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Column 36
That time of the month

God and menses

By © Martin Foreman
Word Count: 796 words
Publication date: October 16, 2005

In an earlier column I looked at God’s fondness for men and male company. In most of his manifestations Yahweh / Jehovah / Allah definitely prefers his priests to be endowed with penis and testicles.

Long ago, in the distant, polytheistic past, a priest’s genitalia might have played an active role in religious ceremonies, particularly if fertility was invoked. Our monotheistic god, however, prefers privates to remain private – or at least where only he can see them.

Today some strands of Judaism and Christianity maintain that the deity is interested more in what’s in celebrants’ minds than between their legs. Hence women priests and rabbis, but they are exceptions to the rule. For most monotheists only men have a direct line to God.

Part of the problem is menstruation. For Christians menstruation is only excretion, but for Jews and Muslims it’s a Big Deal.

Tuma - the Hebrew word for the status of menstruating women – implies mourning for the potential human soul lost in the unfertilized egg.

The good news is that scholars insist that women in tuma are not unclean. The bad news is that they are still outcasts. For strict Jews, only immersion in a mikvah – a special pool of water – allows women to emerge from tuma and re-enter society.

“No, no, of course there’s no problem. It’s just that before you head back into the kitchen would you mind not just washing your hands, but soaking yourself completely in this tub of water that I just happen to have beside me?”

Logic suggests that if Jewish women are in tuma for the loss of just one ovum every four weeks, Jewish men should spend their lives mourning the millions of unborn souls that spill from their loins as often as once a day.

I’m not just talking nocturnal emissions or masturbation. Millions of the little squigglers expire during each act of love-making. But no, guys, God’s on your side, so forget about the mass murder you committed last night and have a glass of wine while the little woman runs her mikvah.

Islam – surprise, surprise – has no time for tuma’s niceties. In the Qur’an, verse 222 of al Baqarah, quaintly known in English as The Cow or The Heifer, makes it clear that menstruation is harmful and / or renders women unclean, depending on your translation.

So far, so clear, but that is not enough for imams who, like all good theologians, can’t resist making a mountain out of a molehill. Over the centuries hundreds of pages have been written
– by men, of course –
distinguishing between different kinds of menstrual flow – how frequent, how much, what form and so on.

And like all good theologians, scholars are happier with controversy than compromise – unless of course, it is others who are compromise. The result is that there is no agreed definition in Islam as to the minimum and maximum days blood should be legally defined as menstrual.

While the length and intensity of their periods is obviously of concern to individual women, in the grand scheme of the universe I am not convinced that it is more relevant than the size, shape and consistency of women’s or men’s turds.

If the Islamic theologians are correct, however, Allah is intimately concerned with the length and duration of each woman’s period and spends much of eternity keeping a scorecard on which he can confirm which women are clean and which are unclean at any one time.

Back in the real world… of course religion’s obsession with menses and gender does not reflect the concerns of any deity. It is an indication of the social status of men and women in the different societies where religion flourishes.

God disparages women most in cultures where men have most power and least in cultures where the sexes are most equal. And where the broader culture is relatively liberal, conservative men can still retreat into their churches, synagogues and mosques to worship their penis-loving deity.

What is most disappointing is how often women use religion to collude in this suppression of their own and their sisters’ self-respect and independence.

Muslim women who claim to be happy to cover their limbs, bodies and even their faces never demand that men adopt equally modest attire. Otherwise intelligent conservative Jewish mothers and Mormon wives defer to husbands whose judgment and behavior leaves much to be desired.

It is arguable that men and women understand the world in fundamentally different ways. But even if true, such an argument is irrelevant. The differences are not so profound that everyone’s response to the world around them is primarily determined by their gender.

Religions that establish barriers between the sexes do nothing more than foster prejudice and ignorance. It is time that we stopped tolerating such intolerance.



Comment

Great site!!

I wonder if you know that Zoroastrianism also has/had very strong menstrual taboos? It is thought, by some scholars, at least, that the Jews got the idea about menstrual purity when they were living as forced exiles in the Persian empire.  Women were forced to live in small huts for the duration of their period and they could not touch anything alive like plants or animals, because it was thought to harm them and possibly even lead to their demise.

I think that the menstrual taboos came about because of PMS. Women WANTED to get away from the kids and the dog and the cooking and cleaning and the husband, so they said, "Gosh, don't want to displease God. I'm going to my shack." I could be wrong, but I know I would love it. It would be a mini break every month!

You've got a lot of great stuff to read and I hope you keep it going.

Jennifer Smith


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