By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Co-president and co-founder
Freedom From Religion Foundation
How refreshing to see Meghan Markle use her royal celebrity to call attention to the discrimination worldwide against menstruating girls and women. She made her comments during a panel in London on International Women’s Day (March 8, still a big deal in almost every country except the United States, it seems).
Pointing out that many young women in developing countries are forced to withdraw from schooling or the job market because they lack access to sanitary pads, the remarkable Markle, who is pregnant, said: “At the end of the day, we’re doing our part just to normalize the conversation. That’s the first step. This is 50 percent of the population that’s affected by something, that can also end up creating the most beautiful thing in the world. So it’s a strange one that it’s ended up becoming so stigmatized.”
Strange, but not surprising, as that stigmatization of course has largely been dictated by patriarchal religions.
The “unclean sex”
The Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions share in common the ludicrously squeamish, woman-hating injunctions in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bibles. I devote an entire chapter, “The Unclean Sex: ‘Her Filthiness Is In Her Skirts,’” to the revilement of women in the bible as “unclean” in my book, Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So: The Bible, Female Sexuality and the Law.
Women are once-a-month outcasts, according to the bible, who are menaces to society and must do penance for the natural functions of their bodies. While the bible throws a few damning praises at women’s sexual delights for men in the Song of Solomon, it otherwise treats the female body as a hygienic horror. A menstruous woman is deemed “unclean” for seven days and must be “put apart.” Whoever touches her is unclean, the bed is unclean, the furniture is unclean. (Leviticus 15:19-23) Women, post-period, must offer not only atonement but a macabre burnt offering. The bible specifics “two turtles or two young pigeons,” which must be taken to the priest, who then begs “an atonement for her before the Lord for the issue of her uncleanness.” Have you made your atonement this month, you menstruating woman, you?
But wait — there’s more!
If a man has intercourse with a menstruating woman, and as the bible puts it with unusual delicacy (at least in the King James Version), “her flowers be upon him,” he too is unclean seven days. (Leviticus 15:24) A few chapters later, we’re told this couple must be “cut off” from their people, a frightening sentence in a nomadic society. (Leviticus 20:18) Couples in Israel are still handed instructions on this sanction. It’s not just the Old but the New Testament that perpetuates this stigma. When Jesus’ garb is touched by a “woman with issue” — some poor creature in those days before birth control pills and OB-GYNs, who apparently had been menstruating without cease for years — she is cured, but not before Jesus feels his “virtue” go out. (Mark 5:30)
Even childbirth is unclean, and women’s so-called uncleanliness is the basis of male divorce rights (“because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement.” Deuteronomy 24:1).
The menstrual taboo
But the worst remaining religious stigma seems to be the Hindu taboo against menstruation in Nepal. Earlier this year, the death of Amba Bohara and her two young children focused international attention on the continuing taboo known as “chhaupadi” (in Nepali meaning someone who bears an impurity). The taboo, which regards menstruating women as bad luck if they are touched, requires women to segregate themselves in crude huts. In Bohara’s case, after dutifully feeding the cattle and collecting firewood, she retired into the hut with her two children, 9 and 7. She placed a large stone in front of the door to prevent anyone from entering (perhaps a safety precaution, as segregated women are preyed on by sexual assailants). She and the children were tragically found asphyxiated and charred the next morning.
Women in the menstruation huts, which are often closet-sized and inadequately ventilated, can also freeze to death, or be attacked by snakes, other animals or rapists. Certainly, these claustrophobic outhouses cannot possibly be comfortable, adding to the trials and fatigue already attending monthly periods for many women.
Even though Nepal’s Supreme Court banned the practice in 2005, and the government criminalized the practice in August 2018, the banishment to huts continues, especially in rural areas. A government study has found, up to 50 percent of Nepalese rural women follow chhaupadi. Women, barred from visiting temples washing in communal water sources (when they are in most need of it) or even using other villagers’ kitchen utensils, are banished to crude huts.
Women fighting back
Women are fighting back globally. “Period. End of Sentence,” viewable on Netflix, won the Oscar this year for best short documentary. The slogan for the film is: “A period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education.” After interviewing some young women who had to drop out of school for lack of access to sanitary napkins, the film follows other women in rural India learning how to make low-cost sanitary napkins. As they market the pads, they are not only gaining employment but also, as Feminist Majority Foundation puts it, “leading a quiet revolution against the deeply rooted stigma surrounding menstruation.”
Even in the United States, the worst thing a young teenaged girl has to fear over menstruation isn’t running into a male clerk at the drugstore. It’s lacking money to purchase adequate supplies. This monthly, expensive need has not even been on the charitable radar — until now.
The Alliance for Period Supplies estimates that one in four U.S. women has struggled to purchase supplies in the past year due to lack of income. The need for diapers has been long understood; in fact the Alliance for Period Supplies is an initiative of the National Diaper Bank Network. It’s a travesty that in one of the wealthiest nation of the world, young girls are missing days of classes and freedom of movement, consigned to staying in shame at home, due to lack of basic supplies. Last year, Nonbelief Relief, FFRF’s charitable adjunct (temporarily out of service) gave $2,500 to the Alliance for Period Supplies. Many food drives and banks accept new, donated hygiene projects; an easy way to help is to add period supplies to the list of shampoos, toothbrushes and similar products you may already donate.
On another front, U.S. women legislators are tackling the “tampon tax.” Menstrual products are subject to sales tax in many states that do not tax products such as chapstick, NPR reports. There’s no sales tax for dandruff shampoo or Viagra, yet the majority of states tax the absolutely essential menstrual supplies. Even in states that don’t tax medical or health supplies, tampons are excluded from those tax-exempt categories. And that’s just plain sexist.
Periods Gone Public author Jennifer Weiss-Wolf teamed up with attorney Laura Strausfeld to create Period Equity, a group taking legal challenges and sponsoring legislation to repeal the tampon tax. A charming ad, “Periods are not a luxury, period,” featuring actress Amber Rose, ends: “Tell the government where to stick this tax.”
Meghan Markle is right to wonder how menstruation, which makes possible procreation, could be viewed so negatively. If women had created religions, instead of men, menstruation would be acknowledged with this commandment: “Thou shalt honor and pamper the menstruous woman.”