Corrected at 8:45pm, 16 Nov 2009
PARTI Keadilan Rakyat’s Seri Andalas assemplyperson, Dr Xavier Jayakumar, has unintentionally landed the Taman Sri Andalas mosque committee in hot soup. Xavier had given a talk in the mosque during a Ramadan function in late August 2009. According to the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (Jais), this was a huge no-no. When contacted by Utusan Malaysia, Jais director Datuk Mohamed Khusrin Munawi said this was because non-Muslims fall in the same category as menstruating women, who are also not allowed in the mosque’s prayer hall.
Going by Jais’s status as an official Islamic enforcement body, this is certainly an authoritative statement, at least in Selangor. Khusrin’s statement must still be unpacked, though, and at many levels at that.
First of all, has it been a consensus among Islamic scholars through the ages that non-Muslims are equivalent to menstruating women? Is it a consensus that, therefore, menstruating women and non-Muslims are both barred from entering a mosque’s prayer hall, even if they are not performing prayers there?
A deeper and indeed more controversial question is, what’s the deal with menstruation? Specifically, menstruation taboos. Certainly it is not only Islam that has its share of menstruation taboos. Many Orthodox churches do not allow menstruating women to receive communion. Menstruating Catholics, for the longest time, could not serve during mass at the altar.
The Jewish Talmudic laws are even stricter: A woman is unclean not only during her menstrual cycle, but for an additional week after menstruation has ended. Not only is the woman unclean, she also defiles every surface she touches. She is not allowed to have sex with her husband, and if she does, Jewish law says she can be put to death.
In fact, the “dangers” of menstruation were also given a pseudo-scientific spin in the West. For example in 1878, the British Medical Journal claimed that a menstruating woman could cause bacon to putrefy.
Additionally, the word “hysteria” is derived from the Greek word “hystera”, meaning “womb” or uterus. The word was originally coined to link certain nervous disorders with diseases of the female reproductive organs. And so, conventional male-centred wisdom holds that only women become hysterical, not men.
Sometimes, this view plays itself out in strange and macabre ways. Take anthropologist Professor Aihwa Ong‘s research on “spirit possessions” among female Malay Malaysian factory workers in the 1980s. These were rural women employed mainly by Japanese electronics factories during the free trade zone boom in Peninsula Malaysia.
Under conditions of great workplace stress and trauma, cases of mass hysteria were reported in different factories. And all these attacks either affected or were caused by menstruating women. According to Ong, one worker reported: “Workers saw ‘things’ appear when they went to the toilet. Once, when a woman entered the toilet she saw a tall figure licking sanitary napkins…. It had a long tongue, and those sanitary pads…cannot be used anymore.”
What a coincidence then that even in commercials advertising sanitary pads in Malaysia, the pads themselves are nowhere in sight. (Corrected) 3R co-host Rafidah Abdullah tells The Nut Graph, “When 3R first started out, we tried shooting a sanitary pad commercial with Kotex, without the pads appearing on air.” Apparently 3R‘s broadcasters — TV3 and Astro Ria — were terrified even then that the public would complain about the ads. Nobody complained, and other sanitary pad manufacturers were emboldened to advertise using this innovative strategy of promoting sanitary pads without actually showing the pads.
Is menstruation that terrifying? Is it really that offensive? It is, after all, a normal bodily function. It is part and parcel of being human for half of the human race.
Religious taboos aside, it is also astounding how the fact that women menstruate is used to ridicule women and even keep them from positions of power and responsibility. We only need look back to 2007, when two Barisan Nasional Members of Parliament (MP) — Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin (Kinabatangan) and Datuk Mohd Said Yusof (Jasin) — used menses as a way of discrediting DAP MP Fong Po Kuan‘s legitimate question about Parliament’s leaky roof.
It is this kind of treatment of menstruation in religious teachings, customs and the public sphere that demonstrates that a woman’s bodily functions are an easy way for sexist power structures to keep women second to men. Hence, far from being just a biological function, menstruation is political. Below are the newsroom’s attempts at understanding the bloody business of women’s periods. Give us yours in six words.
Periods are God’s gift to women.
Politicians lacking facts politicise periods instead.
Equating non-Muslims to menstruating women: Huh!
Chauvinism hiding behind a sanitary pad.
“Period” can be said out loud.
Not something to be ashamed of.
Jacqueline Ann Surin:
So “dirty” yet even pontianak takut.
It’s a healthy bodily function lah!
Who’s afraid of a little blood?
What’s so dirty about life-sustaining blood?
Kalau haid, tak boleh pakai putih.
Kalau haid, maksudnya tak hamil. Yay!
Maybe some men have period envy?
Koh Jun Lin:
But the gynae said it’s good!
A built-in barometer of good health.
Is blood donation considered “dirty”, too?
Koh Lay Chin:
Bleeding naturally beats your wars’ bloodshed.
Our menstruation. Menyebabkan men tu eksyen.
Your mother didn’t get period meh?
Nobody says idiotic men have periods.
Biology — no excuse to marginalise women.
Who’s afraid of normal bodily cycles?
If men menstruated — International Menstruation Treaties.
The Nut Graph follows True Blood.
Inspired by Ernest Hemingway‘s genius, the Six Words On… section challenges readers to give us their comments about a current issue, contemporary personality or significant event in just six words. The idea is to get readers engaged in an issue, while having fun and being creatively disciplined.
Read previous Six Words
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