Part 2 of Ramadhan Reflections: #EditorsChat on Menstruating while Muslim
Why do you think there is a stigma upon menstruation? Any personal experiences to share?
Mediah: There is this stigma and negative perception around menstruation because you are labeled ‘dirty’, ‘unclean’ as if we are in a sinful state, and getting punished for it. One aunt told me that the reason we have periods is because Eve caused Adam to commit sin in heaven so now women are punished for that original sin with menstruation! But what annoys me is that when I go to Quran classes, they say that whilst menstruating, I can’t touch an Arabic Quran – but I can touch an English translation. My argument is, being on my period will not dirty the word of God. The language of the Quran is pure and if my intention is to read for gaining knowledge, then the God I believe in will not punish me just because I am on my monthly cycle, which is a natural process which I have no control over. So I have a confession: I have to admit to sometimes faking fasting, and sometimes praying (!) just to avoid the debate of what is allowed or not during menstruation!
I can say I am so grateful that I can openly talk about my monthly cycle with my family even if it involves a code word (kaam kharaab meaning ‘ruined work’ or with my mates in the UK, ‘Are you on your PG Tips or P’s and Q’s?!’). In Pakistan, in my grandma’s house it was kept secret – especially from my uncles. My youngest auntie, who is one year older than me, grassed me up to my grandma, who grassed me up to my mum, saying that I’m a negative influence. I had just talked to her about menstruation which I had learnt from school! I was hurt! In primary school it didn’t click until I was much older that when we had sex education classes which involved learning about puberty, some girls, mainly British Pakistani girls, were taken out of this class. Their parents didn’t allow their daughter’s to partake in these classes! It was very strange.
I remember when I was on Umrah (the ‘little’ pilgrimage which can be performed any time of the year) at the age of 15, I didn’t know, like my other friends, that it was a good idea to go on the pill to delay my period whilst carrying it out. I was so upset when I got my period. I told my mum and she said that it was OK to be in the Haram Shareef (main mosque area in Mecca) but obviously couldn’t pray or touch the Kaaba. So during one of the prayers I sat whilst my mum and sister prayed. This lady of South Asian origin came up to me and said why aren’t you praying? So I said I couldn’t pray. She said I shouldn’t be there in the Haram Shareef. I tried defending myself, but I couldn’t help but be upset by this lady’s reaction. One of my male friend’s in college said, after finding out I’m not fasting, ‘Aww it’s not fair that girls get to have a break during Ramadan, what do guys get?!’
I remember doing a bucket collection for a charity in my local area and it was iftari (breaking fast) time to which I was invited to even though I was on my period, it was lovely that they invited me. So I ‘opened’ my fast. The men had just finished praying Maghrib (evening prayer) in congregation. The women decided to pray after. I just didn’t want to announce that I was on my period, so I joined in the prayer. I thought ‘I’m such a bad Muslim; I’m going straight to hell!’
Hyshyama: Agreed. I think the stigma has been caused by certain misinterpretations of practices, which include as Mediah mentioned – touching the Quran or the restriction from praying or fasting. But it is interesting how the very first time a girl gets her period; it’s almost a celebration for the family as if it’s an achievement of incredible feat – “Hallelujah – She’s female! She got her periods! Thank you, God!”
I remember my parents had a family dinner for me when I finished my first period and my older cousins had a full-blown parties with decorations and a throne for them to sit on the whole evening. It’s like a version of the ‘coming out’ party. This is more a cultural practice than a religious one. These parties are held right after you’re done with your first period, during which time you’re quarantined to a room, hidden from any men seeing you, and fed raw egg in coffee (for strength apparently). I clearly remember demanding pizza. Fortunately the practice is fading in my community and you rarely hear of period parties. But in some parts of the Sri Lanka, there are families who still go into debt organizing massive menarche parties for their daughters. It all comes down to the notion of women as mothers – and economics. An announcement to the world that their daughter is biologically ‘ready’ for motherhood and an opportunity to potentially make a profit from expensive gifts brought to the party.
Ironically though, in many cultures and communities the first period only period that is acknowledged and/or ‘fêted’, since every one after that is basically considered repulsive, offensive, the cause of mental breakdowns or something to be deeply ashamed about. In high school, during Ramadhan Muslim girls used to secretly have lunch in the bathroom because we were embarrassed that the Muslim boys would find out we were on our periods. Looking back now, it’s quite sad. I really hope things have changed in schools today.
A few years ago, I once went to buy a phone from a shop in the local mall during Ramadhan, and a Muslim salesman while showing me phones asked me if I was fasting. I decided to be truthful and said no I wasn’t. He then took to asking me many questions and giving me a lecture on why I should be fasting. I told him off with a one line, ‘Don’t you dare ask another Muslim woman why she’s not fasting!’ and walked away, but nevertheless felt very embarrassed.
Afak: I think there is stigma and negative perception around menstruation due to lack of education, especially in regards to reproductive health. In many Muslim societies topics such as sex education and reproductive health are completely ignored in the education system. For many, education about reproductive health or age appropriate sex education is itself a taboo. I remember that my science teacher in fourth grade in Pakistan skipped an entire chapter because there was a small paragraph about the human reproductive system. Unfortunately, it is still a reality in many schools in the Muslim world the sexual and reproductive health chapters in the textbooks are skipped. In my case I ended up developing a very healthy attitude anyway. Partially because my mother was open about discussing these issues with me, but also because I ended up moving to Norway at a time when many girls around me were getting their periods. I experienced a very laid-back, open and honest attitude towards menstruation in Norway. It was completely different than what had been the case in Pakistan. I remember that at one point I had friends who couldn’t even utter the word ‘menstruation’ in front of their mothers, and on the other hand I had friends who were discussing their periods with their male gym teacher as an excuse to skip the class.
Based on my personal experiences, I believe that schools can be safe learning spaces where young girls and boys develop a healthy attitude towards the natural biological processes of their bodies. If they aren’t, then this potential is replaced with stigma, secrecy, taboo, shame and even humiliation. The lack of dialogue in schools and households can add to a young girl’s experience of isolation and also fosters myths that are very damaging.
To read part three in this series click here.