Menstruation and Christianity:
In the Old Testament of the Bible there were Jewish restrictions around menstruating 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.