well, since periods have been so much the topic of discussion lately, i thought to myself that it must be time to do a post about them. mostly from the point of view of the cultural differences around periods, and the restrictions that have built up over different traditions.
i'll start with the traditions i know best: my own. for muslim women, periods are a time when we are excused from worship. so we don't have to pray or fast - the latter being sensible for me at least, cos i'm anaemic & really couldn't cope with fasting at the time we have our period. i guess that these 2 restrictions aren't seen as a kind of relief from our point of view, so i've not really heard any muslim women complain about them.
there are a few others though. one is that we shouldn't touch the qur'an. this is one where people have developed "fixes" for, so that i have heard one scholar say that women should read a qur'an with translation when they have their periods. this is on the basis that the words that aren't the actual arabic of the qur'an are greater portion of the book, so it's all ok. another that i've heard is the expedient of touching the qur'an while wearing gloves or using a cloth**. i find this interesting in terms of the way people want to get around the restriction, but don't want to challenge it.
another is that we don't have intercourse when we have our periods. i can't say i've ever heard anyone complaining about that one, and my own personal reaction is basically "yucky, why would you want to?"
the most contentious restriction, though, is the one of not entering the mosque when menstruating. well, more precisely, the restriction is to not sit at the place of prayer, so if there are parts of the mosque that aren't used for prayer, they are fine. most muslim women will abide by this restriction without a problem, mostly because they aren't praying at that time so there's no point going to the mosque anyway. i'll go if there's a public lecture, but sit in the foyer which is just as comfortable as inside the prayer area.
it becomes an issue when we want to have mosque open days though. we've had many debates about that in nz, because the conservatives will be all like "how can you let non-muslim women come through the mosque, they might have their period and we certainly can't police it in anyway". luckily, the majority of mosques have taken a much more liberal line & open the mosque to everyone.
so that's us. hinduism has more severe restrictions. since i don't know so much about it, i'm going to quote from a comment put up on AEN by dr sapna:
I come from a culture with similar beliefs. I have cousins back in India who are not allowed to live in their own house when they menstruate. That means they cannot go into the kitchen or the bathroom or do regular normal things. This is because they are 'impure'. What started out as a social concept-that menstruating women in the old days needed to rest from their daily hard routines (in the days when household chores were difficult and most women were anaemic, they never got to rest, this was a good excuse to make them take time out). However as is the case, explaining such things to a largely illiterate and superstitious population is hard. So it is intertwined with some spirituality and some superstition. But then such attitudes are hard to wipe away. Confronted by colonisation and Westernisation, such 'traditions' resist change. They become deeply embedded in cultures and then in the name of political correctness, acceptable. Never mind if it is degrading to women and very patriarchal.
As a doctor back in India I have prescribed hormones to women who wish to postpone their periods in order to fit in religious festivals, including fasting during Ramadan and the Jain festival of Paryushan.(Although the Koran is very specific about menstruating and lactating women going on a fast. The Jain scriptures must be too.) As a woman I have been told not to go into temples when I menstruate and places that are taboo for me.
How does this fit into our lives in this current world? Indian women resist such social attitudes now. They work, they are independent, they live in nuclear families. Many even go to temples.
she thinks such practices can and should be challenged from women living within the culture/faith tradition.
i can't say i know anything much about the christian tradition. i only recall reading a verse of the bible when i was young, which seemed to imply that menstruation and labour pains were a curse on all women, in punishment for eve causing the whole fall from grace thing. i'm sure others will correct me if i'm wrong about this, and if there are any other traditions or restrictions around menstruation.
i found something about jewish restrictions at wikipedia. here's an article that goes the menstrual taboos among major religions, and who knew that there is even a museum of menstruation. woohoo!!
there is the one thing that seems to be common amongst all cultural and religious traditions when it comes to periods: that it is hidden from the public discourse, that it is hidden from the private sphere as well. other than their husbands, most women will not reveal in public that they have their periods. they'll be happy enough to mention to other women (though not always, in parts of the world even that seems to be a no-no). but no way will they mention it in a mixed gathering.
i accept that it is a personal event for most women, and i'm not saying that it's something we should have to share. but wouldn't it be nice if we could share it without having to feel embarassed? wouldn't it be nice if you could casually mention at your workplace or any social setting that you had your period, and it would be no big deal? well, i may be the only one, but i think that would be a great state of affairs.
i hate how issues of menstruation and childbirth have been treated as "women's issues", which men are supposed to keep well clear of and know nothing about. yes, that is changing somewhat, especially because of the advertising industry and the greater tendency of fathers to be present at the birth of their kids. but there's still a lot of cultural baggage there. it would be nice if the functioning of women's bodies could be treated as a normal, natural & openly-discussed thing.
*ETA: as maia points out in comments, this title is exclusionary, and my apologies for that. i took it from the alice cooper song, which is actually about domestic violence but has a double entendre that i thought fit the topic at hand. obviously i didn't think it about it enough.
**ETA2: i thought i'd put this comment into the post as well as in comments, as it pertinent to my understanding of the restrictions:
I liked your post about this, but I don't think you should make a blanket statement that women are not allowed to touch the Quran during menstruation. This isn't a universal position - many scholars say that there is no problem with touching the Quran while menstruating, while even the most conservative on this point make exceptions for women who are teaching or studying the Quran.
Similar disagreements exist in relation to women being in the masjid while menstruating - it's not a universally accepted restriction.