Menstruation and Religion

Menstruation and Christianity:

In the Old Testament of the Bible there were Jewish restrictions around menstruatingJesus healing the bleeding woman women (in Leviticus 12). Menstruating women were unclean for 7 days and couldn’t have sex with their husbands (men who had a seminal discharge were also considered unclean, until nightfall). A woman had to purify herself after she finished menstruating, until then anything that she touched would be unclean (as would anyone who had touched her, or had been touched by a person who had been in contact with her).

In the Bible, Eve’s curse was pain in childbirth, not menstruation. When Eve disobeys God he tells her, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3). Even though Eve’s curse (in the Bible) was not menstruation, some of the early Christian writers did associate menstruation with women’s sinful nature and Eve’s disobedience. Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) praised menstruating women who chose not to receive communion and stated that, “The menstrous habit in women is no sin, seeing that it occurs naturally; yet that nature itself has been so vitiated as to seem polluted even without human volition.”

During the first 500 years of Christianity menstruation was not considered a curse & there were no restrictions placed on it, however after that some Christian leaders started to see anything to do with sex as bad, including mensturation and pregnancy (read more here). In many churches, menstruating women no longer permitted to enter the church or to take communion. This menstrual taboo was continued by theologians into the Middle Ages.

Menstruating women were not allowed to have sex with their husbands – it was believed that menstrual blood was noxious & would corrupt semen, resulting in the conception of disabled children. Phyisicians in the 16th century (such as Thomas Sanchez and Cardinal Cajetan) began to reject this fear of menstrual blood, and started to view it as harmless. Until quite recently, however, most Christians theologians continued to view sex during menstruation as a sin.

In Christianity, the ‘ritual uncleanness’ of menstruating women soon gave way to the idea that all women (whether menstruating or not) were ‘ritually unclean’, and this idea became part of Catholic Church Law:

In 1140 AD The Law Book of Gratian forbade all women from distributing communion, touching sacred objects, touching or wearing sacred vestments, teaching in church, baptizing people, and from becoming priests or deacons. It also asserted that women were ‘weak of mind’ and not made in the image of God. The Corpus Iuris Canonici (1234 – 1916 AD) prohibited menstruating women from receiving communion. In 1917 the Codex Iuris Canonici still placed heavy restrictions on women (however a specific menstrual restriction was not mentioned): women could not serve Mass or distribute communion, women could not preach or read sacred scripture aloud in church, and women had to be the last choice of minister for baptism. In 1983 many of these prohibitions against women were lifted by the Catholic church (the new Code of Canon Law states that women may preach, lead Mass, and distribute communion).

In modern Christianity there are no restrictions around menstruation except in conservative Orthodox parts of the Catholic church. Menstruating women are still not allowed to take communion in conservative Orthodix Catholic churches (sometimes they are not even allowed enter church). The idea still exists that menstruation makes women ‘unclean’ and this has been used as a reason why women shouldn’t be ordained as priests (they would make the altar ‘unclean’).

Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism & Islam:

Buddhism: I’ve heard that Buddhism has no menstrual restrictions at all (menstruation is just seen as a natural bodily process), however some Buddhist temples do restrict menstruating women from entering them (probably because of the influence that Hinduism has had on Buddhism).

In Judaism, menstrual restrictions are stronger than they are in modern day Christianity, and men are not supposed to have sex with their menstruating wives (Leviticus 12).

In Hinduism, menstruating women are not supposed to enter the temple because they are ‘unclean’, and menstruating women keep away from sacred objects in their homes.

In Islam, menstruating women are not supposed to touch the Quran, enter the Mosque, pray the ‘salat’ (the ritual prayer), or have sex with their husband. They are allowed to meditate or pray in other ways. They may read the Arabic Quran as long as they don’t touch it, or touch and read a translation of the Quran (because the Arabic Quran is the only true Quran). The only specific restriction on menstruating women that is in the Quran itself is that menstruating women should not have sex with their husbands (all the other restrictions are mentioned in various hadiths, which are tools for understanding the Quran).

Are religious menstrual taboos degrading to women?

