Saturday, 16 October 2010

only women bleed*

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.


katy said...

It is interesting learning about these things!

From living in Japan I am aware that menarche (the first period) is celebrated i families through the eating of a special dish called "sekihan". Sekihan is rice that has been cooked with azuki beans which gives the rice a red colour. Sekihan is eaten at other special times of the year as well as red is symbolic of celebration. This dish is eaten by the family when a girl has her first period in order to celebrate the occasion. From what I have heard younger siblings, for example, might not get the full significance of the eating of the dish and it will not be made explicit but older members of the family will understand.

I am not sure how old this custom is and I wonder if it is a Shinto pre-Buddhist tradition. From what I understand Buddhism has been influenced by Hindu beliefs which include the idea that menstruating women should not enter temples. I have come across a Japanese "menstruation sutra" which teaches the way for women to achieve salvation due to the pollution of blood. I also have a vague memory of a religious picture I saw of the "blood death hell" which I recall depicted hell as a pool of menstrual blood or somesuch.

However, I think that Buddhist rituals are less important on a day-to-day basis than older Shinto rituals (a bold claim perhaps?) so I suspect that the red rice ritual is more widely celebrated than the Buddhist sutras mentioned are known?? (I would be surprised if my Japanese husband knows of these, for example, as they are a bit esoteric).

Anonymous said...

In cultures where there are simultaneously restrictions on what a menstruating woman can do and taboos on talking about "women's issues" how do you negotiate that? Is there a sort of agreement where if a woman says "I'm not going to the Mosque today" no one is allowed to ask why?

For me part of keeping my periods private is in not changing my activities in any noticeable sense.

stargazer said...

hungrymamma, it can get tricky at times. women don't tend to go to the mosque regularly in muslim countries (and very rarely in the indian sub-continent), so that isn't much of an issue. it's more around fasting time, when they make a big effort to hide when they eat during the day. it seems to be such an unnecessary lot of mucking around. in some families here, all the people within the family will know when you have your period, and that is considered no big deal & nothing to hide. if people want to keep their periods private, that's up to them. but i don't think they should have to.

katy said...

"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?"

I just saw this.. Interesting point! Perhaps this isn't the place to go into this here but from talking to friends over the years I think that a restriction in this area would be unwelcome among some women at least.

Alison said...

The quote that Katy pulled out in the previous comment struck me too, for different reasons. It seemed so oddly unexamined in the midst of a post about cultural attitudes to menstruation. Isn't the idea that sex during menstruation is yucky just all tied up in our idea that menstruation is dirty? I can see various reasons why a woman might not want to have sex at that time - physical discomfort perhaps, or the logistics of dealing with possible staining for instance - but I'm at a loss to see why you'd assume it's so yucky that women would universally prefer not to have sex at then. Apart from the aforementioned possibility of staining, what makes menstrual blood more intrinsically yucky than semen, which many women come in contact with during sex?

In regards to the question "why would you want to?" I imagine the answer for many women would be the same as at any other time of their cycle - because you feel like having sex, whether for physical pleasure or emotional intimacy or both!

stargazer said...

i guess that's why i said it was "my own personal reaction" rather than a universal one.

Hugh said...

I would love to hear the perspective of a Muslim woman who does enjoy having sex while menstruating and her thoughts on this part of the Qoran.

Hugh said...

Actually, come to think of it - is the stipulation usually interpreted to mean any sexual activity while menstruation is undesirable, or just vaginal penetration?

Maia said...

This is a great post, and an interesting hting to talk about.

I want to raise a point that's been on my mind in the recent abortion campaigns.

There's a slogan that is sometimes is used in the abortion rights movement: "Men can't get pregnant" - and I think this is problematic, because transmen can get pregnant.

I think the same problem exists with the title of this post as well. Cis-men don't bleed, but some transmen do. I don't want the Hand Mirror to exclude trans experiences, and I think the title of this post does.

katy said...

Alison, thanks for that, that was much of what I was thinking. The contraceptive angle (ie, it is a less fertile time) is the other significant reason I could think of why a restriction on sex during menstruation wouldn't be in the interests of some women.

Since I don't go to a temple or church, of the restrictions mentioned this is probably the only one I can imagine being relevant to me which is maybe why it caught my eye.

I know that there are women who work hard with themselves and their partners to overcome ideas about sex during menstruation being dirty.

Hugh said...

it would be nice if the functioning of women's bodies could be treated as a normal, natural & openly-discussed thing.

...while at the same time no women should ever feel pressured to talk about it if she doesnt want to no matter how natural some man feels it is

A Nonny Moose said...

A couple of interesting posts round the blogosphere that link into this discussion:

Raising My Boychick did a review of a book about menstruation, and mentions the sometimes exclusion of non-cis women, trans and intersex into this discussion.

Also, over at Shakesville they did an open thread on sex during menstruation. It was a very honest discussion, with How Tos and how to talk about it.

stargazer said...

@hugh: the prohibition is only for penis in vagina intercourse. other stuff is fine. good luck with finding such a woman who wants to discuss the intimate details of her sex life on a blog. there may be someone out there who wants to share, who knows. as for your last comment, i think i already made that point at 3.03pm on saturday.

