Hygiene and purity are concepts that are often emphasised on in different religions all around us. More specifically, these come to be associated with stereotypes and taboos around bodies, specifically female bodies and those of people belonging to lower rungs of caste hierarchy still in practice in India. In this article, I will specifically talk about ghusl: the practice of ablution, hygiene and related oppressive measures that I have witnessed growing up as within the religion of Islam.
In the Quran, An-nisa-verse 43, says,
O believers! Do not approach prayer while intoxicated until you are aware of what you say, nor in a state of ˹full˺ impurity—unless you merely pass through the mosque—until you have bathed. But if you are ill, on a journey, or have relieved yourselves, or been intimate with your wives and cannot find water, then purify yourselves with clean earth, wiping your faces and hands. And Allah is Ever-Pardoning, All-Forgiving.
This is the only text in the Holy Quran which states acquiring external purity. The Hadith texts is a collection of traditions and sayings of prophet Muhammad which form the most important source of guidance for Muslims, apart from the Quran. Hadith books were written by different followers of Islam, which then based on their own subjective understanding and interpretations, portrayed different forms of purification rituals. The purification rituals came to especially be attached to women’s bodies, which in turn led to them getting shamed.
Ghusl is an Arabic term for ablution that refers to the mandatory full-body ritual purification before the performance of various rituals and prayers, for any adult Muslim after having been sexually active or after completion of menstrual cycle. Ghusl includes pouring water over one’s private parts three times, then again on your lower body and finally with wudu and bathing, the ritual is complete.
The ritual of ghusl is said to cleanse the whole body from impurities and is mandated by texts and scholars to be performed after intercourse, childbirth, menstruation, before adopting Islam, after death, before important celebrations and during the pilgrimage of mecca. It is also said that water used to perform the ritual should be pure and not mixed with anything else. Although this is what the Hadith books and several religious scholars assert on being practiced, the truth is, I witnessed the act as a weapon used to continue to oppress women into submission.
The notion of impurity, across religions, has predominantly been attached to a woman’s menstrual cycle. In Islam, I have witnessed religious scholars, mostly men, preach what are exaggerated versions of ghusl in what are clear attempts to control a woman’s sexuality. Because of the deep conditioning that we are subjected to, we are led into believing that practicing ghusl is of utmost importance and as a result, we have faced severe physical and mental health issues.
Not only have I experienced this myself, but this is the story of many Muslim women whose lives were made extremely difficult by ritualistic traditions such as ghusl that often relegated them to a position lower than that occupied by men.
Years ago, I would believe and religiously follow every ritual. I was first introduced to the custom of ghusl as a 12-year-old who had just got her first period. I was told it was a special purifying bath that will magically purify me. The understanding here was that my menstrual blood made me dirty. The practices involved was going to haunt me for my life. To start with, I was required to remove the hair from my underarms and on my vulva. Women who practice Islam are not allowed to shave their bodies, and therefore razors were out of the question. Waxing and hair removal creams were our only options. I was all of 12. I assured myself that even though traumatising, it was necessary, and my mother ensured that not a single hair is left on my body. If my vulva was to have even a strand of impure hair left on it, then both my mother and I would be deemed impure.
I was told by the older Muslim women, conditioned into believing what they told me themselves, that if I was to not meticulously and properly remove all the hair on the napak (impure) parts of my body within 40 days, then the earth will curse me.
Needless to say, the difficult practice of Ghusl resulted in many mental and physical health issues for me. For years I suffered from severe rashes, vaginal boils, inflammation on skin, and even seeing my skin getting darker and darker day by day due to those creams, because every month within 40 days I was to religiously purify myself with ghusl.
It was only after years, through various processes of unlearning and questioning that I realised ghusl, especially for women was a product of patriarchy, that made us feel impure for undergoing what was the natural process of menstruation.
As I grew older I was told that ghusl is a process so ingrained into our routine that is never going to leave me alone. So much so, from a wet dream to sex to masturbation: all of these were to be followed by the strict purification of our bodies through ghusl. Even if any gair meharam (a man who is not my husband, my father or my brother) touches me, performing ghusl is a must. It is important to observe the victim-blaming at this juncture, which expects the woman to perform ghusl for having been touched by someone else.
The paranoia within me around ghusl was so much that even when a lover hugged me, it took a massive toll on my mental health. I stopped praying, because I constantly thought that I am impure, unworthy of Allah’s love because a gair meharam, a man who was not my husband by law had touched me which, as per the religious scholars, made me a sinner.
Also read: Reading Feminism and Islam: A Starter Pack
And I just had to look around to see that I was not alone in my suffering. Most of my fellow Muslim sisters, brothers, friends were going through the same mental torture because of this horrendous purification practice that made them feel less worthy instead of clean. So much, that the word napak (impure) now triggers a lot of us struggling under the weight of these customs in our community. Many around me now find themselves grappling with severe depression and obsessive compulsive disorders, for instance, because of the strict mandates of pak (purity). My own mother’s life is an example of how these practices lead to poor sexual and reproductive health in women because of health conditions such as vaginal boil and irritation, rashes, yeast infections etc., that develop as a result.
My question to the staunch practitioners of this ritual in Islam is how long can we turn our faces away from the deep damage these strict rituals have resulted in, in the lives of the adolescent and youth, especially in a country where there’s barely any assertion on well-rounded sex education in schools.
Kinza Jamal is feminist, painter and writer, who concerns herself with a spectrum of issues like gender, domestic abuse, child abuse, VAW, mental health awareness etc., along with obsessively watching Netflix in her free time and giving away free counseling to friends in need. She can be found on Instagram, here and Facebook.
Featured image source: Janambhumi.in