions only (Engineer, 1987).
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.
Following a lengthy discussion of the Islamic laws of purity, Maghen (1999) concludes that “the ‘problem’ with menstruating women (reflected in the restrictions placed upon certain of their activities) is confined to the ritually threatening properties of their menstrual blood per se” (p. 381).
A colleague of ours described her experience as follows: “When I was little, and lived in Iran, we had traveled to a village north of Tehran. My parents invited the villagers to eat with us. However, their teenage daughter was not allowed to have dinner with us. My parents and I were surprised; we later found out that because she had her period, she was viewed as ‘unclean’ and ‘najeste’ (in Farsi, this refers to an object or person who will contaminate you). It was believed that she would contaminate the dishes, silverware, food, etc.
Overall, even though my mother tried to educate me, in the right way, about the menstruation process, I still recall feeling ‘dirty’ and ‘damaged’ when I had my first period. I remember that the religious preachings made me feel very ashamed about both my body, and this normal experience, as I went through the process.” (Ghamramanlou, 2006, personal communication).
Most Christian denominations do not follow any specific rituals or regulations related to menstruation. However, Western civilization, predominantly Christian, has a history of menstrual taboos. In early Western cultures, the menstruating woman was believed to be dangerous, and social restrictions were placed upon her. In fact, the British Medical Journal, in 1878, claimed that a menstruating woman would cause bacon to putrefy (Whelan, 1975).
The history of the menstrual taboo has been a major reason in the decision to keep women from positions of authority in Christianity (Phipps, 1980; Ruether, 1990). Additionally, there are some Christian denominations, including many authorities of the Orthodox Church, who will not allow women to receive communion during their menstrual period (Barnes, n.d.; Phipps, 1980). Menstruation taboos are also responsible for the belief of many Catholics that a woman should not have intercourse during her monthly period (Phipps, 1980). Catholic canon law refuses to allow women or girls to be in any semi-sacerdotal roles, such as altar server (Ruether, 1990).
Russian Orthodox Christians believe in menstrual taboos as well. Menstruating women must live secluded in a little hut during this time. They do not attend church services, cannot have any contact with men, and may not touch raw or fresh food. Menstruating women are also thought to offend and repel fish and game. The air surrounding menstruating women is believed to be especially polluting to young hunters; if a hunter gets close enough to a women to touch, then all animals will be able to see him and he won’t be able to hunt them. A menstruating woman’s gaze is even thought to affect the weather negatively (Morrow, 2002).
While Western Christian denominations are less extreme, some relic of negative attitudes toward menstruating women remain. The third author of this article describes her experience with menstruation as follows. “I grew up in a U.S. Christian family that was not religious, attending no services until in my adolescence the family discovered Unitarianism. In spite of the lack of religious feeling, my mother called menstruation ‘the curse,’ as did most of my friends and their mothers. There was no sense of menstruation as a natural function, and my mother had to resort to handing me a pamphlet to instruct me about the process. While there were no taboo activities specifically related to being ‘cursed’ or ‘unclean,’ menstruating high school students were often treated as though they were ill; they were not expected to take gym classes, and their absence from school was accepted during ‘those days’.”
Which Religion Is Most Lenient And Which Is Most Strict ?
One of the differences between the major religions is the level of severity of the menstrual taboos. Buddhism and Christianity offer the most lenient view of the menstruating woman, while Orthodox Judaism has the strictest view.
(Compiled from Internet Scientific Publications article ‘Menstrual Taboos Among Major Religions )
By Alvaro Hans