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Menstruation and Henna: Pollution and Purification

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In traditional Islam, a menstruating woman was considered vulnerable, weakened, and polluted; therefore she could not pray, fast, or have intercourse. Menstrual blood was najis , polluted, haram, very dirty, as were all blood, excrement and reproductive fluids. Islamic tradition emphasizes that Allah values people who are clean and pure, whereas malevolent jinn , predatory evil spirits, are not repulsed by filth, blood and decay, and may even find it attractive. In some Islamic traditions the jinn are believed strongly attracted to menstrual blood. For these believers, anyone who sees or touches menstrual blood is ritually impure and vulnerable to malevolent spirits, and dire consequences can follow.
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Menstruation and Henna: Pollution and Purification

Henna’s role in Muslim Traditions Regarding Reproductive Blood

Catherine Cartwright Jones, Kent State University


Figure 1: Hennaed hand, by author


In traditional Islam, a menstruating woman was considered vulnerable, weakened, and polluted;
therefore she could not pray, fast, or have intercourse. Menstrual blood was najis, polluted,
haram, very dirty, as were all blood, excrement and reproductive fluids. Islamic tradition
emphasizes that Allah values people who are clean and pure, whereas malevolent jinn, predatory
evil spirits, are not repulsed by filth, blood and decay, and may even find it attractive. In some
Islamic traditions the jinn are believed strongly attracted to menstrual blood. For these believers,
anyone who sees or touches menstrual blood is ritually impure and vulnerable to malevolent
spirits, and dire consequences can follow. Running water and a thorough scrub purified a
woman at the end of her menstrual cycle or other reproductive blood flow, so she could resume
“Menstruation and Henna, Pollution and Purification”, was written by Catherine Cartwright-Jones as partial completion
of the requirements for a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies focusing on henna, under the supervision of Dr. A Smith
and Dr. N Ammar, Kent State University, Kent Ohio, USA


3
prayer, fasting and intercourse, and dispel malevolent jinn. When she bathed, she also applied
henna to her hands, feet and hair. Henna stained her skin and hair dark blood-red, and remained
visible for several weeks, showing that she had a purified body, worthy in the eyes of God and
her husband, and repellant to malicious jinn.


Figure 2: Hennaed hands, patterns adapted from Ethiopian folk art: by author

Islamic sacred texts, the Quran and Hadith, set the beliefs about jinn, menstruation and henna, but
the interpretation and practice of these beliefs is always filtered through local tradition. Women
throughout the Muslim world used henna, and cleansed after menstruation, because the Prophet
“Menstruation and Henna, Pollution and Purification”, was written by Catherine Cartwright-Jones as partial completion
of the requirements for a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies focusing on henna, under the supervision of Dr. A Smith
and Dr. N Ammar, Kent State University, Kent Ohio, USA


4
Mohammed recommended it. Different sects and tribes had different henna and cleansing
techniques, visual symbols, exorcisms, and rituals reflecting local culture. Henna was frequently
part of postmenstrual ghusl, the purification bath, applied in patterns and techniques varying
according to local taste.

Islam did not create these concepts about reproductive blood and henna; Islam adapted pre-
existing Semitic traditions. Islamic menstrual taboos were based on a concept of pollution and
vulnerability versus purity and strength. Menstruating women were vulnerable to jinn and the
Evil Eye, irresistibly drawn to blood, particularly reproductive blood. These evil forces caused
fitna, or disorder, which manifested as disease, inappropriate conduct, and tragedy. Henna
contained baraka, or blessedness, which protected the wearer from misfortune. Women used
henna and protective patterns drawn with henna to purify their bodies, to preserve the health of
their skin and hair, and to protect their souls and minds from attack by malevolent spirits.
Women negotiated their menstrual and reproductive vulnerability through henna, wearing visible
symbols to show that they were pure, strong, in good spiritual standing, as well as in emotional
and physical health.

Western fashion and cosmetics changed henna use patterns in the 20th century. North African and
Middle Eastern now often prefer the convenience and style of commercial nail polish and lotions
to henna. Though there is a thriving henna tradition in Mauritania and Sudan, many
contemporary Muslim women prefer to wear hijab and modest clothing to express their purity,
and avoid henna because it seems old-fashioned and rural, or too much like tattooing (Messina
1988).





