On menstruation

Mark Rothko

He understands the ladies: American artist Mark Rothko evokes the many depths of red in No. 301.

This Friday will be an exciting opportunity to participate in the first ever (in the UK) woman-led mixed congregation, and being all for equality in religion that I am, it’s something I would hate to miss. Growing up in Malaysia, I had always felt that segregation in the mosque meant that men were reserved the best seats in the house of God. Like the amazing views that come with boxseats at the opera, men can enjoy places right in front with the imam without the curtains or walls as forms of deliberate obstruction. Women, however, are often left with a disembodied voice to lead their prayers.

But I may not able to attend Friday prayers this week as I will be on my period. For many years I never gave much thought about my periods; they come and go, and often make me cranky and unattractive. Although I was brought up being fully aware of the things I could not do during menstruation: pray, swim, fast, jump up and down too much, read or even touch the holy Qur’an, and of course have sex. The Qur’an tells me that I will soon be ‘unwell’, should not exert myself on the prayer mat, (and that my man should keep his horny urges to himself):

And they ask thee about menstruation. Say: It is harmful, so keep aloof from women during menstrual discharge and go not near them until they are clean. But when they have cleansed themselves, go in to them as Allah has commanded you.

Al-Baqarah, verse 222.

By being regarded as something ‘unclean’ and an ‘illness’, menstruation can come across as a weakness in women. But it certainly is a reminder of fertility and youth; in the film ‘Caramel’ (2007), Jamale, a woman ‘past her prime’, tries to deceive other women and herself that she is much younger than she actually is by inflicting upon herself certain embarrassments associated with periods, such as stains on her clothes and being debilitated in the ladies toilet by the desperation for sanitary towels. Yeah, we’ve all been there.

Perhaps the irrational fears and taboos associated with the menses often connotes with female power; a power to give life, and a power that instills fear in men. Hindu goddesses perfectly embody this power: Kali and the wives of Vishnu and Siva have the capacity to both generate and sustain life and to destroy and subvert the social order. Hindu wedding dresses, the traditional sari, is often red – both the colour of auspiciousness and linked to menstrual blood and the blood of childbirth.

And perhaps the freedom from certain religious obligations gives menstruating women leeway to do other things. Seclusion can offer power to women, as a time from daily tasks, a time, given the likelihood of synchronised periods, to practice certain rituals; the Huaulu hunters and fishermen near Irian Jaya can hear laughter coming ‘from the happy women in the menstrual huts’, and often wonder if menstrual segregation is a ‘sly invention’ by women. With the burdensome aspect of monthly gushes of blood and the perils of childbirth, it makes me wonder who really is the weaker sex. Still, women make themselves believe to be ‘accursed’ and fear their own womanhood. Who can forget the opening scene in ‘Carrie’ (1976) and how that was to be the beginning to (more) blood and destruction?

Today, advertising gurus indoctrinate women to be sexy and ultra-confident everywhere, all the time, even during our periods. I am quite happy just being comfortable, and pads are very comfortable thank you. But the whole notion that tampon ads give of sanitary pads as ‘unsightly’, ‘diaper-like’, and yes, ‘unsexy’ just makes me angry. There is enough pressure for women to be sexy already; even when she’s doing the housework, being a high-powered corporate exec, and even breastfeeding – thanks to Angeline Jolie.

There you go, menstruations can be many, different things. If anything, it is not frightening or a shocking secret. It does not render women completely powerless to rely on her own emotional judgment, and certainly does not make all women faint all the bloody time.

10 thoughts on “On menstruation

  1. I forgot to add that I think my period is a positive thing. I mean, why does everyone have to make it so negative and twist it into something ugly, “unclean”, and negative? It’s a reminder that I am a woman, that I have power to give life, that my body is renewing itself. I find that pretty fucking awesome.

  2. I agree, women is definately not the weaker sex. If men only knew the pain that we have to go through monthly and also with childbirth. I wonder if men could ever take it.

    Ohh speaking about advertising, i just saw this one ad recently on sanitary pads, and how the message is women should have a happy period. While i dont see period as a negative thing, telling me to have a happy one is ridiculous! What is so happy about cramps?? Aaargghh.

    Btw Cycads, have you been reading antrophology books of late? tabboos and hallulu hunters…hehhe

  3. I realise that women don’t talk about their menstruation more positively enough, other than ‘it just happens’, or it’s icky. What’s worse is that many girls are brought up to be embarrassed about their periods, and that tends to continue all the way up to adulthood. I remember having a friend who told me that her mother would join the family at prayer time even when she was on her period because 1) she was embarrassed to tell her younger kids and 2) didn’t want to ‘confuse’ them.

  4. Yes, JJ. I’ve become just like you, an anthropologist!

    I know lots of ads like that, especially ones that promise lots of cgi flowers and hearts emanating from your underwear. Every woman loves the feeling of fresh flowers in their crotch!

  5. love this article, so great. so honest. women should take pride of themselves (obviously not carrying on like they do in the ads) because i see it as a special god given thing, it’s not pleasant but we can create life and grow another human ( with the help of men, bless them) and that surely is why our young women should never be taught that shame is a reaction to have to something so natural.

  6. What translation of the Quran are you using, out of curiosity? HM Shakir (whose version is reasonable, I think) translates that verse differently. The way it’s framed in this translation is contradicted by half a dozen hadith that I can think of. The Prophet slept in the same bed with Aisha when she was on her period, recited Quran while lying on her lap while she was on her period, even–well–enjoyed certain marital comforts short of actual intercourse. All these are narrated by Aisha and found in Sahih (if you will forgive the Sunnism) Muslim.

    In other words, I don’t think being on one’s period is quite as ‘unclean’ as all that.🙂 The Prophet certainly didn’t seem to think so, il hamdulilah.

  7. While I totally applaud any woman who can get over media-perpetuated ideas of periods as negative, I can’t personally enjoy or take pride in mine, as some of you do, though I think that’s awesome. I HATE my period and, through hormonal birth control, have managed to only have it once in many years.

    I’d like to not hate it, though. A lot of you say you take pride in the power to create life (again, awesome), but I wonder if that’s the issue in part for me. I’m childfree by choice and never want kids, so I tend to experience it as a burden that can only every be a burden; it will never bring me anything I want but instead signifies the fact that I have to spend a life avoiding pregnancy I don’t want.

    In light of your other references of different cultural approaches to menstruation, I know that some Native American tribes considering mentsruation a time when women were ultra-powerful. They performed special woman-only rituals during menstruation, and the men watched.

  8. I agree with Willow and my personal interpretation of that is when it says to stay away from women it means to not sleep with your wives, and we all know it’s not permissible to have sex with women when they’re menstruating. I see this not as a condemnation of women, but a benefit since I’m sure most women aren’t in the mood to be bothered for sex when they’re dealing with cramps.

    and I see the unclean part as meaning blood – all blood – is seen as unclean in Islam, not the woman. and generally, you shouldn’t be touching other peoples blood. It could be dangerous with all the blood born diseases we know of now.

  9. Willow,

    There’s not much to dispute about in the only verse about menstruation in the Quran really (correct me this if I’m wrong) – I refuse to have sex on my period anyway.

    I know much later in life about a hadith where Aishah was permitted to carry the Quran, because her menses was “not in her hands”. Though as I was growing up I was made to think that my hands are also ‘tainted’ by my monthly condition, but I know better now.

    And as for my Quran; it’s published by the Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha-at-e-Islam Lahore.

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