Personally I find the menstrual taboos and restrictions of some religions really strange, and a bit offensive. I don’t think I should be considered unclean for a sixth of every month simply because I am a woman. I see menstruation as natural and good. I don’t see menstrual blood as something negative/impure that could cause ‘harm’ to sacred objects or places. Menstruation should not separate me from the God who made me.

To me, there is no difference between religious people who place restrictions on all women, and those who place restrictions only on menstruating (‘unclean’) women. I think that both views portray women quite negatively: women are seen as more separated from God and the spiritual world than men are. Women are viewed as less perfect/holy than men because they are more strongly tied to their bodies (menstruation, sexual impurity/sex, pregnancy, childbirth, being a mother). Because women are seen as so strongly tied to their bodies (and therefore to the physical earth), Christianity and other religions have tended to see this as a barrier that prevents women from fully entering the spiritual and holy realm.

I see God as genderless (equally male & female) because  he created both women and men in ‘his’ image. I don’t see why God would make a woman in his image, make her menstruate for a sixth of every month, and then reject her in any way during that time because she was suddenly ‘religiously unclean’. It reminds me of Gloria Steinem’s comment, if men could menstruate “menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event.” I think that if men could menstruate, menstruation would no longer be considered something ‘unclean’ that kept certain people at a greater distance from God.

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26 Responses to Menstruation and Religion

  1. Amy says:

    The reason that some Christian circles prohibit women from teaching to men is because the Bible does state that women are not to teach men. it is supposed to be the man’s job to teach the woman. This does not mean that women are somehow inferior to men because Eve sinned first. But God did create Adam first, and there’s a reason for that. God created Adam first, and Eve was created second…OUT OF Adam, and FOR Adam. Adam was not created out of Eve, Eve was created for Adam. That being said, in God’s eyes, they are both equal. A woman is not going to get less of God’s love or His grace simply because she is female. But a man is supposed to lead the woman; not the other way around.

  2. Francis says:

    I found your article online because I was curious as to why women were made unclean on thier menstrual cycle. I hold that the Bible is the complete revealed word of God. However, alot of the Old testement laws are confusing, and I need to look into them more. Your article was good, but it did not explain my question from Biblical standpoint, only how the church has allowed a law (that possibly may have been for public health concerns of the time, I mean there wasn’t that great of waste management in that time in addition to poor methods of containing the flow; i.e. no tampax) to devalue women, and to that effect this article was informitive.

    One thing did notice about your article was the quote, “I’d love to know why conservative Christians believe that God doesn’t want women to preach.” The only reason we believe this is that it is written in I Timothy, chapter 2.

    “11Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

    It’s very hard scripture, I agree, but it is in the Bible, and that is why Bible believing Christians don’t allow woman preachers, or for women to teach men on spiritual matters. However conservative Christians do not hold that men are more valuable to Christ than women, just that the have been given a different job to do. They are co-heirs to the kingdom.

    Pardon the double post, it was unintentional.

    • atozinco says:

      Hi Francis. As you know there are different ways Christians can interpret Paul’s instruction, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (e.g. that it applies to all women throughout history, or that it applies to women only during the time period that it was written, or that it only applies to the women in the specific church that Paul was writing to). Regardless of how it is interpreted, if that verse is inspired by God I would like to know WHY God made that direction to women. He must have had a reason – is it just a completely arbitrary instruction to test how obedient Christians are? Is it because all men are better leaders than all women? (I doubt it!). Conservative Christians must have thoughts about why God wants all women to not teach, and to submit to their husbands. My mother told me yesterday about a Christian friend she used to have – the friend believed absolutely in full obedience to her husband at all times, pretty much no matter what – she basically believed that her only duty as a Christian woman/wife was to obey her husband. She said that she would even be a prostitute if her husband ordered her to. Huh.

  3. Naomi says:

    Hey, I know this is a bit late but, “Thanks” for writing this article. I was raised in a generation that considered menstration shameful and something “You just don’t talk about, especially in mixed company” and quite frankly I never understood why? Thanks for helping clear things up.

