Period Activists at ‘Deis hosted a panel titled “Spirituality x Periods” on Thursday, April 7. The panel consisted of four Brandeis-affiliated individuals who came to represent their respective religions, comparing and contrasting the different traditional approaches to menstruation. The panel also discussed modern-day ideas and approaches, such as feminist reclamations of traditional practices. 

Sanchita Dasgupta, an international student from India, is a sociology Ph.D. student at Brandeis who came to the panel to discuss Hinduism. Dr. Carl El-Tobgui (NEJS) is an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies and the director of the Arabic Language Program at Brandeis, who came to speak about Islam. Rabbi Stephanie Sanger-Miller is the associate director of Brandeis Hillel and represented Judaism on the panel. There to discuss Christianity was Brother Lawrence Whitney, who is currently the Interim Protestant Chaplain at Brandeis. 

The discussion highlighted both similarities as well as differences between all four religions. The panelists were first asked whether or not menstruation is even approached in the traditional texts or customs of each religion and whether menstruation imposes any restrictions on the individual in terms of practice, learning, teaching, and prayer. 

El-Tobgui answered first, mentioning that of the 6,236 verses of the Quran, only one verse mentions menstruation at all. It is in the context of the ritual impurity that occurs when an individual begins menstruating. Sanger-Miller contrasted this fact with Jewish customs, noting that across the many different traditional books and texts of the religion, Judaism has a lot to say on menstruation. However, both the religions deem menstruating individuals as ritually impure, and the two religions share many practices, such as refraining from any physical contact during menstruation and entering a ritual bath to become “pure” at the end of the menstruation period. 

While Islam and Judaism had a lot in common, Christianity and Hinduism approached the topic very differently. Lawrence stated that Christianity has virtually nothing to say about menstruation. There is a singular passage in the New Testament about Jesus healing a perpetually bleeding woman. There is no real concept of ritual impurity regarding menstruation within Christianity, mostly because it is simply not mentioned. However, there are certain sects of Christianity who live in Africa and have inherited notions of ritual impurity from the surrounding Middle Eastern religions. Lawrence noted that Christianity has a lot to say on sex and sexuality in general, but it essentially refrains from discussing menstruation at all. 

Dasgupta highlighted how Hinduism differentiates from the other three religions represented on the panel in that Hinduism is not an Abrahamic religion. No set text is the official text of Hinduism, nor is there even one set type of Hinduism. Dasgupta emphasized that she was hesitant to answer this specific question because there are many different books and texts referred to in Hinduism and many different types of practice, so there is no clear answer to the question. 

Dasgupta did not want to solely speak on the dominant version of Hinduism because, she stressed, this is a bias held by Western thinking. Dasgupta did, however, share that there are many traditional myths and stories regarding the origins of menstruations within Hinduism, and told one of the stories to the audience. 

The panel discussed how today, some traditional texts and practices have been a part of feminist reclamations of the varying religions. 

Lawrence mentioned that over the last 50 years, the one story regarding menstruation in the New Testament has been resurfaced by modern thinkers and feminists after being overlooked for almost all of the history of Christianity. While this has been controversial in the Christian community, Lawrence joked, “it’s not a good sermon unless at least one person walks out.” 

Dasgupta mentioned that for some sects of Hinduism, menstruation is greeted with a coming-of-age ceremony; although, this is often linked with child marriages. However, in other places, menstruating women are viewed as holy, and there are groups of Hindus that have temples dedicated to menstruating goddesses.

Dasgupta also discussed a modern-day controversy regarding menstruating women entering a temple. India’s Supreme Court reviewed a case regarding a potential ban on menstruating women entering the Sabarimala temple in the Indian state of Kerala. The Supreme Court struck down the ban, and menstruating women are now allowed to enter the temple.

Sanger-Miller mentioned that the topic of menstruation is very much an active one in the modern Jewish community, and many people have begun to reclaim the “mikvah,” the ritual purification bath, into a more feminist notion, shifting it to be thought of as something sacred and special, as opposed to something “different” or “other.”

The panelists were also questioned about “menstrual justice,” what the moderators referred to as any stigmas, inequalities, or injustices regarding period education or access to products, amongst other things, and how we can work towards menstrual justice today. 

Brother Lawrence answered that Christians who stigmatize periods should be pushed to have difficult conversations on the issue. He noted that while the Bible doesn’t have much to say explicitly regarding periods, a person can get the Bible to say anything they’d like if they try hard enough, and many individuals have done so regarding menstruation. He acknowledged the stigma regarding menstruation within the Christian community and encouraged the audience to bring up the topic, no matter how uncomfortable it might be, because these are important conversations that need to be had. 

El-Tobgui explained that Islam works hard to strike a balance regarding modesty. While both physical and internal modesty are core elements of the religion, there is also an emphasis on having discussions about sensitive topics within the religious framework. He noted that in Islam, topics like menstruation should without a doubt be discussed but within the right context and circumstance.

Sanger-Miller stated that a religion cannot get away with “spilling this much ink about something without having conversations about it,” stressing that these are conversations that need to be held in Judaism. She also mentioned that in Judaism, there are many religious leaders who specifically train in the topic of menstruation and other kinds of family-related issues who work to guide individuals in that realm. 

Dasgupta spoke to a broader issue within Hinduism, that of the caste system. She stated that many of the former untouchables were the ones given sanitation work, and focusing on caste justice and caste oppression, in general, is an important, though broader, way to achieve menstrual justice. She also stated that impolite questioning for menstrual justice is necessary: “No justice or change ever came from people being polite or from not fighting for it.” 

The event was co-sponsored by Period Activists at ‘Deis, Brandeis Hillel, and the Brandeis Center for Spiritual Life.