Disclaimer: this is not real menstrual blood (paint). (Photo: Aya Al-Hakim)
Many believe that menstruation is a hassle that needs to be dealt with. It is that time of the month where women become demonic PMSing women, confusing the men and devouring chocolate. But underneath that silly over-consumed image there is a suppressed spiritual potential that needs to be brought to light.
A woman's reproductive cycle lasts an average of 29.5 days, which is the same length as the lunar cycle. This means that a woman's body is deeply connected to the rhythm of the cosmos. Just like the earth, women's reproductive cycle embodies the cycle of life, death and rebirth, which everything and everyone is subjected to.
Once women realize their body works in harmony with the universe, menstruation is no longer experienced passively, as if it is something we should simply endure. Rather it becomes a time where women actively observe how their bleeding affects and transforms their behaviour, thoughts and intuition.
Religions have been a strong influence in alienating women from their own bodies by enforcing the belief that menstruating women are unclean and spiritually inferior.
The dominant view in Western culture
Unfortunately, in mainstream Western culture "menstrual blood is not seen, smelled, touched or discussed" (Elizabeth Low Webster Shillington, The Moon in her Womb) for the purpose of soul growth. In Western culture, the dominating monotheistic religions have been a strong influence in alienating women from their own bodies by enforcing the belief that menstruating women are unclean and spiritually inferior.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam view menstruation as a punishment from God that resulted after Eve took a bite from the apple. It is a punishment for being initiated into womanhood. At the first drop of blood, young girls become embodied sexual beings that need to be controlled, where a woman's bold expressions of eroticism is suppressed.
In the Christian and Jewish tradition, the book of Leviticus states that, "When a woman has a discharge of blood which is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening... And if any man lies with her, and her impurity is on him, he shall be unclean for seven days; and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean" (Leviticus 15:19, 24).
Writer and feminist Elizabeth L. W Shillington says that the Judeo-Christian view of menstruating women as unclean and impure is largely derived from the book of Leviticus. The holy book considers the blood of a menstruating woman to be polluting. For that reason, men who engage in sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman end up sharing the status of being unclean and spiritually inferior.
Menstruating women as a 'threat to holiness'
The Qur'an shares the same sentiment, where it states, "They question thee (O Muhammad) concerning menstruation. Say it is an illness, so let women alone at such times and go not into them till they are cleansed. And when they have purified themselves, then go in unto them as Allah hath enjoined upon you" (Qur'an 2:222). Some translate the verse by saying that "it [menstruation] is an Adha," (a painful or harmful thing for women) or a pollution.
Menstruating Muslim women are considered to be a "threat to holiness" (Elizabeth M. Whelan, Attitudes towards Menstruation). They are not allowed to visit holy places, such as a mosque or to fast in the month of Ramadan. A woman is also forbidden from having sex "for at least seven full days after the flow begins and is considered unclean until she completes a ritual washing" (M. Whelan).
According to the Jewish practice of niddah (separation), Orthodox Jewish women who are menstruating are also not allowed to have any sexual contact with their husbands. M. Whelan says, a woman in the Jewish tradition is considered unclean "just prior to the menstrual flow, during the bleeding itself, and for seven full days after the end of the flow at which she needs to take a ritual bath to reclaim her marital cleanliness."
It is worth noting that not all Muslims, Jews or Christians abide by these laws and practices. Some would even argue that the Islamic, Christian and Jewish regulations of a woman's period are empowering. Women in their time of bleeding are given the space to be more intimate with their bodies, gaining more sexual control in their marriages and helping to strengthen a non-sexual communication with their husbands (L. W. Shillington).
However, that doesn't change the fact that menstruating women in the monotheistic traditions are viewed to be impure and incapable of holiness, creating a legacy of shame, silence and alienation. For that reason, Shillington says many spiritual feminists have embraced their menstrual blood to liberate themselves from what the patriarchy believe to be holy or mundane. Many spiritual feminists have done so by "aligning themselves with the natural processes of the earth."
