The Sacred and the Profane: Menstrual Flow and Religious Values

Journal of Human Values

The menstruating body has been subjected to shame and trivialization by patriarchal societies both in the East and the West. As Fahs points out, ‘Negativity about menstruation subjects women to ridicule, dismissal and trivialization’ (Fahs, 2016, p. 4). The following words of a male jury member of the prestigious Oscar awards genuinely reflect the trivializing and shaming attitude of our society regarding menstruation:

[I’m not going to vote for] Period. End of Sentence—it’s well done, but it’s about women getting their period, and I don’t think any man is voting for this film because it’s just icky for men. (Donovan, 2019)

Period. End of Sentence is a short documentary film made about the attitudes on menstruation in a village in rural India. Like the male jury member, many people find the issue of menstruation as ‘depressing’, ‘repellent’ and ‘uncomfortable’.1 Attitudes as these have been prevalent throughout the ages on menstruation and the menstruants. The agencies perpetuating these prejudices mostly have been both religious and cultural institutions. In what follows, taking two world religions for our discussion, we critically address the patriarchal values that religions perpetuate to subjugate women by shaming the menstrual bodies.

Religious exclusion begins with naming the menstruating state. A menstruating woman is often referred to as rajaswala in Hindu tradition while Judaism labels her as niddah and Islam calls her hayz, thereby rendering the woman as beyond ‘normal’. Religious texts like the Old Testament refer to menstruation as ‘infectious time’ or as the ‘Curse of Eve’. Hindu scriptures treat menstruation as asaucha (impure). Early Christian commentators too perceived menstruation as unclean.

In Hinduism, menstruants are forbidden from participating in religious and death rituals, touching sacred objects and entering any space which is demarcated as sacred as the altar or temples. They are isolated either in seclusion huts or rooms. Vashishtha Dharmasastra says that a woman is impure for 3 days and nights during her periods, and she should not bathe, smile, beautify her body, gaze at planets or approach fire, among other things. A man who touches a menstruant must purify himself by fully dipping in water (Vashishta Dharmasastra, Part 1, Chapter 5, verses 5–9). In recent times, the Sabarimala temple issue in Kerala brought to surface the perceptions of menstruation as impure. Women from the age of 10 to 50 years (menstruating age) were barred from entering the temple.

Some Christian sects do not allow women to receive communion during their menses.

Feminists believe menstruation is the main reason to prevent women from occupying higher positions in the ministry. A passage from Leviticus in the Old Testament clearly shows a similar attitude towards menstruation.

When woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean, everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. (Leviticus 15: 19–23)

It has also been referred to in other Levitical commentaries as ‘miserable state’, ‘illness’, ‘sin’, ‘sense of natural disgust or shame [that] has developed into an ethical and religious feeling of uncleanness’ (O’Grady, 2003, p. 12). St Jerome, a fourth-century Christian priest and theologian, contends, ‘Nothing is more filthy, unclean than a menstruant; whatever she will have touched, she makes it unclean’ (Schultz, 2003, p. 97). Even religious reformists like John Calvin called menstruation a ‘shameful thing’ (O’Grady, 2003, p. 11).

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