  4. sarah says:

    Your reference to hinduism is correct – though a note should be made. The rules regarding women and menstruation fall under Smriti, not Shruti – Shruti is considered divine, while Smriti is considered “tradition” or “text” – they are inspired by the times one lives in, and are passed down. The practice you are referencing therefore, is not divine law at all – it is an archaic, oppressive one that has unfortunately remained in existence due to other factors, such as general subjugation of women due to patriarchal structures. Shruti includes the Bhagavad Gita – and in it, people are not referred to as men or women, even. They are referred to as souls, and there is no restriction on women being regarded as unclean while menstruating at all. Smriti, tradition, as we all can attest to, regardless of what religion we subscribe to, unfortunately carries with it the stink of male privilege, and other customs. I know the abrahamic religions are especially harsh with this – please note that hinduism has been unfortunately twisted to incorporate this practice that is NOT divinely inspired at all. Luckily for hindus, smriti is mutable – or should be regarded as such since it is literally seen and recognised as a product of the times. Hopefully in future years, such practices will be abolished – it is already true that many other laws derived from smriti-texts are not in practice today. :) this is a good thing. Thanks for your blog. I agree with you, that such practices are ridiculous, that god, if they exist are totally genderless, because anything else alienates an entire gender.

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  6. Priyanka says:

    these are just stupid things to believe in.
    i am an Indian and during menstruation, i am not allowed to go in temples or any sacred place or to touch any sacred objects. nature has gifted this to us females so that we could give birth. And if nature is considered a God too than why is it a sin to have a period or to be a woman. If there ain’t be any woman in this world how would this world full of humans be created. Every great person in this world(i.e. the scientists, engineers, actors, even priests, etc) are created by some woman which is because they menstruated.

  7. I don’t think it makes you unclean or impure beacause it happens to EVERY SINGLE FEMALE and it is a part of nature what makes this world go around :)

  8. Miss T says:

    Amen 2 that sister! Its wierd how men tend 2 think God is also a man & there4 they r mightier than all!

  9. Nehad Maaty says:

    I do like the article and do like how you talked about the topic from many views and many aspects which are so true and I do agree with you too.
    Menstruation should not separate me from the God who made me. LIKE and AGREE :)
    Thanks for the article.

  10. It occurred to me that perhaps women were considered unclean by religion due to the fact that relatively leak proof tampons and other feminine articles may have been more scarce in ancient history.

    Thereby insuring that many women would leave a mess wherever they visit? I am a man so this is pure speculation, but seems logical to me.

    • atozinco says:

      Hi fmach3toofrank, I agree that sanitation/cleanliness issues had something to do with the development of menstrual taboos. Women historically probably used to bleed much more obviously. It would have been difficult for them to deal with the bleeding. Most (all?) women in ancient history didn’t have underwear to hold cloths/pads in place, and many would have lived in places with very limited access to water to rinse out the menstrual cloths and clean their bodies.

      Another reason why menstrual restrictions/taboos developed is because of the strong association that most cultures (and religions) have between blood and death/danger. In many ancient religions, blood is associated with sacrificing animals to a god (often to beg for favour from that god).

      Almost all ancient cultures were male dominant, and that most spiritual leaders were probably male. This may have contributed to the development of the idea that menstruation=harm. For men, blood would be primarily connected with killing animals for food or sacrifice, injury, death, and battle fights. For women, blood is obviously much more normal/commonplace than it is for men. However, women in the ancient world may still have seen blood with fear – especially with its connection to menstrual pain, the danger of childbirth (and maternal/infant deaths), and miscarriages.

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  12. facstud says:

    Hey..i can’t jelp but answer some things..i’m an Orthodox Christian..and here -id est in my country – it is still believed (though there are some exceptions -some persons say one thing, other say other thing, uncertainties, etc) that a woman better stays at home than enter the church during period. (thisis the most restrictive thing) I personally think it’s ok to do so..because..even if i don’t exactly understand why and all stuff, it was also said this way in the Old Testament of Bible ; andif we admit that Moses didn’t lie and really spoke to God..i think that should be obeyed.Otherwise, the greates if all saint is Saint Mary, Mother of God..a woman..who also obeyed the Old Testament rules.Jesus also, respected a custom met only in the old law, that the apostles made it not necessary.So, it’s not such a big drama to respect tradition.Ithink that’s the only reason.

    • atozinco says:

      Hi Facstud, it’s interesting to hear that some Orthodox Christians believe that women should stay home and not go to church when they have their period. I wonder what countries that is practiced in?

