Written by guest contributor Courtney Duff
Every menstruating person has heard some variation of ridiculous lies about our bodies. By most standards, menstruation is viewed as impure, unclean, or nasty. Being “on the rag” is also synonymous with “inherent bitchiness.” As second-wave feminist, Judith Lorber notes in the foreword to New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation, “Menstruation was something to be minimized, managed, and made invisible.” Although we all hear these lies about our bodies, who really internalizes them? Well, unfortunately, greater culture tends to promote these ideas despite our insistence that nothing is wrong with us.
I decided to survey some major religions and see what they really say about menstruation. Abrahamic religions, like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, are verse-heavy and focus on the impurityof menstruation. Eastern religions, like Buddhism and Hinduism, are quite secretive but have source texts that don’t filter through a patriarchal stand point. And Indigenous American cultures, like Dine and Oglala Lakota Sioux, are ritual-heavy but often caters to male gaze.
All Abrahamic religions are somewhat biased against menstruation. The Bible has verses in the Old Testament detailing all the ways menstruating people are unclean. The Qu’ran explicitly forbids menstruating people from taking part in tons of religious practices. But Judaism differs from the other Abrahamic religions in one major way: they have a prominent ritual associated with menstruation. After the first few days of the cycle, the menstruating person dips into the mikvah, a ritual bath, to cleanse themselves.
One thing I noticed is that impurity is associated with menstruation in not only Judaism, which requires a ritual bath, but with Christianity and Islam as well. Many of our cultural biases against menstruation in the US come from Christianity. Although there are no specific rituals associated with Western, modern-day Christianity and menstruation, those Bible verses make Christianity hostile to people who menstruate. Menstrual taboo has led to the exclusion of women from authority in the church.
Though women are not the only gender who menstruate, the menstruating stigma is more often than not targetted at them most, due to preoccupation with the gender binary.
Excluding women who menstruate from everyday activities and sacred rituals has led to a rise in the exclusion of women in important positions of power and authority. It’s common to hear that Hillary Clinton would be an awful choice for president because of her PMS. Despite the fact that she is past menstruating age, these comments are still made, showing just how focused we are on the female body and its reproductive capacity.
While menarche is often considered a time for celebration, any menstruation after the first is viewed as impure and unclean in Hinduism. As in Western culture, many Hindu people who menstruate call their period “the curse.” Like in Islam, they’re barred from entering temples and prayer rooms, while also being disallowed to bathe or comb their hair and cook, being required to use separate utensils as well. And although official authorities on Buddhism have said that menstruation is nothing more or less than a natural process, there are quite a few taboos against menstruation in practice for Buddhist adherents. This is in part due to the influence of the Hindu religion, which has a number of laws and biases against people who menstruate.
Although Hinduism is particularly secretive, it’s not that different from other religions. There is a pattern of keeping women out of authoritative positions; a common thread, in most religions, of uncleanliness; and, in general, a subtle set of biases that exist to keep women in a submissive place.
In particular, Taiwanese and Japanese Buddhists have tenets against the practice of the religion for menstruating people. Although Buddhist scripture does not demean or condemn people who menstruate, common practice bars them from entering temples and participating in rituals, from interacting with priests, and from meditating.
Although the religions detailed so far have not been ritual-heavy, the following are mostly based on ritual.
The Navajo, or Dine, people celebrate menarche with Kinaalda, a ritual that starts four nights after menstruation begins. And the Oglala Lakota Sioux’s ritual involves the entire community. But despite the positives, one major theme permeates these Indigenous cultures: the male gaze.
Kinaalda focuses on shaping the menstruating person into the perfect woman. The young person is shaped into the image of Changing Woman, the creator of the Earth, and their body is molded to fit the image by pressing hands over her body to ensure languidity and attractiveness. Later, they run while the children of the village follow to ensure they will be a good mother in the future.
The Oglala Laktoa Sioux ritual, the Buffalo Ceremony, focuses on molding the menstruating person into a woman as well. One major component is when the sacred person performs as the buffalo bull while the menstruating person represents the buffalo cow and the sacred person dances, imitating the mating ritual of buffalos. This represents the menstruating person’s debut into sexuality, despite it happening at menarche, which is at a fairly early time in a person’s life.
As you have read, each religion has its own problems. None are foolproof or infallible despite the positives. This is not to discount the positives; for example, many religions hold menstrual blood as sacred, like the Oglala Lakota Sioux, even if common practice sees it as more impure or the rituals are enmeshed in the male gaze. The actual texts and primary sources tend to take a kinder, gentler attitude towards menstruation than practice. This is largely in part due to colonization; gender roles and other restrictions were laxer prior to the colonization of, for example, Native peoples.
You’ll find that most religions have a mixture of positive and negative aspects when it comes to menstruation. There are many comparisons to be drawn between each of them. For similarities, it’s easy to see that most religions treat menstruation as dirty or impure, despite official texts saying otherwise. There are also commonalities towards how women are treated — as weak, incapable of possessing power, or poor authority figures. However, the negative aspects tend to outweigh the positive and although the positive are enshrined in official text, it’s rare to find those positive aspects in practice.
There is a wealth of information to be gleaned from this survey of religion. For one, religion makes it much harder for women to feel dignified, especially during menstruation. There are still biases at play that keep women from power and authority that are traced directly back to the menstrual taboos in major religions. It’s time for a new wave of activism to come into play — one that focuses on improving the quality of menstruating people’s lives by destigmatizing their experiences.