Late last year I went to visit the renowned Debre Libanos monastery church two hours north of Addis Ababa. As I was paying the fee to tour the museum and Church, a list of rules placed on the attendant’s table caught my attention. The attendant made the effort of emphasizing the rules, eyeing me cautiously as if to warn that he was serious. First on the list and holding a prominent place was the restriction placed upon women and girls to enter the Church and caves if they were menstruating. The rule came as no surprise to me as growing up under the influence of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) I knew that this was a long time restriction placed upon women and girls. However, what caught my attention was that this was the first time I had seen it written in such a way and it was definitely the first time that I was called upon by a member of the Church to observe it.
As part of my research interests in gender issues as it relates with the EOTC, one of the contentious areas for me has been the religious perspective on menstruation and the restriction of women and girls in Church participation while observing this monthly occurrence. As I sat down with an Orthodox theologian to discuss a number of issues, he shared with me that in ancient biblical times the monthly female loss of blood was considered a “half death’. In times of the Old Testament death was treated as a curse and menstruation which was seen as “half death” was equated with a curse and those who were “cursed” would taint anything around them that was “holy” and “pure”. Later on with the passing and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the perspective on the cursed nature of death was redeemed. According to his explanation it would then follow that the views on menstruation would also change, rendering such rules unnecessary. Yet that has not been the case!
Whichever religion one is part of there is a bias against menstruation which I believe perpetuates biases against women and girls. In primitive societies and in those that followed Goddess religions, menstruation was viewed as sacred and the monthly phenomenon deemed women to be in their most powerful time of the month. It’s noted in some ancient societies that a woman menstruating had a positive effect on crop yields if she were to walk through the fields. Community members would also approach those menstruating with requests of healing to be honoured as these women were in their most powerful state. Often a sacred event celebrating womanhood, the dominance of patriarchal cultures birthed a mis-understanding of menstruation as impure.
Menstruation is and has been a taboo topic in Ethiopia, especially among certain ethnic groups and religious traditions. Amongst the Gumuz, it’s noted that a girl menstruating for the first time is sent away from her home and family. She lives either in isolation or with other menstruating girls for different lengths of time. For the Jewish women of Beta Israel who were in northern Ethiopia, or falashas (as commonly and derogatively known) observance of their menstruation subjected them into isolation in menstrual huts where they would not come into contact with those in “pure” states.
The Jewish Beta Israel tradition and observance of “impurity” in times of menstruation is similar to the EOTC’s observance in that both are rooted in the Old Testament’s laws of Leviticus which states that “when a woman has a discharge of blood, her impurity shall last for seven days; anyone who touches her shall be unclean till evening. Everything in which she lies or sits during her impurity shall be unclean.” Rooted within the context of those days, perhaps these rules served the purpose of maintaining hygiene where there was a lack of adequate means of supporting menstrual flow. However, I find this concept of “impurity” quite controversial and having a societal impact which ensures girls grow into women hating this sacred monthly occurrence. In addition, the air of taboos that surrounds menstruation silences the voice of women and girls from communicating and sharing their experiences beyond the hush-hush and whispers.
In Ethiopia, I have heard insults containing the experience of menstruation being thrown at people used in a way to imply the insulted person is unclean. That an event of womanhood can be used pejoratively is indicative of the underlying and ingrained perception of impurity that “transforms a biological fact of life into a social taboo that reflects and sustains the oppression of women.”
As a girl growing into a woman, I never agreed with the restrictions placed by the Church and therefore never observed the law, leaving the consequences of my actions between me and the kind of God I believed in when partaking in Church ceremonies. If I ever have to raise a daughter, it will be my responsibility to impart her with the type of understanding that honours her menstrual cycle and helps her deconstruct the many notions of impurity that the female body is wrongly riddled with. It will be my responsibility to divulge to her that the changes in her body throughout her cycle are manifestations of her strength in adaptability and resistance. It will be my responsibility to share with her that this monthly gift of nature is a reminder to slow down and get in touch with the divine in and around her, not a source of shame during which she should shy away from her God. And it will be my responsibility to make sure that she is informed enough to be able to transform discourses of pollution to powerful – to reIMAGINE menstruation!
Love & Light