@maia: sorry, i took the title from the alice cooper song, which isn't actually about menstruation but has the strong double entendre that made us giggle as teenagers. didn't think about the wider implications.

Amelia said...


In the Old Testament of the bible there were Jewish restrictions around menstruating women (in Leviticus 12). Menstruating women were unclean while bleeding and couldn't have sex with their husbands. They had to purify themselves afterward they finished menstruating.

In modern Christianity, however, there are no restrictions around menstruation... except in Orthodox parts of the Catholic church. Menstruating women aren't supposed to enter Greek Orthodox churches (in some other Catholic Orthodox churches they may enter but they can't take communion). Menstruation has occassionally been used as a reason why women shouldn't be ordained as priests(some people think that menstruating women would make the altar 'unclean').

Personally I find the menstrual tabboos and restrictions of some religions really strange, and a bit offensive. I'm not unclean for 1/4 of every month simply because I am a woman. My blood isn't unclean, and I don't think it should prevent me from reading the Quran or any other holy book.

I am a Christian feminist. In the church that I've been raised in I've encountered no more sexism than I have in society-at-large. However, every now and then very conservative Christians have told me that I'm not allowed to do certain spiritual things simply because I am a woman. For instance, in some very conservative Christian circles, I am not allowed to read scripture aloud because that would be 'preaching' and women aren't allowed to preach - I am not allowed to teach men on spiritual matters (although for some reason I am allowed to teach children!). I'd love to know why conservative Christians have a problem with letting women preach. I think it is because women are seen as more sinful(because Eve ate the apple first) or perhaps simply because we are seen as less like God (because God is a 'man').

To me, people who argue that women can't preach, read scripture or pray are just like the people who say that women can only do those things when they are not menstruating ('unclean'). Both types of restrictions against women view women as less perfect and 'holy' than men, and therefore as more distant from God.

I see God as genderless (equally male & female, because he created both women and men in 'his' image). I don't see why God would make a woman menstruate for a quarter of every month & then reject her during that time because she was too 'unclean'.

It reminds me of Gloria Steinem's comment, if men could menstruate "menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event" - if men could menstruate it would no longer be considered something 'unclean' that kept people at a greater distance from God.

Anonymous said...


Sorry, I think I posted my comment three times - I didn't mean to! Please delete the repeats ;)

stargazer said...

done :)

Anonymous said...

Stargazer, I think women would be more likely to discuss details of their sex life when the author of the post they're commenting on doesn't describe their sex practices as "yucky", and questions why they would even want to have sex like that.

(By the way, you've already discussed your sex life on a blog by saying you don't have sex while on your period, a woman saying they do is no more "intimate" than that.)


stargazer said...

sigh, pj, i don't see that my stating that i don't like something for myself is such a big deal. everyone has personal preferences of things they don't like and things they do like. if my saying i personally have an aversion to something results in someone not sharing on this thread, so be it. i note that other commentors have felt free to disagree with me on this point, but there are other posters at this blog and people are welcome to take the discussion to another post if that makes them more comfortable. and we are always open to guest posts.

given that prohibition of intercouse during menstruation is common to a number of cultures and religions, i'd suspect it's more the prohibition that may be a deterrent to someone disclosing they weren't following a particular ruling, rather than anything i've said. or they may be happy to say they follow x religion/culture but don't agree with this particular ruling. i think the latter would be much easier to discuss than asking for someone to disclose if they were having intercourse during their period the way hugh has done.

stargazer said...

just got this comment via email, which i thought was pertinent:

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
[mosque] while menstruating - it's not a universally accepted restriction.

Alison said...

stargazer I'm going to pop my head up again to support pj. I feel like you dismissed our comment/criticism on the basis that it wasn't your intent to cast aspersions on anyone else's sexual practices. I understand that, I get that it was a personal opinion, but I still take issue with the phrase "why would you want to?" (emphasis mine), which explicitly turns your personal opinion outwards to reflect on others, unintentional or not. My frustration is that that very phrase is used widely to undermine others' choices. It's a way that many people control women - "oh, it's your choice to be a working mum, but I just think, why would you want to?"

I don't think you are trying to control or judge anyone, but I do think that the phrasing has the potential to contribute to cultural ideas about menstruation being dirty - obviously some people felt their own practices were being judged. As feminists we often ask others to consider whether, in spite of their good intentions, their words contribute to oppression or restriction. No one gets it right all the time, and I think we have to be prepared to critique our own language from time to time, if we're going to demand the same of others.

Cara said...

I found this post interesting due to a recent family trip to Bali. We were visting a temple when I was reminded that I shouldn't be in the temple when I was on my period. So, respecting cultural practises I left. The interesting thing was, it was my second period in a month due to me missing my pill, which made me realise that the concept of a 'period' is vastly different from how it once was. When we get our periods on the pill, it isn't our natural period anyway. Also, I am about to get an implant in my arm which is the same as the pill and lasts for 5 years, in which I may not get a period at all. Others 'spot' at random times during their cycle - does this count as a period? It's quite interesting. I don't really view my period on the pill as a period anymore - I don't get PMS or pains or anything, and feel no differently to other times of the month.