Reproductive Rights, Gender, Wellness, Inequality

Accepting periods could restore women’s religious freedom in India

Religions that prohibit menstruating women from performing prayers should take a closer look at period blood

“What are you doing? Step down from the jaanamaz (prayer mat) right now,” my mother exclaimed.

Being born in a practicing Muslim household, I was told that one was not meant to be disturbed while offering prayers. So at 14, I was perplexed at my mother for calling me out in the middle of prayer. I turned to question her, just for my mother to angrily respond, “you’re on your period! How can you be touching the prayer items!”

This was my introduction to being considered unclean in the eyes of God when menstruating.

I learned that menstruating women could not pray, observe fasts, or enter shrines. Once the period ended, you were supposed to perform a ghusl (bath) to cleanse yourself of the impurities. Only then could you perform prayers again.

Gradually, I recognized that calling menstruating women unclean had debilitating effects on the perception of women in general. In association with this rule, women were considered weak, incapable of handling the heavy workload, and believed to be carriers of germs.

Prohibiting menstruating women from praying or entering religious places is a discriminatory practice, whose origins were once seen as rational, but the continuation of which is purely misogynistic.

Religions like Islam and Judaism have strict rules for menstruating women, and a mandatory bath post the menstruation cycle.

Hinduism carries the same pre-textual understanding of menstruating women. In some cases, menstruating women are not allowed to enter kitchens. And in certain rural parts of Nepal, they are forced to live in cow shelters as quarantine measures.

In a tragic outcome of this practice, a 14-year-old girl lost her life during a cyclone that hit the state of Tamil Nadu in November. Vijaya was menstruating and was mandated to stay in a shelter away from her family’s hut, which came in the path of the Cyclone Gaja’s destruction. Vijaya’s cries could not be heard and her body was later recovered from the debris.

A tragedy like this implores us to question these practices that place women’s lives and rights in danger. What kind of future are we creating when we continue to uphold such inhumane practices?

One common denominator amongst all these religions, is the idea of keeping their religious places or gods, clean of menstruating women’s presence. A belief that continues to prevent women from entering places of worship on their own will.

Sabarimala in South India is a temple that continues to obey such practices by not allowing women between the ages of 10-50 to enter the sanctum. The temple is devoted to the Hindu god, Ayyappa, who is believed to be a celibate. Menstruating women are thus considered possible distractions on his journey and space of pure presence.

However, in September of this year, the Supreme Court passed a judgment allowing women to enter the Sabarimala temple, calling the prohibition a rigorous patriarchal custom. What followed next was an intense mobilization of devotees and priests to overturn the judgment. The tension has ensured that despite the judicial ruling, not a single woman has been able to enter the Sabarimala temple yet.  The government meanwhile is trying to mediate between the court’s ruling and the masses.

The question central in this debate is, is menstrual blood impure? The answer is no.

Period discharge comprises blood, endometrial fluid and tissue, cervical and vaginal mucosa, and microbes present in the vagina. In fact, period blood is the same as arterial blood. Meaning that menstrual blood is devoid of any impurities, and does not carry any pathogens.

Hence, the entire premise of prohibiting menstruating women from entering religious places or praying is flawed. Rooted in misogyny and sexism, this prohibition is a clear violation of the basic right to freedom of religious practice.

The decision to pray or not to pray should reside with the women. In dictating terms of religious practice based on one’s reproductive system, the patriarchy continues to exert its power and control over them. 

Discriminatory practices should not continue under the garb of tradition. Customs dating back to early centuries should be re-examined in the light of gender equality and mutual respect for every devotee.

Whether it is entering Sabarimala or performing Namaz, it is paramount to respect selfless devotion, which forms the basis of any religion.

Impurity does not stem from menstruation, rather from harboring ill feelings against another person. Believing a devotee to not be “clean enough to worship” is cruel and outright bigotry.

Religion is a personal relationship between a person and their idea of God. Intervention by third-party members, calling themselves upholders of a religious practice, is unacceptable, to say the least. 

What happened to Vijaya is a wake-up call for each one of us. If religious customs are not called out for their misogyny and ignorance, we as a human collective have failed.