“Menstruation and Henna, Pollution and Purification”, was written by Catherine Cartwright-Jones as partial completion
of the requirements for a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies focusing on henna, under the supervision of Dr. A Smith
and Dr. N Ammar, Kent State University, Kent Ohio, USA


5


Henna


Henna is the Semitic language word for the plant, Lawsonia Inermis, the paste made of
pulverized henna leaves, and the body art created with that henna paste. Henna contains a dye,
Lawsone, or hennotannic acid, 2-hydroxy-1,4-naphthoquinone, that stains skin, nails and hair
dark blood-red. Crushing fresh or dried henna leaves with lemon juice or some other acidic
liquid makes henna paste. Henna paste is applied to skin, fingernails or hair. When the henna
paste is left on for several hours, the keratin and collagen become thoroughly saturated, with
Lawsone. When the paste is removed, an orange stain remains. This stain darkens to deep
reddish brown over 48 hours.


Figure 3: Dark green dry henna paste flaking off of skin, showing orange stained skin beneath; by
author


A skilled henna artist can create complex patterns with shaded colors, and the results can look
like dark lace. When the paste is left on longer, and under hotter conditions, such as at a
“Menstruation and Henna, Pollution and Purification”, was written by Catherine Cartwright-Jones as partial completion
of the requirements for a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies focusing on henna, under the supervision of Dr. A Smith
and Dr. N Ammar, Kent State University, Kent Ohio, USA


6
women’s bath, or hammam, stains are darker, and retain their vivid color longer. Henna stains
usually last about three weeks. When henna is applied at the end of menstruation, the stain is
generally bright colored through the time period of ovulation, and fades to vanishing by the onset
of the next menstrual period. As the skin exfoliates and regenerates, the henna stained cells
exfoliate, so the henna pattern disappears in about 3 weeks. As hair and fingernails grow out, the
undyed roots show.

Figure 4: Hennaed hands and nails, patterns adapted from Algerian folk art, by author


North African and Middle Eastern women stained and ornamented hands, feet, nails and hair with
henna when they visited the hamam, a traditional women’s public bath. This bath was required at
the end of their menstrual cycle, though well-to-do women went more frequently (Mernissi, 1994:
233; Masse’ 1954:70). Henna was most commonly applied to fingertips and fingernails, staining
them red or rust color to near black. Henna was also applied to the feet and soles, in patterns that
resembled slippers.

“Menstruation and Henna, Pollution and Purification”, was written by Catherine Cartwright-Jones as partial completion
of the requirements for a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies focusing on henna, under the supervision of Dr. A Smith
and Dr. N Ammar, Kent State University, Kent Ohio, USA


7
Applying henna to fingertips and nails prevented cuticles from splitting, and strengthened nails
for rough village women’s work. Applying henna to soles kept heels from cracking and relieved
cuts and blisters from rough sandals or stony ground. Women believed henna purified them and
protected them from disease (Tauzin, 1998: 28 – 30; Hart U., 1992:144, Friedl E., 1989:21).
There may be some medical basis for these beliefs, as some studies have demonstrated henna
deters some bacterial and fungal growth, and may have a localized analgesic effect (Ali et al
1998: 356 – 363).

In many communities, henna was used to deter malevolent spirits and the Evil Eye (Messina,
1988). When a woman felt vulnerable, or believed someone had cast the Evil Eye on her, she
might hire a specialist to henna complex patterns on her skin at a henna party (Messina, 1988).


Figure 5: Hennaed hand, patterns adapted from Moroccan folk art, by author

North African women hennaed diamond-shaped Khamsa henna patterns to repel the evil eye,
protect the wearer, and enhance their sexuality. An old Moroccan proverb stated that “A woman
without henna is like wheat without salt,” indicating that a woman is more “appetizing” when she
“Menstruation and Henna, Pollution and Purification”, was written by Catherine Cartwright-Jones as partial completion
of the requirements for a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies focusing on henna, under the supervision of Dr. A Smith
and Dr. N Ammar, Kent State University, Kent Ohio, USA


8
has henna (Hammoudi, 1993: 121). Arab women used a combination of diamond patterns with
written charms to protect the wearer (Addison 2001) as well as patterns intended to enhance
beauty and eroticism. Sudanese women wear floral henna patterns to emphasize their femininity
and to attract benevolent spirits (Boddy, 1989). Women used henna because their health and
fertility, and husband’s love were never guaranteed, and they often wished to actively better their
situation rather than passively accept “the will of God”.

