Muslims love to brag about how the status of women was elevated from the backward practices found in earlier Judaic and Christian societies with the revelation of the Qur’an. Plenty of comparisons between Islam and Judeo-Christian traditions are available, highlighting categorical differences on divorce, inheritance, property ownership, education, and much more. However, as a revert from Catholicism, it is almost as if with the melodious utterance of the declaration of faith, menstruation became a monthly preoccupation, and every four weeks MC Hammer’s lyrics “You can’t touch this” began to play in my head.
Amongst the strictest interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence, Muslim women cannot touch, read or recite the Qur’an, nor can they enter the mosque, perform their five daily prayers, fast, make the circumambulation around the Kaabah or engage in sexual intercourse during their menses. It’s as if with the appearance of a drop of blood, a period of worship abstinence begins, and a bloody barrier is raised between a woman and her Lord.
These prohibitions are reminiscent of the Judeo-Christian tradition of the “Red Tent”, the scene of menstruating women quarantined away from society to prevent contagion engraved in my mind. However, unlike the women of ancient times who used the imposed seclusion and camaraderie of their sisters to enrich each other spiritually, many Muslim women welcome menstruation as a sort of spiritual vacation. They consider it a break from daily worship, an opportunity to relax and socialize without having to keep a watchful eye on the clock for prayer times. After all, if they abide by the strictest of interpretations on the matter, then to engage in most forms of worship while menstruating is tantamount to sin.
Alternatively, the more moderate Islamic interpretations offer a long list of meticulous rules that allow women to reclaim some pieces of their ritualistic routine. For example, menstruating Muslim women can touch the Qur’an, if a certain percentage of the text is in a language other than Arabic (this is one time “foreign” sisters have the upper hand over Arabic-speaking ones). They can enter the mosque, only if they confine themselves to a faraway corner of the prayer hall or sit on chairs rather than directly on the mosque floor– even when equipped with a missile sized tampon and/or an ultra-heavy-duty tripled-layered winged artifact. They can take contraceptive pills in preparation for performing the pilgrimage to Mecca to avoid wasting the trip.
While in no way minimizing Allah’s directives, I wonder how many of the menstrual rulings would be more accurately categorized as cultural dogma rather than religious doctrine. As a Muslim revert, the answer to this question would satisfy far more than an academic curiosity; it would have a direct and tangible impact on my day-to-day spirituality. So I, along with hundreds of thousands of my Muslim sisters, can’t help but ask to what extent have cultural traditions infiltrated our understanding of menstruation?
Take the following hadith, narrated by Aisha, one of Prophet Muhammad’s wives: “The messenger of Allah said to me: ‘Get me the mat from the mosque.’ I said: ‘I am menstruating.’ Upon this he remarked: ‘Your menstruation is not in your hands.'” This hadith clearly debunks the idea that a woman’s entire body is impure while she is menstruating. In its candor, the hadith clarifies that blood may be emanating intermittently between a woman’s legs, but the rest of her body–and mind & soul—is not bleeding and somehow sullied. Yet, this is precisely the understanding many Muslim men and women have of the state of a female’s physical body, as well as her spirituality, while she is menstruating—unclean and impure. Why? Could the conflation of culture and religion be to blame?
For a healthy pre-menopausal woman, menstruation lasts anywhere between five to ten days and comes every month like clockwork, which translates to worst case scenario 10 days x 12 months = 120 days. So for roughly four months a year a woman is barred from performing most forms of daily worship. For the “irregular” woman, menses can be MIA for months, or appear three times in a single month, making the total number of days a woman bleeds more like half a year.
Now bear with me for the logic on this– if Allah ordained menstruation for the daughters of Adam, and Allah in His wisdom asked women to abstain from certain acts of worship during their menses, would He then penalize women for obeying Him by not performing those acts of worship? This is the strange, paradoxical reasoning of many Muslim men (and women!) who wholeheartedly believe women can never achieve the same or higher spiritual status than their male counterparts simply because they take a mandatory worship break during their menses. Call me biased, but certainly the Creator would not gift the “lesser” spiritual being with a womb to experience and witness the miracle of creation.
The purpose of menstruation is simply to rid a woman’s body of toxins, but more importantly to allow her to carry life. Being discharged of some of our ritual obligations during a period of occasional pain and discomfort is a blessing. So let us accept the blessing graciously, utilizing the downtime to camp in our spiritual “red tent,” a monthly retreat, for study, reflection, and most importantly, supplication, to draw closer to Allah, not farther away from Him. But as intelligent daughters of Adam let us be more skeptical of cultural traditions masquerading as religious ones—such as the idea that because we bleed we are deficient and can’t never reach the same spiritual status as men.
(Photo Credit: crystiancruz)
Enith Morillo is a scientist by profession and a writer by passion. Her writing is featured in “Many Poetic Voices, One Faith” and “Many Voices, One Faith II: Islamic Fiction Stories.” She is also the Communications Director for the grass-root movement Healthy Families Initiative, a program dealing with domestic abuse in the Rhode Island Muslim community. You can contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.