Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Coming out of the purity closet.

I'm coming out of the purity closet: I pray and fast while menstruating.

It was a slow process -- the start or end of which is difficult to point out -- to where I stand on issues today. I can recall that I gradually started rejecting ideas that this or that made me pure or impure. It maybe first started with the fact that touching your own genitals (even accidentally, as I was taught) nullified your state of purity.

Purity is so important. An entire chapter on taharah is devoted to people who are learning about Islam before wanting to convert. A state of impurity makes all your acts of worship invalid (if you look at worship in that way). Converts are told to take a bath after conversion because being a non-Muslim is itself a major impurity.

Women are told to take a bath at the end of menstruation, before praying or fasting (the bath doesn't work mid-menstruation, obviously). Sometimes we are also taught that we should cut our fingernails or any hair while menstruating because those bits remain impure 4EVAZ (although I think this is not such a common teaching today). Sometimes we don't pray because we can't find a place to do ablution.

Let's backtrack a bit to explain purity. We are taught, growing up, that acts of worship require certain states of purity. States of purity are important because they determine when you can be in a mosque, whether you can pray, fast, and touch or recite the Qur'an. There is physical purity (no dirt on you) and then there is spiritual purity. Physical purity is important, but for times of emergency it can be modified because the ibadah takes precedence (see Quran 4:43, 5:6).

Spiritual purity only becomes applicable when you hit puberty, and it's a little tricky; it is usually broken down into two further states: minor and major impurity.

Minor impurity is usually taught to be caused by normal bodily functions: urinating, defecating, passing gas -- applicable to everyone. Sometimes you are taught that pus, blood, touching your genitals (in a non-sexual way, for example to wash yourself) are also factors. Regaining minor purity can be done by taking ablution.

Major impurity is taught to be caused by sexual intercourse (and for women, menstruation, childbirth and post-partum bleeding) and requires a ritual bath to regain it. As children we are taught these concepts to be universal, but as we grow up we realise that as women of childbearing age we cannot enjoy the same period (pun intended) of purity as everyone else.

The lack of female perspectives in Islamic jurisprudence also results in situations where young women are wondering if their daily vaginal secretions are impure. Menstruation is straightforward, the overwhelming majority of opinions state that it is a spiritual impurity. Therefore, no fasting, praying, touching Quran, or sitting in the mosque (this I understand the least -- is impurity contagious?). Even though there are hadith sources that imply that this is an exaggeration of the original rule that excused women from acts of worship if they were sick (and some women are quite ill during menstruation, varying from backaches to vomiting).

From merely being excused (tak payah) on account of sickness (and even when ill you are allowed to pray while sitting or lying down), it becomes forbidden and invalid (tak sah). Some even make menstruation out to be some kind of 'vacation' from worship. But if worship is pleasurable and I need it, why must I take compulsory vacation from it? (Don't tell me that I can still dhikr and read translations -- I'll dang well choose what kind of worship I want to do.)

Because of a natural bodily function indicating the health of my body, my bones and my reproductive system, that I was not allowed to continue a daily act of worship that I found meaningful for myself, that I was restricted on where I could go, that I was be continuously spiritually impure for eight days -- I rejected it all.

I rejected this because I looked up menstruation in the Qur'an, where it only appears twice, and found that the restrictions were sexual intercourse (addressed to men, in case they didn't know that it hurts, besides being bloody) (2:222) and a detail about divorce waiting periods (65:4).

The Qur'an describes one state of impurity (junub) only, a result of going to the toilet or sexual intercourse (4:43, 5:6). To regain purity, you simply take standard ablution if you have water (wash hands, face, arms up to elbow, wipe head, feet up to ankles). In exceptional cases where there's no water, you're sick, or you're traveling (4:43, 5:6), you can take dry ablution with dry earth (wipe face and hands).

"If the ocean were ink for writing God's words, it would be exhausted before God's words are exhausted..."(18:109)

Rules can be so detailed when they have to be (e.g. inheritance in 4:11-12, 4:176; valid wives in 4:23-25, modesty in 24:31), so why can't we accept that sometimes the rules are so simple?

That there can be a lot of room for your own circumstances, your level of comfort and your conscience. Going to the toilet and having sexual intercourse as impure, and washing afterwards encourages good hygiene (goodbye urinary tract infections!). Wet dreams, menstrual blood and vaginal discharge and everything else uncontrollable as pure, although keeping physically clean still remains part of good hygiene.

It's been three years since I first prayed on my period, and it's been a regular part of my life ever since.

2 comments:

DM said...

While your logic seems to be based on the Quran, you completely disregard the sayings of the Prophet (SAW) that brings more light to majority of issues including in this case menstruation.

Sya said...

Dear DM,
Thanks for your comment. Do take a look at the argument I linked to here: http://thefatalfeminist.com/2011/06/16/menstruation-in-islam-quick-clarification-on-last-post/

In general, I'm rather skeptical about hadith as a source of law (v. guidance). On menstruation specifically, I think that the Prophet excused women for being ill during menstruation, and not because of the menstruation itself.

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