Notions of ‘impurity’ are holding back women from achieving equality

A crayon drawing of a woman standing enclosed by a red oval and black barbed wire by jwiener (https://blogs.harvard.edu/semart2015/)

Even since I was a child, I was taught never to touch the shrine of a deity, because apparently those of us who menstruate are ‘impure’.

Even since I was a child, I was taught never to touch the shrine of a deity, because apparently those of us who menstruate are ‘impure’. I was taught that the vaginal area is a dirty place, that it is always about sex, urination, or menstruation.

But aren’t all of these natural phenomena? Just like the heart is meant for beating, isn’t the vaginal area meant for crucial functions that enable us to live? So why is it considered dirty or impure?

Before I got my period, I was allowed to enter temples, touch holy texts, and perform prayer rituals – there were no restrictions, except when my mom would get her period. I never understood why we weren’t allowed in the temple for five days. To me, it felt incredibly odd.

When I got my first period, I had a long talk with my mother. She told me about how I was growing up, about my new responsibilities, about abstaining from sex, and finally about how I’m not allowed in the temple for five days a month. When I asked her why, she told me that bleeding from my vagina is considered impure and dirty, and dirty things should never enter a holy place. She also said that by doing so, I would be sinning. I could only enter the temple after ‘purifying’ myself by cleaning myself thoroughly after five days.

As you can imagine, I was pretty confused, but I never questioned my mom any further. I kept thinking that my mom was right. I was wrong. My mom didn’t have all the answers. She isn’t at fault here – she passed down the knowledge that her mother had given her, to me.

She never questioned her mother, just like I never questioned her, because we both thought that our respective mothers were right.

My question is this: how did the term ‘impure’ come into play? How did come to pass women become ‘impure’, and men ‘pure’?

I wonder why a woman is on her period entering a temple is considered a sin, but when a man has just eaten tobacco and enters the same temple it’s totally alright, and no one will say anything to him. My mom told me that according to some Hindu scriptures, drinking alcohol, chewing tobacco, lying, and being hurtful to others are considered to be sinful. If a sin is impure, then most people should be barred from entering temples. On the other hand, I haven’t read anywhere so far that it is sinful for a menstruating woman to enter a temple. Why is there so much hypocrisy?

In this day and age, in the middle of the feminist struggle and the fight for gender equality, why do so many restrictions exist to hold women back? Seeing the women activists fighting for their right to enter temples gives me hope. We may be one step closer to equality, but we still have a long way to go. It is when all of us are treated equally that people will let go of these notions of purity and impurity.

Featured image credit: jwiener (https://blogs.harvard.edu/semart2015/)