There seems to be a never-ending stream of articles written by women who have been damaged by purity culture in the US. As Angie Hong writes in one of the latest articles about the subject, “If we overcame our fleshly desires and transcended the needs of the physical body, we were told, we would have more time and space for receiving God’s grace and sanctification”. She adds that “If I faltered, I also risked not having intimacy with God and living the perfect, sanctified life”. Growing up in the UK, I was vaguely aware of the US’s obsession with chastity, but having lived there for four years, I am well aware of the harm it did.
Now that I live in Nepal, I am among people with the ultimate purity culture: the Hindu caste system. Remaining pure or unpolluted is a daily and lifelong obsession, particularly for those in the Brahmin high castes.
Here are some examples of purity rules from among the numerous rituals observed around me.
- Brahmins cannot accept food or drink from lower caste members. In her book ‘While the Gods were Sleeping’, American anthropologist Elizabeth Enslin describes living with high-caste in-laws, having met and married a Nepali student at university. She was not allowed to do any cooking since she was considered impure. When she once turned down the stove because the food was burning, the family insisted on throwing away the entire meal.
- In the past, an even more discriminatory rule was that when a Brahmin approached, an Untouchable/Dalit was expected to throw himself or herself facedown on the ground. The purpose of this action was to prevent even their unclean shadow from touching the higher caste.
- Though it has been outlawed, in many rural areas, Chhaupadi is still practised. This tradition means that when a girl has her period, she must remain in an outhouse (often a cowshed) out of sight from male household members. Girls have died from hyperthermia, or carbon-monoxide poisoning from fires, as they struggle to keep warm at altitude.
- Hindu culture also mandates that women must give birth in these same cowsheds. Many women have died from infections after delivery.
- While the US’s purity culture encouraged teenage girls to make chastity vows, the situation is far worse for high caste Brahmin girls in Nepal. They can be forced into arranged marriages with older men at the age of 11 or 12, i.e. before their periods begin. Doing this is thought to ensure they are ‘pure’ before marriage.
Despite the extremity of Hindu purity rites, there are similarities between the US and Hindu versions of purity culture. Both are used to discriminate against and judge others. They apportion blame to one group over the other and create us vs them divisions that separate people into ‘pure’ and ‘impure’; sometimes, these labels last a lifetime. Of course, God does judge us, but his justice is perfect and loving; we are not to judge others and shouldn’t feel the wrath of other’s judgments.
Both purity cultures focus on a narrow set of outward behaviours. In Hindu tradition, these are predominantly rules for food and drink and sexual purity. In American purity culture, the emphasis is on sexual purity alone. It includes dress-codes and condemnation of any action thought to be promiscuous.
In many ways, both cultures are motivated by superstitious beliefs that our good behaviours will guarantee happiness in this life and the next. In US purity culture, this is encapsulated in the idea that remaining pure means God will provide the perfect Godly husband.
As Christians, none of this means we shouldn’t aim to avoid sinning, but God, in His grace, forgives us. He doesn’t write us off. We obey His rules because we love Him, and like David, we can cherish his law (e.g. Psalm 119:97-120) rather than act out of fear of punishment or ostracism. The old testament contains many rules for life, but Jesus turned all these on their head. He reminds us, “It is not what goes into a man’s mouth that makes his mind and heart sinful. It is what comes out of a man’s mouth that makes him sinful” (Matthew 15:11).
There is no us and them, pure and impure, polluted and unpolluted. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). In essence, we are all impure, but this awareness should humble us rather than shame us.
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