By Barbara Alvarez
Freedom From Religion Foundation
Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern
The monthly curse. Her monthly bill. Bloody murder. You’ve probably heard these phrases used to describe menstruation. Menstruation, the vaginal bleeding that occurs when a woman sheds her uterine lining, is a natural part of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Each month, the woman’s body prepares itself for pregnancy. However, if there is no pregnancy, the uterus sheds its lining, resulting in menstruation. Menstruation lasts for typically three to five days and occurs for roughly 40 years of a woman’s life. It is completely natural, normal and, far from being something to be ashamed of, is part of a function that keeps the human species going.
However, a cursory glance at the above euphemisms indicates that societal feelings toward menstruation deem it at best a nuisance and at worse a “curse.” Even seemingly innocent expressions, like Aunt Flo or Surfing the Crimson Wave, belie the discomfort that people feel in discussing menstruation. In short, menstruation remains a cultural taboo — despite the fact that it impacts millions of girls and women throughout the world every single day. Much of this can be attributed to religious texts that describe women who are menstruating as unclean and in need of purification.
Major religions across the world have texts and rituals that dictate what women can and cannot do when they menstruate. For example, the bible very clearly equates menstruation to uncleanliness. Leviticus 15:18-33 goes into great detail that whenever a woman has her menstrual period, she is unclean for seven days. Anything and anyone that she touches will also be unclean: “Every bed whereon she lieth all the days of her issue shall be unto her as the bed of her separation: and whatsoever she sitteth upon shall be unclean, as the uncleanness of her separation. And whosoever toucheth those things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening.” In fact, a woman must seek purification from a priest or a rabbi on the eighth day by presenting either two pigeons or turtle doves as an act of redemption.
In Leviticus 18-19, sexual intercourse with a mensturating woman is considered as unlawful as incest and bestiality The Babylonian Talmud even reserves the death penalty for men who have sexual intercourse with a woman who is menstruating. Other biblical verses describe how menstruation can bar a man from righteousness. For example, Ezekiel 18: 5-9 describes a righteous man as one who “doesn’t approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity” and Ezekiel 22:10 commands that a man does not “violate women during their period, when they are ceremonially unclean.”
From a text that punishes women who dare to seek intellectual enlightenment, this is hardly surprising. In fact, this degrading rhetoric is in step with Genesis 3:14, in which God tells women: “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” In essence, women are worthy of punishment for simply existing. Ideology about the impurity of menstruation is an extension of this subordination.
To be sure, Christianity is not the only religion that stigmatizes menstruation. Islam commands that people keep away from women until they have cleansed themselves and Buddhism prevents menstruating women from entering temples. Hinduism directs that women not enter a temple or even their own kitchens. In fact, it forbids menstruating women from sleeping in the daytime, speaking loudly or touching other humans. In some cultures, women are relegated to “menstrual huts” where they are effectively exiled from their families while they are considered “unclean.” Alone and with hardly any resources, girls and women are at risk for physical assaults, snake bites, freezing temperatures, and suffocation from lack of ventilation in these crude huts.
In India, as many as 23 million girls drop out of school every year when they start menstruating, not just due to shame but due to lack of access to menstrual hygiene products. The United Nations estimates that one in 10 girls in Africa miss school because of their periods each year because they lack access to menstrual hygiene and supportive schools.
In western countries like the United States, menstruation is considered abnormal. Even commercials for sanitary pads and tampons use unnatural blue liquid to demonstrate absorption — further shaming the natural process of vaginal bleeding. Costly prices and sales taxes for menstrual hygiene products prevent students, inmates, low-income, and homeless women from obtaining care that is necessary throughout their reproductive lives. “Period poverty” is a top reason why U.S. girls miss school, with one study finding that one in five teenage girls can’t afford to purchase menstrual hygiene products.
When discussing reproductive rights, menstruation often gets overlooked. This is a mistake. Religious texts, steeped in patriarchal rhetoric and ideals, have contributed to a culture of shame and health inequality. Efforts to abolish the “tampon tax” and provide free products in schools, homeless shelters and prisons are important measures that can help destigmatize menstruation. Menstruation is a secular issue that should not be dismissed. Period.