Taboo Talk: Menstruation, Religion, and Exclusion

Throughout history, some of the major religions have excluded women in one way or the other from religious spaces when they menstruate and attached it to the notion of “impurity.”[1] Recently, I was watching a documentary on Netflix about the stigmatization of menstruation in India. In the documentary, there is a young Hindu woman named Sneha who visits the temple and raises the same point of confusion that I have had: “The goddess to whom we pray is a woman just like us. I don’t agree with the rule that we are not allowed to enter the temple when we menstruate.”[2] This documentary inspired me to write my first blog on menstruation and religion, because the stigmatization of menstruation transcends any culture, religion, geography, and socio-economic background, and continues to confuse many women across the world.

The two exclusions that I grew up with are not being allowed to enter the temple and not being allowed to participate in religious rites. Some of my Islamic friends mentioned that they are not allowed to fast during Ramadan. However, for many women forms of exclusion aren’t limited to religious spaces alone. Across different cultures, women are not allowed to cook or bathe, touch their husbands, care for plants, and are sometimes even expected to live outside of the main house for the length of their periods.[3] Women are practically restricted in their social lives. Why? Because it is believed that only evil things can come from a woman who menstruates, i.e. the food gets contaminated, a man suffers impotency, and plants will die. Thus, this physical function of a woman is linked to malignancy.

Why is it linked to impurity?

In a comparative study on menstruation in Hinduism and Judaism, Cohen (2020) argues that in both religions menstruation is understood as part of a larger impurity system that defines boundaries of identity and community.[4] For example, in Hinduism the Manu Smriti, a sacred Dharmic literature, delineates 12 impurities of the body, among which blood, semen, urine, tears, and sweat. The Dharmic literature treats menstruation as an inherent impurity of a woman. Based on this, the literature prescribes normative behaviour between men and women. This implies that men are not allowed to touch a menstruating woman, eat food that has been cooked by a menstruating woman, and avoid talking to a menstruating woman. In doing so, it is believed that a man’s wisdom and long life is enhanced. The scriptures are written from the idea that men’s purity can be influenced by their interaction with menstruating women. When stripped from the religious context, Cohen (2020) claims that “the ‘impurity’ concept and its associated prescriptions often become framed as ‘traditional practices,’ ‘myths’, and ‘religious superstitions’ that seem to apply only to menstruation.” Like so many historical and religious practices when de-contextualized from their original meaning and purpose, it is such framing that leaves the exclusion of women condoned, unquestioned, and taboo.

Today’s practices

From my own experience, I have noticed that menstrual taboos bring about situations where women feel uneasy, ashamed, and confused about the blurred lines between the private and public. They expose the issues related to gender equality, hierarchies, and boundaries of power. For example, a woman once told me that a priest asked her if she would be “clean” during the religious ceremony. This is problematic on many levels. Firstly, menstruation is supposed to be a private matter, but a woman is obliged to inform the priest. In this way, it becomes a public matter, revealing the positions of those in power and those powerless. Similarly, when a woman doesn’t help with preparations for a religious ceremony, the family will clearly deduce that she is menstruating. This places women in a position of shame, because they have no say in whether this matter stays private. I find it interesting that in such a situation, women will say things like “I can’t help”, whereas in reality they can help, but they are just not allowed to. Secondly, by explicitly stating that a woman can be “clean”, it implicitly means that a woman can be dirty. Hence, a woman’s body can be in a state of purity or impurity. Thirdly, this notion points to the unequal dynamic between men and women, because men are pure and clean at all times. As we have seen the Dharmic literature views male body fluids as impure, but in today’s world men are unaware of this. As far as I have experienced, only women are instructed to not participate in religious activities. A man is not excluded from anything in his life.

So how did we arrive at this point?

There are multiple reasons for the lack of knowledge on the concept of impurity. Firstly, menstruation and the reproduction system are taboos. Everyone knows that they exist, but no one talks freely about them, especially in religious institutions. Secondly, religious scriptures are mainly written and preached by men. The female perspective and interpretation of the scriptures are lacking. As a result, the scriptures portray men’s views on menstruation and under their interpretation it is considered something to be feared. Finally, as a large part of the traditions are passed on blindly and with a lack of understanding Sanskrit, people rely on the teachings of priests and accept the way things are.

My thoughts

I find the concept of impurity questionable, because menstruation is a natural process that indicates the vitality of a woman’s body. It is part of the reproductive system and without it the birth of new life would not be possible. The exclusion of women in social and religious activities without proper explanation or holding men accountable to the same purity standards is a step too far for me. Such practices only perpetuate imbalanced gender relations. The last thing that women need during their period is to be excluded. Rather, they should be supported during these days. It should be a woman’s decision to share with whomever she wants that she is menstruating. In the same way, it should be her own choice to not participate in religious ceremonies, if she is not feeling well. It should not be imposed on her externally. With the increased focus on gender equality, there must be more focus on the inclusion of women in the debates on religion. I expect that this is a topic that will continue to confuse women, that is why such discriminatory practices need to be openly and considerately addressed in religious communities. 

[1] Bhartiya, A. (2013). Menstruation, religion and society. International Journal of Social Science and Humanity3(6), 523.

[2] Netflix. (2020). Period. End of Sentence.

[3] Guterman, M.A., Mehta, P., & Gibbs, M. (2007). Menstrual Taboos Among Major Religions.

[4] Cohen I. (2020) Menstruation and Religion: Developing a Critical Menstrual Studies Approach. In: Bobel C., Winkler I.T., Fahs B., Hasson K.A., Kissling E.A., Roberts TA. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.

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4 thoughts on “Taboo Talk: Menstruation, Religion, and Exclusion”

  1. Such a daring and complex subject, still so nicely and beautifully written. I really do agree with your thoughts and conclusion. This is the first step by writing and creating awareness about these issues. We might have a long way to go yet, but someone’s gotta take the first step. Kudos Shakila!

    1. Thank you Cher for taking the time to comment. Glad you liked it. In case you have any topic suggestions, please free to send me an e-mail. Your input is appreciated.

  2. I would like to add something here. Not being a woman and not being religious in any way I do not have first-hand experience with the topic of menstruation being ‘impure’. However, I do believe that these “rituals” come from an ancient period of female oppression. In the past thousands of years, in all areas of the world, the physically stronger sex has found ways to create rules to stimulate the illusion of the so-called “male supremacy” throughout the ages. Although this obviously is nonsence, many religions and cults have adopted these “facts” in such a way that it is part of the way we raise our children. After men successfully did this to women, white people did this to people of colour and made racism the next chapter we should be embarrased about in our modern day history.
    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, I’m looking forward to reading your next subjects. Well done Shakila!!

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Frank. I have to say that female oppression might only be part of the reason. It also has to do with practicalities surrounding menstruation. In ancient times, women did not have the hygiene products that we have today. It was easier for them to stay at home or near home. Unfortunately, this restriction has been woven into a rule that excludes women. By openly discussing it now, we can get rid of these old-fashioned narratives that do not serve humanity. 😉

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