Yeah, it’s a thing. In fact, it’s fast becoming the latest feminist issue among women to hit the news.
Whenever a hot topic women’s issue comes up, people forward me the latest news. A few months ago, someone forwarded me this article about a women who posted Instagram photos of herself napping in period stained sheets and pajamas, which Instagram removed.
In an interview with the BBC, the woman in the photos, Rupi Kaur, from Toronto, challenged their opposition:
“When I see the picture it looks completely beautiful to my eyes.
“I wasn’t being provocative. The point of the photo was to de-mystify all the taboos that are around menstruation.”
Instagram ultimately backed down, agreed she hadn’t broken their guidelines, and apologized.
Today someone sent me an article about Harvard Business School graduate, Kiran Gandhi, who ran the London marathon while menstruating without the aid of feminine hygiene products.
Gandhi said she wants to end the embarrassment over menstruation, as well as to bring awareness that there are underprivileged women who can’t afford costly pads and tampons. Additionally, she wants acknowledgement that every month women suffer with pain and cramping, yet must carry on as if it doesn’t exist.
Ghandi took photos after the race that proudly displayed her period stained running pants, saying:
“If there’s one way to transcend oppression, it’s to run a marathon in whatever way you want,” she wrote. “Where the stigma of a woman’s period is irrelevant, and we can re-write the rules as we choose.”
Transcending oppression by making the stigma of a woman’s period irrelevant.
Every woman who suffers with cramps and period related discomfort, knows that it can be hard to have to function normally during that time of the month, while pretending that there isn’t a crimson tide surging through your nether regions.
That being said, women have proven that we can power through our monthly trials and tribulations without having our biological functions hinder our performance at school, on the job, at home, or in our relationships. Women are experts at dealing with the cards we’ve been dealt and making the best of things.
However, when it comes to stigma, I believe that the Jewish laws of niddah have a negative effect on a woman’s attitude toward her period, as well as having a negative effect on men’s attitudes towards menstruation.
When I was a teenager in a public high school, girls were matter of fact about having their period, at least around each other. It wasn’t a topic of conversation with the boys, but in the girl’s locker room, it wasn’t unusual to hear complaints about cramps and bloating, or how uncomfortable it was to have to go to swim class during your period.
Aside from the usual discomforts and inconveniences, having your period was no more stigmatized than having to use the bathroom. It wasn’t something to be discussed at length or in mixed company, but it was a normal part of life. Quite frankly, any girl past the age of thirteen who didn’t have her period probably felt abnormal and stigmatized.
However that attitude towards menstruation came to an abrupt halt shortly before marriage. Whereas menstruation prior to marriage is simply a personal part of life that a woman handles with the same attitude as she handles all of her other hygiene needs, after marriage, her period becomes something with penalties and negative connotations. Namely, death and separation.
After a woman is married, she must separate from her husband when she even suspects she might be getting her period. After she sees actual blood, she must separate from her husband in earnest for a two week time period, and not be allowed to physically reunite with him until she dips in a ritual bath. All direct and even indirect physical contact is prohibited. During the two week period of niddah, they may not do things such as sit close together on the same couch cushion, sleep in the same bed, eat from the same plate, nor pass each other objects.
There are many reasons given for this mandated monthly time of complete abstinence, but one reason that’s largely given is that menstruation is a like a monthly death. Every month, the unfertilized egg that sloughs away from the uterus represents the loss of potential life. Death carries with it an impurity, and we carry that impurity in our unfertilized wombs each month we don’t get pregnant.
Apparently, men can be tainted by this impurity as well, and are forbidden to come into physical contact with a niddah until she has stopped bleeding and purified herself in a mikvah. In fact, the main biblical prohibition for why unmarried men and women can’t have physical contact before marriage (shomer negiah) doesn’t have to do with morality (although that is a side benefit), but is because unmarried women do not use the mikvah, and therefore, have the status of a niddah upon menarche until their first purifying mikvah dip before their wedding.
In a way, equating periods with death is also drawn out in the physical separation that is required during mourning. When someone loses a parent and becomes an avel, one of the first mourning requirements is that they separate from their spouse. Physical contact between husband and wife is forbidden during the week of shiva. Sexual contact is associated with joy and happiness, and is incongruous to one who is in the deepest throes of grief.
How much more painful is the psychological message to an infertile woman, that she carries around a funeral in her womb every month she does not conceive?
Even for those of us with children, the knowledge that our natural body functions control the intimacy in our marriages can be difficult, since such mechanisms are beyond our control. During a time of the month where our emotions might be more readily dictated by hormonal fluctuations, prompting a need for more cuddles and physical reassurances of love, we stand alone. We represent the lost opportunity for new life.
Of course, it’s hard to say how many pregnancies are inspired or encouraged by wanting a break from being a niddah, but between nine months of pregnancy and many more months of breast feeding, most women consider the break from periods and taharas hamishpacha a welcome benefit of having a baby.
There is a shame and sadness to having your period as a married Jewish woman who keeps the laws of taharas hamishpacha that women who don’t keep these laws don’t have.
When getting your period means that your spouse treats you differently and you must treat him differently, and that difference means the withholding of physical affection and contact, it is stigmatizing. When being told that having your period represents death and an associated spiritual impurity, that is stigmatizing. When having your period becomes something that other people potentially know about besides you and your spouse (mikvah lady, other women at the mikvah on the night you go, niddah counselor or rabbi, or possibly friends and family members on Shabbos/yom tov /nighttime simchas/visits where bed situations have to be accommodated (separate beds for that time of the month), it is stigmatizing.
When I read about these activists who are trying to make periods an open and normal topic of conversation, I do applaud their efforts. However, as far advocating that women give up their usage of feminine hygiene products, to me that makes about as much sense as saying that people shouldn’t feel compelled to use toilets or toilet paper. I’m not sure about any of you, but I don’t really want to live in a society where people defecate in their clothing because it’s a natural part of life that should be shared and celebrated.
Menstruation is a natural part of life – and in my (non-religious) upbringing, it was always presented as being a harbinger of life, not death. Getting your period means having the ability to create life when the time is right, whatever that means for her. For older women, continued menstruation is an indicator of continued youth and vitality – and the cessation of menstruation is looked upon as the death of fertility. Additionally, just a viable egg means that there is the potential to create life, it doesn’t mean that potential is desirable. There are plenty of women who breathe a sigh of relief when their cycle begins, just as there are plenty of women who shed tears.
Framing menstruation as a symbolic monthly death is a way to encourage women to get pregnant. Designing marital penalties around the woman getting her period is another way to deter couples from using birth control and having unreproductive sex. Getting pregnant means being rewarded with exemption from the laws of niddah for the duration of pregnancy and much of nursing. In this way, stigmatizing menstruation aids in increasing the Jewish population by encouraging pregnancies and punishing those women who have fewer children with more niddah time.