3 Women On How Their Religion Affected Their Periods

Photo by Dina Alfasi/EyeEm.
A lot of things can affect the way you learn about periods and how you experience them. But what about religion? At times revered as a celebration of life and womanhood, menstruation can also suffer under the shadow of shame and stigma in many religions and cultures.
Some religions raise issues around 'purity', while strict rules and customs can dictate what a woman can or can’t do during her period. At the same time, menstruation can also be seen as something to be honoured.
Whether your first period means being showered with gifts or sneaking pads from your mother’s stash, everyone’s experience is different and personal. We spoke to three women from three different religions (Judaism, Catholicism and Islam) and asked them to reflect on how their beliefs have affected their experience of learning about periods, their bodies and sexuality.
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Judaism

Sian

I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I learned about periods but I do know that in primary school it was talked about in a sex education class. I wasn’t properly aware of what would happen to me until I was around 11 or 12 and my friends started to get their periods.

I went to a Jewish secondary school and took Jewish studies at GCSE but I didn’t really learn how periods would impact a future relationship with my husband until the lead-up to my wedding. In Judaism, when a woman is due to get married they’ll learn a lot about their period and how it fits into a Jewish marriage, and so I attended classes on being a Jewish wife and what it meant.

I am a practising Jew but it wasn’t until this point that my religion had a real impact on my attitude towards my body and my periods. It made me much more aware of my period, how long it lasted and when I was due – mainly to ensure I hadn’t bled for a certain number of days before going to the Mikvah (a ritual bath used for cleansing purposes by men and women) to be pure and clean for the wedding.

A huge part of the classes was around my period, and how it would affect the physical and emotional relationship with my husband. Within the Jewish religion, once a woman starts to bleed she is no longer 'pure' so isn’t allowed to touch her husband. This time of the month is known as Nidah and it is for the entire time the woman is bleeding, followed by seven clean days. Although I don’t keep it, the ideas behind it make total sense to me: it creates space in the relationship to focus on the emotional needs of each other without the physical needs getting in the way.

What I learned highlighted the power of the female body and reminded me what a period represents: that the female body has the ability to grow life. My mum was always open about periods growing up and my dad, not surprisingly, didn’t want to hear anything about it. I know my husband won’t want to talk about it much with our daughter when the time comes.
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Islam

Yusr

I am deeply religious and spiritual and I see Islam as a way of life so it affects every decision I make. Externally, I don’t look very religious as I don’t wear a headscarf or cover up, so people are often surprised when I tell them I pray five times a day.

However, I think it is a personal connection between oneself and God. It has helped me through very tough times and keeps me grounded as a person.

My mum has always been quite open about periods. I remember a great celebration when I first started my period at the age of 12 – my mum would shower me with gifts, as well as calling up and telling other family members, embarrassingly enough, as it was celebrated as an entrance to womanhood.

My dad never really spoke about it at all, except to congratulate me when I first started. He was outnumbered by females (my mum, sister and myself) so there was plenty of period talk but he never really got involved.

I’d been quite desperate to start my period so I could feel more 'adult' and join in with friends who had already started. However, I remember when I first noticed I was bleeding, there was an unexpected sense of sadness and loss which made me cry. I think it was a mourning for my childhood and I regretted having been so desperate to start. Seeing how positive and celebratory my mum was made me feel a lot better.

I was taught how to calculate when my period was due and my mum encouraged me to write the dates of my period in a diary, which I am so grateful for as I have a brilliant awareness of my body and when I am ovulating. I’m always prepared for my periods before they start and aware of how they’ll affect my mood.

The Quran mentions menstruation several times, so I think that normalised it for me and I felt less embarrassed asking questions as it wasn’t a taboo subject. During Eid, if I’m on my period, I don’t pray – although I still attend Eid prayers in the mosque. I also don’t fast or pray on my period but I’m still able to join in any celebrations and will still cook and eat with the family during Ramadan, so I don't feel exempt.

As a young teen it was sometimes embarrassing when I had to sit out of prayers; I’d get teased by male cousins and friends as they knew the reason why. As I got older though, I felt a sense of importance.

I think that the body is in a state of constant worship when we’re menstruating so we don’t need to pray when we’re on our periods. I’m aware some people believe that women aren’t allowed to pray or have sex during their period because they’re 'dirty' but this isn’t the case. It’s actually a blessing to be able to take a paracetamol and have some chocolate when I’m on my period, instead of fasting from sunrise to sunset, so it’s definitely not a form of oppression.

This makes me feel respected and well looked after by the religion as I’m still able to worship, but in a way that honours my body at a time when it may be feeling more run-down and tired or weak.
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Catholicism

Olivia

I always think of my upbringing as pretty Catholic – I went to church every Sunday and used to do readings and sing in the choir. I also went to catechism classes and did my Holy Communion. Dara O'Briain is quoted as saying "I don't believe in God, but I am still a Catholic" and I feel that sums up my family and their beliefs. It is more of a cultural thing.

My relationship with religion was really positive actually. My grandparents were devout Catholics and my granddad went to church every day of his life.

I had no education about periods until it was way too late, and even though I was at a secular secondary school, I don't think anything like that was mentioned until GCSE science, when we studied reproduction. There was lots of shame around sex and sexuality that was nothing to do with religion. Everything I learned about periods was through girls with older sisters.

I think I was about 14 when I started my period and I was way too embarrassed to tell my mum. She eventually confronted me as she noticed all her sanitary pads going missing.

I think because of their parents and their Catholic upbringing, my own parents just didn't know how to talk to me about sex. My dad never attempted to (thankfully) and my mum got so embarrassed she didn't really make any sense. Although her intentions were good, it definitely left me confused and feeling like sex was something to be really, really embarrassed about.

I thought there was some physical indicator to adults everywhere that let them know if you had sex, like a flashing neon light, and I also thought you only had to do it once to tell God you were married and wanted a baby. I remember when my older cousin told me the whole story, I didn't actually believe her.

I don't think my religion stigmatises periods, but definitely sex and female sexuality. Luckily, I never absorbed that messaging. I recently did a reading at a friend's Catholic wedding and felt strongly about the mentions of wives being subordinate to their husbands. I have no negative feelings towards religion, but I really hate the outdated patriarchal teachings.

I think if it was up to religion, I would be pretty clueless about my body and think my only role in the world is to get married and reproduce. But to be honest, my experience of secular education wasn't much better. I still can't get over the lack of information women get about their own bodies. We’re taught to feel ashamed about our periods, sex and sexuality, and it takes years to unlearn. Also, period poverty in the UK – one of the richest countries in the world – is despicable. We can't blame religion for that.
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