  13. neha says:

    Why would God barr anyone from worship?the one who stops us to pray must be the evil not God…!God will always want to be with us….He never can ask not to be near him or not to remeber him 1/6 of a month!!
    We must apply our common sense and believe in him not in whatever we are boasted….!

    • atozinco says:

      Hi Neha – I agree – religious restrictions regarding menstruation baffle me too. I wonder if women who are barred from certain activities due to their periods feel closer to God during that time, anyway? It might be a nice time out for them. Perhaps for some women it means that they can send their kids/husbands off to church and they can stay home in peace & have a quiet moment with God :)

  14. Monica onespot says:

    I believe and have learned that menestration
    Is a sacred time . It a time women could of beared a child. As a women we have many responsibilities . We can bring that gift of life into this world . Therefore in honour of sacred things we should not bring menastration around other sacred things . Many women get offended by this because of egos , but it is a honour and chance for us to rest during that sacred time . No cooking , no attending spiritual ceremonies ,places or touching spiritual things. You will find a common thread is all faiths , but mankind changed the laws of our creator . Now faiths are all weekened because we continue to wash down those laws .

    • atozinco says:

      Hi Monica, I also like to think of menstruation of a sacred time, in a way. The menstrual cycle is complex and special and God did some incredible work when he created it. I think that God has a special place in his heart for the underdogs, for the vulnerable, for the weak, for the marginalised. I think that women have a special place in God’s heart too – perhaps especially when we are excluded from certain religious activities due to menstruation restrictions (or due to rules against women teaching in church etc), and perhaps especially when we have our periods and are at our most vulnerable physically.

  15. Magamy says:

    cool..this is making my life. Thank you for your hard work and rigorous study upon the menstruation matters of our lives.

  16. elika says:

    I’m a Muslim woman :) and to be honest I take advantage of my time =)) which means I don’t need to worry about waking up before sunrise to pray and to keep up with my prayers for a couple of days… but there are also hadiths that because of the difficulties women go through, their sins are forgiven :) … so I don’t look at it as a bad thing, I just see it as taking a break lol

    love ur blog btw! have been reading it for the past hour =)

    best of luck dear

    • atozinco says:

      Hi Elika, thanks for your comment. I appreciate your viewpoint – being allowed to sleep in sometimes has its benefits! Especially for women who have painful/difficult periods or who feel very tired during when they are menstruating. When I have my period I am often kept awake by painful cramps during the night, so if I was Muslim I’m sure I would appreciate being able to sleep in a little extra on those mornings when I had my period :) It is nice to see the difficulties that many women have when menstruating recognized and accommodated for in Islam.

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  19. leanne says:

    Women need God moreso at this time due the changes in our bodies and moods etc. We need more compassion and understanding from our partners and colleagues. Although it is not technically a curse it is associated to God’s instructions to Eve when she fell. I believe God is closer to women when suffering monthly menstruation then ever as it is when a new creation has not been given human life. God knows women’s needs and the depth of our sorrow we go through with monthly periods. It’s not just a physical natural act, it is also a spiritual event as I believe women are more prone to being vulnerable and under attack. Our bodies are cleansing itself of a soul not yet born or will be. I thank our creator for making us so complex and deep as he deepens our understanding of our journey and how we need him so much in this world. Although men are to be leaders, women need to know how to support them as we take on all the rest (duties)and also at those times when have our monthly’s.

    • atozinco says:

      Hi Leanne, I agree that women can feel closer to God when they are menstruating. When I have my period I chill out and retreat from the world a bit (because I’m uncomfortable/crampy, tired etc), and I often feel a bit closer to God. My period is a welcome excuse for me to take a break and do nothing. My body is more vulnerable at that time, therefore I rely on God a bit more than usual & I feel humbled by the complex and amazing way that God designed women’s bodies. I think menstrual blood/fluid is very special because it is designed to nurture a baby (it contains stem cells etc). When I have my period it makes me appreciate the intricate and complex fertility cycle that my body is constantly going through, every day of every month, and the possibility that I could have babies in the future. I’m also aware of how sensitive the fertility cycle/process is – if a little thing goes wrong in the process I could struggle to conceive.

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