The Evil Eye was often considered the cause of lost fertility, lost love, lost health, and women
often believed a rival wife or spirit had cast the evil eye. Persian women would henna intricate
patterns that would entangle the Evil Eye so it would not touch their skin and penetrate their soul.
Many believed that malevolent jinn, supernatural spirits were attracted to their menstrual blood,
and that their evil intent could be thwarted by henna and protective patterns; jinn would “bounce
off and shatter” if they touched star shaped henna patterns. Women soiled with reproductive
blood were believed to be highly vulnerable to attack and possession by the Evil Eye and jinn,
and henna was specifically believed to deter malevolent spirits and encourage benevolent spirits
in Persia, Sudan, Morocco, and Mauritania (Boddy, 1989:250 – 1; Westermarck, 1926, I: VIII,
Tauzin, 1998).

Henna and Tannin

Plant tannins, such as found in henna, react with collagen and keratin and preserve protein
structures in skin and leather, keeping them supple, resistant to desiccation and degradation
(Stankiewicz et al 1997, p. 1884-5). Henna stains protect skin by packing the “band” regions of
the fibrils with tannin, which prevents them from separating, thus preserving the macro-molecular
structure and slowing the spread of decay or disease (Haslam E., 1989). Plant tannins preserve
“Menstruation and Henna, Pollution and Purification”, was written by Catherine Cartwright-Jones as partial completion
of the requirements for a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies focusing on henna, under the supervision of Dr. A Smith
and Dr. N Ammar, Kent State University, Kent Ohio, USA


9
mummies and bodies in bogs from desiccation or decay. On living people, henna’s tannin keeps
skin, hair and nails supple, deterring drying and cracking in arid climates. Henna stains also block
damaging UV sunlight, a serious threat to skin health in the latitudes where henna is used. Some
medical studies have tested folk remedies that include henna, and found henna is effective against
ringworm (Bosoglu et al 1998, 71-2). Henna’s reputation as having “baraka”, blessedness, the
ability to deter the Evil Eye, may be associated these beneficial characteristics.


Figure 6: Henna branch with new growth, red showing lawsone content


Henna Growth and Use

Henna grows in arid subtropical areas, where night temperatures do not fall beneath 11 C. Henna
survives on 50mm of rain per year, and daytime temperatures of up to 45C, producing the greatest
dye concentrations in the harshest conditions (Al-Ash’af, 2002). Henna is native to the eastern
Mediterranean, where it has been used by women since the Bronze Age (de Moor, 1971: 85) or
earlier. Its growth region extends from the Atlantic coast of North Africa, across the Sahel and
Mediterranean coast of Africa, Arabia, Egypt, East Africa, the frost free zones of the Middle East,
and South Asia to Malaysia.

When did women’s henna use originate?

“Menstruation and Henna, Pollution and Purification”, was written by Catherine Cartwright-Jones as partial completion
of the requirements for a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies focusing on henna, under the supervision of Dr. A Smith
and Dr. N Ammar, Kent State University, Kent Ohio, USA


10

Figure 7: detail of Female figure with hennaed hands and breasts, 7th c BCE, Cyprus, British
Museum , BM Cat. Terracotta A 123 (Tatton-Brown, 1997: fig. 70)

Henna stains the palms of hands and soles of feet and nails dark red-brown. Many statues and
depictions of young women from Bronze Age Cyclades, Cyprus, Mycenae, and Minos have dark
red markings on their hands, breasts and feet, and their hands raised to display the red markings.
The Bronze Age Ugaritic legend of Baal and Anath describes “the perfect brides” applying henna
before they go seek their husbands (de Moor, 1971 p 85.). In the same text, Anath applied henna
for a springtime fertility festival sacrifice and hennaed again before she avenged Baal’s murder
by killing his enemy, Mot, the god of summer sun, heat and drought, (Hooke, 1963, p 83). An 8th
BCE century Assyrian text describes a bride being hennaed for her wedding (Aubaile-Sallenave,
1982). The Romans recorded henna use by Egyptians, Persians, Jews, Arabs and Palestinians
(Josephus, IV: 9 –10, Juvenal Sat. II: 92 - 5).
“Menstruation and Henna, Pollution and Purification”, was written by Catherine Cartwright-Jones as partial completion
of the requirements for a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies focusing on henna, under the supervision of Dr. A Smith
and Dr. N Ammar, Kent State University, Kent Ohio, USA

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