Even though I am from a conservative Indian family there are plenty of things I have taken for granted - like eating in front of my father when I was on my period during Ramadan. But many women don’t have the same 'privilege'.
During Ramadan, my mother and her sisters weren’t allowed to let their five brothers and father know when aunty Flo was in town. So even though they were not fasting, they woke up for suhur (the pre-dawn meal) with the rest of the family anyway. When she relayed this to me, she seemed to communicate that women knew to succumb to the unreasonable beliefs of patriarchal Indian culture.
I was 12 at the time and my first Ramadan as a ‘young girl’ was approaching. My attitude on the subject was firm disapproval. My mind wobbled with worry. I didn’t want to be in the same position during that month. I didn’t want to pretend to fast. For me, that was sly and frankly, pointless.
Thankfully, it wasn’t the case in our household. Although my mother did insist that I refrain from eating in public. Being on my period at school during this month turned out to be one of my least pleasurable school memories.
On some days I spent my break in a classroom nourishing my body with a sandwich into which I had stuffed enough nutritious food to last me through the day. I also didn’t want the pain caused by my full-blown cramps – that oftentimes felt like a shark snacking on my uterus - be visible to classmates of the opposite sex, so my bestie (aka a hot water bottle) remained at home.
Thinking back, I almost feel stupid, but it wasn’t my fault.
I was raised in a society that supports orthodox principles – one that made me feel ashamed for the natural, biological process my body experiences. I spent many years somewhat mindlessly believing it was the right way of thinking.
Yet, menstruation is a prerequisite of female fertility so it is quite peculiar that it's considered as something shameful. It should be celebrated or, at the very least, acknowledged (without disgust) as a fundamental biological process.
My friend, Rafieka, had a similar experience growing up in a conservative Indian household:
“There was always a stigma attached to having your period, especially during the fast. I think attending a school whose environment consisted of mostly non-Muslims, and where my classmates’ families spoke about periods and sex education openly helped me to talk about it openly to my family too.
"Previously, during the fast my sisters and I wouldn’t eat in front of our dad or any other family members at home if we were on our period, and my mother encouraged us not to eat during the day for the fear of others finding out.
"But our mindsets have changed over the years. And women shouldn’t be asked to refrain from eating all day during the fast. I think it’s ridiculous. I openly eat at work at my desk because I don’t feel ashamed if I am out. Obviously in a family gathering it’s a bit different. You respect the sentiment of fasting, so you won’t eat in front of everyone.
"It’s important in Muslim households that the sons are educated about this from a young age so that when the daughters don’t wake up for suhur it’s not questioned and frowned upon – instead, it’s understood and respected.”
I’ve always been familiar with bizarre stories of the treatment of women while on their menstrual cycles. According to a survey carried out by the creators of Clue, a women’s health app last year, modern society has 5000 euphemisms for menstruation but it’s something that we still struggle to talk about openly.
In many cultures menstruation continues to be a destructive cause of discrimination against women. In some rural areas of Nepal, women have to live in huts for the duration of their period. Sadly, these unjust practices that reinforce the stigma aren’t constrained to villages alone.
That's right, it's just blood.. Y'know who gave it more importance than it needs? You. You who celebrated my very 1st menstrual cycle.. said it made me a woman. Then you told me to never discuss it publicly. First you made me feel proud of becoming, then you made me feel there was something wrong with me. You told me I couldn't visit holy places. You conditioned me to love cooking, but you wouldn't let me, that day. You yelled when I lit the diya in the mandir that morning. The kids at school laughed at me & my friends didn't sit next to me, bcos my blue skirt was red. I ate my lunch alone, crying in the washroom. I wasn't very proud of being a girl that day. Then I grew older & I met boys.. boys that liked me.. boys that knew nothing about periods, but got disgusted every time a pad fell out of my bag. I couldn't fathom that women raised such men. My girlfriends always whispered about it.. were they ashamed? My colleagues thought I was being a bitch bcos I was "PMSing" - my boss thought that was just my lame excuse to take a day off. I guess his penis never bled, he didn't know what it felt like to have his hormones go on a rollercoaster ride every month, yet all they could grasp from it was that periods were "yuck" & girls act "crazy" on them. I'm not mad at you cos I'm on my period, I'm mad at you for the ignorant moron you are. You think I'm overreacting when I speak about inequality, then you cringe at the idea of vaginal blood. You think it's impure. From you who gave birth to me, to you that wants to marry me, listen carefully - there is nothing about me that is "impure" every month. I'm not the creation of the devil. I'll have as many conversations about my menstrual cycle as I please, I will cook as many meals as I like & enter as many places of worship as I want to. For those 5 days, maybe you should keep your impure selves out of my kitchen, my temple, my work place & come back when you're ready to accept my body. I will never, ever accept my tampons wrapped in a newspaper again - there's a lot more dirt printed in that than a woman's body could ever produce. And if you try to hush-hush me, I'll only scream louder. Sincerely, Every. Damn. Girl.
I'm happy to see unprejudiced views spanning through the generations, but while primitive cultures may have seen menstruation as a curse, modern attitudes towards menstruation are still not progressive enough. It’s a hurdle for us to be socially accepted when we’re on our period, and women suffering from menorrhagia have it the worst, especially during the holy month.
Besides having to deal with an uncomfortably heavy flow, cramps and an iron-deficiency leading to lethargy and an overall crappy quality of life, they frequently exempt themselves from eating during school or work hours as well.
A comparison between Islamic rulings concerning menstruation and the attitude of other cultures in modern society towards it are only degrading to women. In Islam, there is no obsession with isolating women or making us invisible during our period. Islam has raised the status of a woman, and its rulings are meant to be uplifting, beneficial and sensitive to a woman’s feelings.
The concessions granted are a testament to the insight and mercy of God, yet we’re a lot more concerned with 'disrespecting' the men in our families during Ramadan.
It should be on the agenda of Imams (Muslim religious leaders) to address the stigma around menstruation, especially during the fast. Women should not uphold these archaic customs and men should not advocate them in any way.
The fairly good news is that men in some societies are becoming more comfortable than women talking about it. But the stigma certainly still holds a strong presence in my family and wider Indian community. I’m glad that young women are becoming more comfortable talking about it though, therefore making it less of a taboo subject.
The not so great news: Just last night, my cousin mentioned Mother Nature paid her a visit so she had to break her fast. This was said in front of our other cousin's nine year old kid. He sat there, perplexed, pretending not to figure out why she had the right to break her fast while he had been sacrificing his meals since 6.30am.
We weren’t sure whether his parents would have been okay with us explaining the extraordinary reproductive system to him, so we simply laughed about the matter and moved on. In hindsight, this shouldn’t have happened. Now, I have a feeling he's going to turn out to be this guy someday:
Is the stigma around menstruation during Ramadan also prevalent in your culture? Share your story with us.