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

Posted on January 14, 2016 in Menstruation, Society, Taboos

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.