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In all matters pertaining to religion, women are regarded as inferior because they menstruate

A Cleansing Quest

Sabrimala judgment has corrected a grave gender injustice. The same goes for the Haji Ali Judgment a few years ago; the gender restriction there contravened the very spirit of Sufism where women and men of all faiths were blessed and welcomed by the patron saints. Today media has reported a huge protest in Pathanamthitta district called by the royal family of Pandalam against the Sabrimala judgment. The reporter has flagged the presence of a large number of women. The fact that they were shouting against a judgment that had restored their dignity is the biggest travesty.

In this regard, what about Islam?

Quran’s Surah Al Baqr speaks of women’s mensuration in clear unambiguous terms. ‘O Prophet they ask you about menstruation so tell them it is a time of ‘adhan’ (hurt). It is better if they (men) stay away (intercourse) from them (women); until they finish their ayyaam (days) and cleanse themselves’. These lines of the Quran have been used from times immemorial to restrict women from participating in these days in anything pertaining to religion. The word ‘yat-hurn’ which means ‘clean, pure’ has been read to imply they were ‘dirty’ before the cleansing. That men and women have to cleanse themselves before offering prayers is a Quranic injunction which applies both to ‘Haiz’ menstruation as well as to washing off body fluids post intercourse, before Namaz is offered. And the injunction to men not to have sex with their wives has been made because they (women) are in a ‘delicate state’ (adhan) and should be allowed to rest. Nowhere in the Quran have I read a single line explicitly stating that they should be excluded from any other religious practice.

Most male interpretations have given ‘pollution’ as the meaning of the Arabic word ‘adhan’. That meaning has opened the floodgates of all gender exclusions. Men have used this word to imply ‘naapaaki’ (uncleanliness) as a tool for increasing their control over women. In all matters pertaining to religion, women are regarded inferior because they menstruate. And the male is superior because he does not menstruate. That is the sine qua non of this argument.

Over the years I have learned to interpret Islam in the one and only light I know; the Quran. And it is my own light which guides my understanding and interpretation of it.

The only explicator I turn to is Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who is a male and a Maulana and for me and millions like me the most liberal and enlightened one. No one can question or deny his Tarjumanul Quran. Azad’s explanation of this line is that the injunction to stay away is not because women become ‘naapaak’ or impure and therefore not to be touched (as was the pre-Islamic Jewish belief) but because sexual contact during these days is ‘muzir’ (harmful, hurtful). In the same light it may be averred that during the menstrual cycle keeping Ramadan fast may be tedious, or the act of ‘rukuh’ and ‘sijdah’ during namaz could be strenuous. But patriarchy latched on to a certain vocabulary and a slew of practices are declared forbidden to women during their courses.

To recall a few instances from my own life.

When I entered puberty and began menstruating,I was told to to stop my daily namaz. After the cycle was over I was instructed to bathe in a certain manner. My instructor was a kindly but illiterate serving woman who knew the ritual of ablution but had no answers. I did as I was told, no questions. During Ramadan I was told not to fast during those ‘unclean’ days and not to touch the Quran. Again, I did as I was told, no questions. These restrictions/ instructions became a part of my mind-scape and thoughtlessly passed on to the next generations.

The same unconscious acceptance came into play while visiting religious sites. At Sufi shrines like Dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia and Ajmer Sharif I was not allowed into the sanctum sanctorum where men thronged freely. It was during my second visit to Hazratbal in Srinagar when the penny dropped. I was infuriated when I was stopped from entering the inner space. The last time I had freely gone right inside to pay my homage. To protest would have created a scene for which I was unprepared. And even less prepared was I when I went to Medina and was directed to the outer line, far far away from the Prophet’s grave while men were allowed within touching distance.

Syeda Hameed is a social and women’s rights activist, educationist and writer

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