Menstruation and eroticism
I grew up in an Arab country. Getting my period meant that I was no longer a kid. It meant that I, and other girls, should be more careful around boys and that my body was officially a seducing piece of meat. The experience of bleeding didn't belong to me, but to the men around me.
Years later, I came to view menstruation as one of the many expressions of the erotic that has been abused and vilified. As feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde says, the erotic is "to be the personification of love in all its aspects... and personifying creative power and harmony." It is considered "a source of power and information within our lives" (The Uses of the Erotic).
In embracing the experience of menstruation, I noticed that my practice of meditation grew more powerful around that time of the month. I realized that my sudden outbursts of emotions weren't just hormonal, but an exorcism of repressed feelings -- healing.
The flow of feelings and blood opened new doors of creative inspiration, so I wrote better. I was more sensitive to my surroundings and my inner worlds, sensing the movements of Eros in the womb.
To conclude, it is essential to break the silence and the legacy of menstrual shame by sharing our stories, discussing our menstrual blood, as it is something that belongs to us women. It doesn't make us any less spiritual. Whether we follow a religion or not, we must resist the patriarchal influences that aim to corrupt our sources of creative and erotic power.
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Less of an option for dads, moms can be open and transparent about their own bodily experience from the time their daughters are young girls. By openly discussing your own period, the supplies you use, and your memories about early menses, you will help your daughter normalize the experience of monthly bleeding. By being the one to start this honest conversation, your daughter will feel comfortable coming to you when she has questions about her period.
Be open and honest with your daughters (and your sons) about what a first period looks like and feels like. Spend some time reacquainting yourself with the facts about a first period. A woman's first period is often spotty, brownish in colour and might last only a couple of days. First periods are often absent of any PMS-like symptoms, and a girl might think that she is just getting a flu. Don't hesitate to show her pictures of a woman's reproductive system and explain the role that menstruation plays in a woman's life. The most effective way to help our daughters feel relaxed about their first period is by demystifying it -- and no better way than through education.
For many girls their biggest fear is getting their first period when they aren't expecting it or are away from home. There are some stellar girl-focused companies that make 'first period' kits for tweens and teen girls -- complete with some portable supplies. If you are crafty and inclined, consider making your daughter her own personalized kit. Just grab an array of supplies, a clean pair of underwear, a carrying case that reflects her personality and maybe a diary to record her thoughts on all things puberty! Let her tuck the kit into her school bag or an overnight bag so that she never has to worry about getting her first period while away from home.
Accepting that the supplies you use for your period might not be the supplies that are right for her is a great way to help your daughter see how personal and unique everyone's period is. Grab a couple of different menstrual products, such as reusable pads, tampons and menstruation cups, and show her how they work. Creating a special spot for these products in your home, will help highlight for her how special and important her period can be.
Harness the internet to help enhance your daughter's (and son's) perspective on menstruation. Although Disney seems to have taken a back seat in menstruation education after creating this 1946 video, there are some stellar videos and websites out there to help your daughter understand the changes that are happening in her body. Kotex has a well-monitored website where girls share their own first period story, an incredible on-line resource for any parent.
Is your daughter a reader? Filling your home with some book-based resources can be a great way to help her get into the groove of what is happening with her body. Some great fiction options include: 'Are You There God, It's Me Margaret' by Judy Blume. For a slightly older group of girls you can check out 'My Little Red Book' by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. In the non-fiction department, 'Cycle Savvy' and 'Period: A Girl's Guide' are both amazing resources.
In the "don't do" department: avoid framing menstruation as an "illness" or as something that she should keep secret. Our tweens and teens shouldn't see menstruation as a dirty or inhibiting bodily function, but rather as a powerful step in her journey towards becoming a woman. Embrace this change as a time to be more open about other body experiences and, if developmentally appropriate, see it as a time to discuss sex, sexuality and sexual health.
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