In the fairly early days of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, dissing each other with crude language was all the rage. Alexandra Cuffel’s new book Gendering Disgust in Medieval Religious Polemic (2009, University of Notre Dame Press) shows how late antique purity laws and biological theories help provide a repertoire of filth from which the rival religions used to demonstrate their superiority over the other. Perhaps unsurprisingly, fecal matter, decay, disease, blood (particularly menstrual blood) and even women’s bodies all fell under the naturally disgusting category and became essentially all that was antithetical to the divine and holy.
… woman’s menstrual blood served as the symbolic locus through which notions of disease, decay and corruption intersected. While many examples underscore how symbolic imagery having to do with blood and decay does refer back to female menstruation, those relating with food and animals point in other directions that have little to do with gender. For example, the Jewish, Roman and Latin condemnation of pork connote fleshly desires for vice; images or depictions of animals with no cloven hooves that are not cud chewers denote those who stray from virtue. [source]
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.