Muslims & Menstruation: Why we Need to Ditch the “Impurity” Language
“Impure” is a discriminatory, dogmatic and awfully antiquated word that should never be used to describe menstruating women – yet it’s one that traditional Islamic discourse frequently exploits when referring to women on their periods. This choice in language has had a sinister trickle-down effect, leading to deeply-rooted sentiments of shame and an overall lack of openness when it comes to discussing Muslim women and menstruation.
Suppression of sacred perspectives
This wasn’t always the case. During the time of the Prophet Muhammad, women on their periods certainly weren’t seen as “impure” – a conclusion we can derive from the Hadith (sayings and reports) of the Prophet narrated by his own wife, Aisha, who stated that he used to lay his head in her lap and recite Quran while she was menstruating, and that the two would even engage in foreplay while she was on her monthly cycle. Yes, seriously.
Both of these reports are found in the Sahih Bukhari collection of Hadith, and are “well known” and “documented,” according to Angelica Lindsey-Ali (@villageauntie on Instagram), an intimacy and relationships expert who discusses female sexuality from an Islamic framework. She recently launched The Village Aunty Institute, which teaches holistic anatomy and the sciences of sensual nourishment and the sacredness of womanhood. She has hosted workshops, webinars, courses, educational programs and discussions in the United States and Saudi Arabia.
“A believer, a human being, a creation of Allah is never impure,” she emphasises, making the distinction clear between humans and the possibly impure bodily fluids that they sometimes emanate. “We have made the culture around menstruation so shameful and so tarnishing of who a woman is, that we have young girls who are facing serious medical complications with their menstrual cycles. They are afraid to talk to their parents, they don’t really know anything about their bodies, and they grow up into women who perpetuate this cycle of self-shame – it’s traumatizing in communities,” she explains.
Learning to unlearn toxic language
One of the problems is that guidelines for menstruating women frequently read like lists of forbidden activities – such as not being allowed to pray, read or touch the Quran or even enter mosques during our monthly cycles, even though it was out of mercy that God relieved menstruating women of their obligatory prayers, offering us comfort and relief during this time of rest. Yet, many male authorities have masked this theme of compassion behind a façade of fear and restrictiveness, leading to much miscommunication around the “rulings” pertaining to menstruation, which are assumed to be divine commandments but are quite often male jurists’ interpretations and extensions of classical beliefs, passed down over generations and fossilised in Muslim tradition.
Lindsey-Ali says that those who argue that Muslim women cannot enter mosques when on their periods may be referencing an older tradition where menstruating women might have avoided mosques in case of possible leakages. “During the time of the Prophet they didn’t have these advanced modern-day hygiene products, so women may have inadvertently or unconsciously soiled places in the masjid,” she explains. The inventions of sanitary products like pads and tampons, one would assume, could reverse interpretations of this tradition.
And while some believe that menstruating women cannot read the Quran, Lindsey-Ali says that believers are never prohibited from speaking or reciting the word of Allah (unless they are in the bathroom as that would be disrespectful). She explains that different Islamic schools of jurisprudence have varying beliefs on the permissibility of touching physical copies of the Quran. Some claim that fully-Arabic Qurans are off limits for menstruating women while those with Arabic and English together are permissible to read. Some even go to the extreme of mandating gloves for menstruating women handling holy texts – as if their hands have bloody (pardon the pun) impurities.
Linguistically, using words like “impermissible” can be problematic, as they come across as rigid, severe, negative and authoritative. After all, these guidelines were not meant as strict prohibitions, but rather, as relaxations for women. This should be something we always keep in mind, as Muslim women.
“I don’t like to say, ‘I can’t’; I like to say, ‘I don’t have to,’” says Lindsey-Ali. “I don’t have to fast, and I don’t have to pray, because my body is already doing what my Lord has commanded it to do. Instead of thinking a woman is impure when she’s on her cycle, we should think about it as her body undergoing a biological process that was implanted by her Lord.”
Sameera Qureshi (@sexualhealthformuslims on Instagram), an occupational therapist who specialises in sexual health education grounded in Islamic spirituality and psychology, often posts infographics on her Instagram account. One, titled “Dismantling the menstrual cycle of shame,” suggests replacing words like “dirty” with phrases like “sacred process created by Allah” when thinking about one’s menstrual cycle.
In an interview with Muslim media platform IlmFeed, Dr. Tamara Gray points out another way to re-frame language when discussing menstruation and worship. She explains that the Arabic phrase used by menstruating women translates to “I don’t have prayer” in English, which she believes can be psychologically dangerous. Instead of distancing from prayer altogether, she proposes saying “I’m in my week of dua and dhikr” (supplication and remembrance).
A revolutionary reawakening
“We can blame toxic patriarchy on one hand but we, as women, also have to look internally and see how we’re internalising these ideas of shame around our bodies,” says Lindsey-Ali, who believes that moving forward, we should centre the voices of the women debunking myths about menstruation and “impurity” from an Islamic framework. “I think there are a lot of female scholars right now who are doing work around demystifying things like menstruation, and we should really seek them out because the way that they approach it is so different from the way a lot of us have been taught.”
Of course, along with increased female scholarship, as well as an overhaul of the negative language and connotations that cloud our perceptions of menstruation, the community needs vocal male allies. Dr. Bilal Ware (@butchware on Instagram) is one example. He recently posted a quote on Instagram stating, “Stop telling women they are unclean. The prohibition on praying in menses isn’t about that. Men cannot pray while bleeding either. The underlying logic is that human blood is so sacred that it is an affront to God to pray while it is being spilled.” The caption of his post concludes, “Islam doesn’t oppress women, men oppress women.”