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Why We Need To Question The ‘Religion’ Behind Age-Old Menstrual Taboos In India

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By Sakshi Jain:

For a long time, menstruation has been recognized as a taboo especially in the realm of religion, regarding it as unclean and impure, and barring menstruating women from holy rites or shrines. The clash between religion and gender equality in reference to impositions on ‘menstruating women’ is an age old myth. Harping on to the history of religions across the world, most religions refer to menstruating women as ritually unclean.

Stigmatization 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. According to a ritual, an Orthodox Jewish wife is responsible for immersing in the ‘Mikvah’, the ritual bath, and only then will she become ‘ritually clean’ apart from the other norms.

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 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 the 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 known as tamas (darkness or obscurity). According to Hindu culture, women aren’t allowed to visit temples while menstruating. The boards outside the temples generally read: ‘Ladies in monthly period are not allowed.’

Drawing from these ideas of Hindu religious and cultural values, the Sabrimala temple in Kerala restricts women from the age bracket of 10-50 years from entering the temple. 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 seem to infringe the right to equality guaranteed to the citizens irrespective or the religion and gender. Women activists have slammed such religious bigotism and urged the need to do away with these discriminatory practices.

Recently, the Supreme Court’s challenge to this custom of banning women from entering the Sabrimala temple and holding this practice as unconstitutional seems like a great step towards addressing these entrenched social inequalities. However, this also points towards the clash between the religious norms or the sentiments attached and gender equality.

The Conflict Between Religious Beliefs And Gender Equality

menstruation period
Source: Jaipur women blog

The Hindu religious trends seem to be contradictory to their practices. For instance, the temple of Goddess Kamakhya Devi, in the West of Guwahati, Assam has no sculptures to worship; only Kamakhya’s yoni or vagina is worshipped. The temple also has an annual fertility festival called Ambuwasi Puja in which the goddess is said to be going through her yearly menstrual cycle. The temple remains closed for three days and opens up with great festivities on Day 4. Whether, it is real blood or not is unanswered but a religion that worships this but forbids women devotees to enter the temple is ironical and brings the discourse of gender equality to the front. There is a tendency to dismiss these rituals as superstitions without investigating enough the knowledge or wisdom behind these practices. Moreover, to believe or not to believe such rituals should be a matter of personal chance and not an imposed restriction that seems to reinforce the patriarchal structures of the society.

On the other hand, it is believed that our body contains five Pranas which means energy. Any obstruction to the free flow of any of these Pranas causes imbalance and disease. During most religious chants, a release of energy happens which tends to balance the five Pranas in our body. However, it is also believed that during menstruation there is a release of one of the Pranas, for good reason, which allows for the outward flow of impure physical elements as well as for repressed emotions in women. Since religious ceremonies are known to balance all the five Pranas, it meddles with the release of negative energy from women’s body. Thus, menstruating women are recommended to be away during such occasions, so that their natural processes are not tampered with.

Aa simple biological process has been subjected to dispensable debate in the political and social sphere. Earlier, due to lack of awareness, people thought that religious restrictions would be the best way to prevent women from public interaction and consider them inauspicious or impure but the rationality of such restrictions needs to be questioned and the age-old fear of being inauspicious and sinful while menstruating needs to be alleviated.

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  1. shaun

    Solid proof that religion is manmade. Literally “man”.

    1. Anonymous


  2. Lesta Trepati

    It is very refreshing to see somebody actually talking about the origins of these taboos, rather than just expressing their own( or reiterating somebdy else's) take on it…… This is what we need, an inquisitive mind that understands why it started and how it has been twisted today. A lot of these taboos have very logical origins behind them, which are infact, helpful to girls themselves, during periods. Like you said, the way it is put forth is not quite right….. .
    Here is a very informative article that gives a more detailed insight on menstruation taboos with explanations to some of them with respect to the energies that you've mentioned here…….

  3. khushboo

    The above topic beautifully highlights the main issue of india
    In some places they are not betrayed of entering temples but also in many houses they cant even touch anything during menstruation the thingswhich are regularly used by everyone. Still dont understand the reason about it. Menstruation is just a a way in which body gets cleaned. It has no connection with god. All the processes that undergoes in our body is said to be controlled by god than why menstruation not considered a good days it is also a part of life cycle given by god to special kings of human beings i.e women

  4. Nona

    This is exactly why, even if it were allowed, I’ll never enter a temple. They’re pretty much repositories of awful discrimination and harmful traditions. Glad for the women who believe in it and want to engage in it though, and their right to do so.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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