Why We Need to Question the 'Religion' Behind Menstrual Taboos

18/01/2016 3:05 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

By Sakshi Jain

For a long time, menstruation has been regarded as impure and unclean in various religions, resulting in "rules" that bar women from entering places of worship during their time of the month. What's more shocking is that many of these practices continue today, reflecting the age-old clash between religion and gender equality.

Stigmatisation Of menstruation in various religions

Judaism: The Jewish code of law details strict rules about the lives of Jews, including women's actions during the period of menstruation. For example, an Orthodox Jewish wife is supposed to immerse herself in the "Mikveh", a ritual bath, in order to be considered ritually clean.

Christianity: The history of menstrual taboo has been a major reason to keep women from positions of authority in Christianity. In the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, menstruation is considered unclean. Partaking of sacraments, especially communion, or touching holy items like the Bible or religious icons are not allowed for menstruating women.

Islam: The Quran reads, "They ask you about menstruation. Say, 'It is an impurity, so keep away from women during it and do not approach them until they are cleansed; when they are cleansed you may approach them as God has ordained."

Buddhism: According to the Buddhist point of view, menstruation is "a natural physical excretion that women have to go through on a monthly basis, nothing more or less." However in practice this is not followed because of the influence Hinduism has had on Buddhism in India. Many temples do not allow women to circumambulate around stupas.

Hinduism: According to Hindu mythology, menstruation is considered as a dosha (sin). In Indian yogic philosophy, anything that is an excretion from the body i.e sweat, blood, tears etc are toxic, they are known as tamas (darkness or obscurity). According to Hindu culture, women aren't allowed to visit temples while menstruating. The boards outside temples generally read: "Ladies in monthly period are not allowed."

Drawing from these ideas of Hindu religious and cultural values, the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala restricts women from the age bracket of 10-50 years from entering the temple. According to this article on "Some say women are not allowed since they are considered 'unclean' during menstruation but other scholars say that they are not allowed because Ayyappa -- to whom the temple is dedicated -- is considered a celibate yogi."

Recently, a statement by the temple authorities to invent a machine to check the purity of women before allowing them to enter the temple sparked outrage and online campaigns like "Happy to Bleed".

Similar practices are followed at the famous Shani shrine in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra where women aren't allowed to enter the area where the idol is present. Such practices, say women's activists, infringe on the right to equality guaranteed to citizens irrespective or their religion and gender.

Recently, the Supreme Court's challenge to the custom of banning women from entering the Sabarimala Temple and holding this practice as unconstitutional was welcomed as a positive step towards addressing these entrenched social inequalities. Nonetheless, we have a long way to go before mindsets regarding women and their "purity" are changed, as these beliefs are deeply entrenched in our culture.

The conflict between religious beliefs and gender equality


Hindu beliefs and practices often seem contradictory. For instance, at the temple of Kamakhya Devi, the goddess's yoni or vagina is worshipped. The temple also has an annual fertility festival called Ambuwasi Puja to mark the goddess's yearly menstrual cycle. The temple remains closed for three days and opens up with great festivities on Day 4. This celebration of menstruation is at odds with the restrictions imposed on women during this time, reflecting the literally man-made rules that make up the protocol of many temples and which are indicative of the patriarchal agenda of keeping women from public interaction in the name of religion.

A longer version of this post was originally published here on Youth Ki Awaaz.

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