When your Body and Beliefs are at Odds: the Religious Taboo of Menstruation
I know that talking about these traditions is hard. Yet, discriminatory practices will continue unless they are addressed.
Netherlands, Western Europe
Story by Shakila Dhauntal. Edited by Melaina Dyck
Published on March 25, 2021. Reading time: 4 minutes
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Throughout history, major religions have, in one way or another, excluded menstruating women from religious spaces and attached the notion of “impurity” to menstruation. Last year, I watched a documentary on Netflix about the stigmatization of menstruation in India, in which a young Hindu woman visits the temple and raises the same point of confusion that I have had: “The goddess to whom we pray is a woman just like us. I don’t agree with the rule that we are not allowed to enter the temple when we menstruate.”
I grew up being excluded from religious festivities while menstruating
The two exclusions that I grew up with are not being allowed to enter the temple and not participating in religious rites while menstruating. For many women, exclusion includes being forbidden to cook, bathe, touch their husbands or even live in their own houses during their periods, because it is believed that only evil things come from a woman who menstruates. I have noticed that menstrual taboos make women feel uneasy and ashamed. Menstrual taboos blur the lines between private and public and expose issues related to gender inequality, hierarchies, and boundaries of power. For example, when a woman does not help with preparations for a religious ceremony, the family will deduce that she is menstruating. This places women in a position of shame, because they have no say in whether this matter stays private. I find it interesting that women will say things like “I can’t help,” whereas they can help, but are not allowed to. The notion that a woman’s body can be in a state of purity or impurity perpetuates the unequal dynamics between men and women. Women are dirty, while men are pure and clean.
As a Hindu from the Surinamese-Indian community in the Netherlands, I grew up being excluded from religious festivities while menstruating. Some years ago, I started taking Indian classical dance classes. In my class, there are girls and women of all ages. Discussions with my classmates on menstruation forced me to reconsider the concept of impurity. I talked with women who believe in the tradition of excluding menstruating women and with women who question the tradition. When a line gets drawn on the floor and someone persistently tells you throughout your life that you should not step over it, you are not going to step over it even when the line fades. Through these discussions, I realized that shame is learned. I believe that girls should not be taught to feel ashamed of their bodily functions.
Girls should not be taught to feel ashamed
Menstruation is a natural process that indicates the vitality of a woman’s body. It is part of the reproductive system and without it the birth of new life would not be possible. The exclusion of women in social and religious activities without proper explanation or holding men accountable to the same purity standards is unreasonable. I know that talking about these traditions is hard. Yet, discriminatory practices will continue to confuse women and perpetuate imbalanced gender relations unless they are openly and considerately addressed. These taboos need to change.
To learn more about menstruation taboos, read stories by Chandra Bhadra and Pabita Timilshina about gender-based untouchability in Nepal.
 Bhartiya, A. (2013). Menstruation, religion and society. International Journal of Social Science and Humanity, 3(6), 523.
 Netflix. (2020) Period. End of Sentence.
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