Polluted to Powerful – ReImagining Menstruation

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

  1. This is the first time I have read about this — thanks for the insightful message. I don’t think I would have entered such church , whether I was menstruating or not.

  2. Great piece! I personally hate menstruating just for the inconvenience of it, but I’m sure that it’s because I’ve always been subconsciously (or consciously for that matter) told that it’s a weakness. In my white culture of the United States the impurity bit has thankfully not been prevalent but the overall implication of being female (PMS and menstruating) is that women are crazy and weak.
    There are some good traditions here though- sometimes when a girl starts menstruating her father gives her red roses and takes her out to dinner, just the two of them, to celebrate. Hallmark of course makes cards to mark the occasion. And, if a girl is lucky enough to be raised in a goddess household, she will learn the power of the female.
    <3 Love and light

  3. Bilu, it’s so fascinating to read about the cultural secrecy of menstruation in Ethiopia and how it is imbedded in religion. It seems as if every society has its own means of making this such a taboo subject. When I read this, it reminded me of a book that resonated with me called “The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation.” It’s an interesting depiction of how North American culture has influenced the evolution of secrecy and discreetness surrounding periods.

  4. I really appreciate the author for this deep reflection and the positive approach from her towards misconception which are common from all over the world.
    Traditionnally in my community, there were similar conception. If you are a man and have to hunt, fish to feed your family, it was forbidden to sleep in a gouse where there is a woman in her menstruation. Even now, the carpenter must avoid woman in her period because it is believed that the carpenter will fall down. I even remember that in our school ( primary), if it was discovered that a girl is menstruating, every boy will be running away from her to avoid meeting her or being in her contact. You can imagine what where the consequences: Most of the girls were absenteing from schools during the period and loosing their exam. A great lost. Steve NDIKUMWENAYO

  5. @ Vertigo – thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Unfortunately, this is not a phenomenon of the EOTC only. All Eastern & Oriental Orthodox Churches around the world observe these Leviticus “purity” laws.
    @ Heather – I think it’s also interesting to note in North American traditions the obsession to be “discrete” in all its sense as manifested in media ads selling feminine products. On a positive note and because i think language is very important, menstruation in Amharic is referred to as “monthly flower” which gives it a positive connotation for this monthly observance.
    @ Katie – Thanks for the link. Hopefully, i’ll get a chance to access this book. I was reading up on the origins of the word “taboo” itself which gave the impression that in yester-years ‘taboo’ was something that was so sacred that it was not talked about to preserve its sanctity yet its interesting to note its evolution into something that is not talked about now because it makes people uncomfortable for different reasons.
    @ Steve – Thanks for sharing. Can you please share which community this is that you speak of? I came across a reading that referenced ancient Egyptian communities and how it was perceived that any menstruating woman who looked at a man can strike him to death.

  6. Biluye, thanks for bringing this up, I grow up obeying the rule NOT to enter in the church during mensturation period, as you know the church out side Ethiopia don’t have gated area where you can pray: which makes it even hard for us who leave out of the country to follow the rule, I have always struggled with this rules we have in our church, I hope you’ll get into all my questions sooner or later… enjoyed reading all your topics. great job!

  7. I read somewhere that in ancient times, women were forbidden from entering churches while menstruating due to the lack of sanitary pads as they tended to dirty up the place. But this was translated into making the act itself dirty and the women unfit to enter the church.

  8. Thank you sis! This is why it is so extremely important for all women to reclaim and protect their magic and power! We are so potent and influential. We have to heal our own hurts around our cycles and then make sure that our baby girls and boys have the utmost respect for nature and ALL of its manifestations.

  9. “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”

  10. The Celestial Church of Christ, a white garment church, has a similar practice of not allowing women to join the main service during their period.

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