Thursday, January 20, 2011

Only Women Bleed


WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.


Like every other, regular day, Eryn went through her morning ritual of slapping my face, poking my nose ring, and pulling down my shirt to stealth nurse her stuffed animals. I saw her shining inquisitive face through half slits, and she laughed delightedly at my groggy voice telling her that mama would start breakfast after I had gone pee-pee.

Falling out of bed to more delighted laughter, I stumbled my way to the bathroom. When I pulled down my pants I could barely believe what was rudely greeting me so early in the morning and I shouted in surprise. Calling from his refuge under the pillow, the Hubby asked if everything was okay. I poked my head out from the bathroom and said, “I got my period.”

For many, this is no big deal — but for me, it was the first time in two years, and a very unexpected surprise. I’ve been amenorrhoeic due to lactation, and not counting post-partum, this was my first official period post pregnancy. Now I understood why nursing Eryn felt like she replaced her teeth with knives, and why my head was foggy and pounding. When I mentioned that it was disturbing and shocking, just like getting it for the first time, my sister-in-law said cheerfully, “wow, you’ve had quite the prayer stretch, enjoy your little break.”

Despite being the spiritual equals of men, women are forbidden to pray during menstruation — and a woman who decides to pray is told she is sinning and committing sacrilege. The way in which this religious law is dealt with by many scholars, online literature, pamphlet Islam, multimedia lecture series, discussion forums and conferences, directly affects how women understand and relate to their bodies and is also used by men to help remove women from active worship and participation in the community.

Ask any woman why she can’t pray during her period and she will most likely tell you that because menstruation is painful, God has lifted the requirement to pray as a kind of concession. She might even follow that up with the argument that the blood is an impurity.

Now, the Qur’an does not make any reference to menstruation and prayer. The only reference to how people should relate to this natural process is in respect to sexual intercourse. Verse 2:222 addresses men, not women, telling them when it is permissible to have sexual intercourse with a woman — namely, any time except during menstruation. The reason given is that menstruation is a “vulnerable condition,” or as other translations would have it, “a hurt and a pollution,” “an illness,” or “a discomfort.” In this verse, the Qur’an is letting men know that sexual relations require a continued, open dialogue and that a woman’s well being needs to be ascertained before the lights go out. The verse has nothing to do with prayer, and yet, it is cited as the most popular reason to why women cannot pray.

Now, it’s very true that many women have horrendous experiences with their menstrual periods. Migraines, pelvic pain, cramping, back pain, blood clots, fever, joint aches, and nausea are just some of the symptoms that can drive any woman into bed with a hot water bottle and her preferred method of pain relief. And this is exactly what many reference when producing literature on menstruation and prayer.

Women are weakened by blood loss. Women are emotionally fragile. Women suffer in their biological pain. Women are naturally unclean. Therefore compassion towards women’s “condition” is required, and they've been granted a boon not to pray.

The problem with this reasoning is that every person with physical capacity is required to perform the ritual movements for prayer. If you have mobility issues, you may use assistance like a chair, shorten the length of your prayer, or lessen the extent of the ritual movements. If you are completely incapacitated by illness or severe disability, you may use your pinky finger to perform the motions. If you cannot do that, you may move your eyes. Failing that, you gain reward for your intention to pray. Reasonably, if I am bedridden due to my cramps, I am still physically able to pray.

The second argument relates to the potential impurity of blood. In order to perform the ritual act of prayer, Muslims have to be in a state of ritual “purity” -- accomplished through the washing of certain body parts, or a full shower. Minor ritual purity is lost when someone: farts, urinates, defecates, sleeps, or loses consciousness; and major impurity is lost when a person has an orgasm (self administered or otherwise) has sexual intercourse, or when a woman menstruates.

Of course, when related to menstruation, much of the literature refers to blood as being a pollution or defilement and by extension, women are impure. Often women will hear that blood defiles everything it touches and is free flowing. I’ve read pamphlets coupling the hardship of menstruation with the notion that God would not want us to pray if we had a major wound, so why would God expect us to pray while we bleed?

As for praying while bleeding, there are plenty of examples from the prophetic traditions where men prayed in the middle of nosebleeds, with the blood streaming down their hands; praying with a freshly severed arm acquired in the battlefield; and the 3rd Caliph, ‘Umar, even prayed while he had a gaping sword wound to his chest. You are also permitted to pray if fresh blood is coming from the cervix, hymen or vagina.

There are also certain rules given for menstruating women who are indeed allowed to pray. If you have an extra heavy flow, or a longer than normal flow that does not stop, you can follow the custom of the women in your community, taking your menstrual cues from other women, and praying when they do.

It seems strange to me that based upon the legal permissibility to pray with gaping wounds, people would argue that menstruation weakens women to a state where they are unable to pray -- and that while menstruating women are indeed allowed to pray are are seen as pure for prayer, there is so much fear mongering for the rest of us.

The injunction not pray is found within the prophetic traditions -- and while the Prophet said that women do not pray during their period, to my knowledge, he never said that menstrual blood is an impurity. In fact, he went to great lengths to illustrate that menstruating women are not physically impure.

From the Prophet we are told: that while men and women must abstain from penetration during menstruation, they are certainly allowed to do everything from fondling to heavy petting; he used to recite the Qur’an while laying his head in his menstruating wife’s lap; menstruating women can touch prayer mats, groom others, cook for others, and others can drink from the same cup as a menstruating woman; menstruating women are encouraged to join in religious celebrations, can recite Qur’an and make supplication to God; and that menstruation is a natural occurrence ordained by God.

Because he never said why menstruation breaks ritual purity, the scholars reason that the purity breaking powers of menstrual blood is outlined in a verse on forbidden animal products (6:145). Listed among pork and roadkill, is the blood of animals that have been slaughtered. The scholars reason that “dead blood” is therefore an impurity because it is forbidden to eat. Fresh blood flowing from veins in a live body however, is not. Which is why you can pray with a bloody nose, but not with a bloody tampon.

The arguments explaining a woman’s relation to her menstruation are based upon a framework where a woman’s state is defined only by external reference: male sexuality and dead blood. You can imagine what damage this reasoning does for a woman in relating to her period, to her sense as a woman, and how this understanding is translated in popular practice. It’s disingenuous to relate a woman’s purity to a verse on sex that’s not even addressed to her, to her weakness for pain tolerance and to the blood of dead animals. When in fact, menstruation is natural and healthy. It’s the body’s way of preparing the womb for the next cycle and to potentially support new life.  Menstruation is a chrysalis of renewal and a positive time of cleansing.

Now to be fair, there is material and lectures from the pulpit explaining menstruation in positive and healthy ways for women — but primarily focusing on menstruation as a natural process from God, who gave women the strength to endure it.  The overwhelming, sometimes innocuous message being sent to women is that they are naturally dirty and spiritually defiled. That their menstrual cycle is something to be hated and feared. That they cannot walk into a mosque, touch a Qur’an, recite the Qur’an, or become an imam. That it takes women longer to memorize the Qur’an or achieve a religious education, because they are out of commission for 25% of the year. That they cannot cut their hair or clip their nails while menstruating due to impurity. That they cannot touch a prayer mat. That if they apply henna to their skin while menstruating, their impurity will last as long as it takes the temporary tattoo to wash off. That it makes women weak, lacking, imperfect and second class. That if you pray you are a sinner. That it’s a reason why more women are in hell than men. That if you question the ruling not to pray, or feel it is unfair, you aren’t faithful enough — or worse, are deluded by Western notions of equality. This is a bit more involved than just being told you can’t pray. 

Editors Notes:  This post has been shortened and the original text can be found here