A photograph in the “Toronto Star” shows three rows of young Muslim females, all students at Valley Park Middle school, prostrating their heads in unison on a crisp white sheet in the school cafeteria as they say one of the five daily prayers. A short distance behind them, are eight girls wearing modest clothing and neatly wrapped headscarves who sit quietly, conspicuous in their observation, rather than active participation, in the communal prayer.
The back row is precluded from joining its peers because these girls have their period. And this exclusion is part the rationale behind a campaign to squash the observance of Friday Muslim prayers at the Toronto public school. What began as a push to keep Canadian public schools secular has now evolved into a larger debate on women’s rights.
The campaign, spear-headed by a group called Canadian Hindu Advocacy (CHA) rests in the idea that the 300 Muslim students at Valley Park Middle school should not be excused from 30 minutes of class for prayer services because this treatment amounts to favoritism and undermines the secular nature of Canadian public schools. The Ontario Human Rights Code, however, requires schools and workplaces to accommodate religious beliefs. The large Muslim population at this particular school prompted officials to come up with a solution to minimize the amount of lost school time. Prior to the school’s decision to dedicate a time and space to Friday afternoon prayers, students would leave the campus grounds to observe prayers at a nearby mosque.
While the goal of the CHA, as well as their two allies, the Jewish Defense League and the Costas Christian Mission, was not to demonize Islam, the photograph has done some PR damage to the faith. “Menstruating girls confined to the back of the room,” read major publications, “because of their ‘unclean’ time of month.” Editorials ask if we have stumbled into the “Middle Ages.” And blogs join in the media tirade with incendiary comments like, “They’re female, so they have to sit behind the boys because they’re second-class,” they quip, “but does the entire school have the right to know they are menstruating?” And on and on they go.
Cringe. How do we explain this well accepted injunction that precludes menstruating women from observing a major tenant of Islam, the five daily prayers?
From my personal exploration into this issue over the past few years, I have come across a variety of explanations and interpretations by both Islamic thinkers and lay people, with many in support of the injunction and a few who have their doubts.
1. Women are in a vulnerable state during their menses. This is a popular one amongst many ‘aunties’ and even imams who reason that since menstruating women often endure painful cramps and are often more fatigued than normal, they should see the ruling as a grace period. They reference the first portion of the Quranic verse 2:222 to explain their position:
They question thee (O Muhammad) concerning menstruation. Say: It is an illness, so let women alone at such times and go not in unto them [for sexual relations] till they are cleansed. And when they have purified themselves, then go in unto them as Allah hath enjoined upon you. Truly Allah loveth those who turn unto Him, and loveth those who have a care for cleanness. (Pickthall)
Though this verse is speaking to husbands about sexual intercourse and not prayer, many traditionalists believe that the word “illness,” (which can also be translated as “discomfort,” “vulnerability,” or “a hurt and pollution”) to describe menstruation makes clear that a woman in this state is weak and therefore unable to perform the five daily prayers.
2. It’s not gender discrimination; it is simply a matter of ritual purity. Other Islamic thinkers focus on the latter portion of the Quranic verse mentioned above. They deduce that if women need to “purify” themselves after their period, then these women must be ritually impure during their period. Since other Quranic verses state that ritual purity is a prerequisite to prayer, it seems logical to infer that menstruating women are precluded from observing the obligatory prayers. This is not to say that Muslim women who have their period are considered physically unclean, stress scholars like Faraz Rabbani who appreciate menstruation as a natural, vital, and healthy process. A famous hadith narrated by the Prophet’s wife Aisha aptly illustrates this point.
“The Messenger of God said to me, ‘Get me the prayer mat from the prayer area.’ I replied, ‘I am menstruating.’ He said, ‘Verily, your menstruation is not [located] in your hand.’” (Muslim)
The Islamic definition of impurity should put to ease the minds of those who suspect that misogyny is at hand when it comes to the impermissibility of ritual prayer for menstruating Muslim women. There are two forms of ritual impurity–minor and major. Examples of minor forms include urination, defecation, and flatulence and require ablution to restore a state of purity. Major forms include menstruation for women, ejaculation for men, and sexual intercourse for both. Both sexes must take purificatory baths to regain a state of ritual purity.
3. The ruling is not found in the Quran. Popular blogger, Wood Turtle, makes a compelling case that the ruling is not derived from the Quran, but rather is rooted in prophetic tradition alone. Relying on Muhammad Asad’s translation of the Quran and referring to legal positions outlined in Fiqh us-Sunnah and Imam Malik’s Muwatta, she says:
“…The Qur’an does not mention menstruation in regards to prayer or even impurity. Even if you cite the above verse [2:222] as requiring women to “cleanse” themselves because they are impure — it’s within the context of sexual intercourse, not prayer. In verses 4:43 and 5:6, the Qur’an sets out the actions required to make one ritually pure for prayer and lists “calls of nature” and sexual intercourse as the breakers of one’s ritual purity” but not menstruation.
Wood Turtle does acknowledge that numerous credible hadith clearly indicate that during the time of the Prophet women did not pray while menstruating and she does not dispute the injunction.
4. Pray anyway. From reading member discussions on a Muslims for Progressive Values web-based group, I learned how some women struggled with reconciling this injunction with their modern day sensibilities. A few of these women disclosed that they pray during their period. One of whom reasoned that if it truly was God’s command then it would have been explicitly stated in the Quran as menstruation affects one quarter of a woman’s life during her reproductive years. Another woman reasoned that it is the exteriorization of the menstrual blood that makes women ritually impure, and not the period itself. If the blood is contained with a tampon, she says, then women should be permitted to pray. Many group members, however, accept the injunction. One woman in particular does so, however, with a twist: during your period, she says, pray as you normally would with one small difference — leave out the niyyat (intention) that is made at the start of each obligatory prayer.
5. It’s not just us. Along with Muslims, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and Hindus also share a history of limiting the practices of menstruating women. Orthodox Jewish women do not engage in sexual relations during their periods and must immerse themselves in the mikvah (living water) for seven days after the menstruation in order to attain a state of purity and resume intimacy with their spouses. Menstruating women abstain from communion at some Orthodox Christian churches, while Zoroastrian and Hindu customs do not permit women to enter the temples during their periods or allow them to cook for their families. This shared attitude towards menstruation leads some Muslims to feel that they should not be the only ones singled out for observing a tradition rooted in respected faiths from around the world.
The “mosqueteria” controversy has garnered a good deal of attention in the media over the past few months and one wonders how the young school girls are coping with the intense media scrutiny placed on such a private and new phase of their womanhood. It’s difficult to predict how these girls feel or what they were taught about the ruling to abstain from the otherwise obligatory prayers during their period. At this early stage in life, some of these young ladies likely accept the injunction as a cultural truism, or an accustomed practice that is accepted with little questioning.” What we can guess with more certainty is that aside from fulfilling a sense of religious duty, the Valley Park Middle School girls likely attend the prayer service to feel a sense of belonging and sisterhood with their Muslim peers — a critical element of adolescent self-discovery. Heck, they may even enjoy missing a little class! Is that so wrong?
Shazia Riaz is the Events & Publicity Editor for AltMuslimah.