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.