what it means to have your period during ramadan
And why we need to end the stigma, shame, and silence surrounding it.
There was a storm on Twitter recently, created by Muslim women from around the world. It was an outpouring of frustration from women who have spent years hiding their periods from male members of their family and community. These women are now boldly calling for an end to period shame, especially in the month of Ramadan. Their words drove home just how deeply rooted our shame has become and how very debilitating it is. “Do guys expect us to hide during Ramadan when we aren’t fasting bc of our periods?? Foolery,” said Twitter user Amina.
I remember the first time I ever got my period. I was 16 years old. I marched down into the kitchen where my mother was cooking dinner for the family, blood stained knickers clutched in my hand like a flag and proudly, and loudly declared that I had started my period. My mother shouted out a cry of joy and my father and brother congratulated me. The scene reminiscent of an army returning from battle — I had conquered girlhood and now I was entering womanhood.
It was the first and last time such joy and normalcy was placed on my menstrual cycle, and I walked out into the world assuming that it was like this for everyone. My youthful naivety lasted all of five minutes, as the Muslim community I existed in let me know that this was absolutely and unequivocally not something to shout about, but rather should be discussed in hushed tones and never in the presence of men.
Growing up in a Pakistani family I remember watching TV at my grandma’s house as a child, and every time an advert for sanitary products would pop up, my female cousins, or aunty, would change the channel if men were in the room.
You can’t do anything with shame, it only shuts down conversation and the potential for education and enlightenment. Had the Muslim community ever decided to talk about the theological rules surrounding women and their menstrual cycles, they would know that women don’t have to pray or fast on the days they bleed. This is what Islamic holy books teach us, yet culturally there appears to be little awareness of this. Much of any religion is passed down from generation to generation, as opposed to studied consciously. Much of Islam is about making life easier. For example, if you're ill, breastfeeding, or pregnant, you are exempt from religious practices. Islam should sustain and nurture you and anything that is harmful to that is not asked of you. Fasting an 18-hour day while juggling cramps, low energy and back pains is neither easy nor safe, and as the exceptional Blair Imani, Muslim LGBTQ activist, points out, “those of us who undergo the monthly renewal are able to care for ourselves without the additional burden of religious obligation.”
It is the cultures and social practices surrounding Islam in countries in which Islam is the dominant religion — Pakistan, The United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran — that have placed a blanket of silence over the topic in some ill-fated attempt to protect men and their perceived delicate sensibilities from the harrowing red rivers that flow from over half the population of the world on a monthly basis. Of course it is the double handicap of the patriarchy that they first prevent you from doing things and then they prevent you from talking about things. Unfortunately, many women have internalized this misogyny, and are complicit in silencing one another.
Growing up in a Pakistani family I remember watching TV at my grandma’s house as a child, and every time an advert for sanitary products would pop up, my female cousins, or aunty, would change the channel if men were in the room. I’ve heard of women not eating during Ramadan, even though they have a religious right to, because they don’t want the male members of their family to know they’re bleeding, or alternatively, coming up with elaborate excuses as to why they’re not fasting. I know women who will avoid religious spaces during their cycles, fearing that people will see them not praying and know what’s happening. The words, ‘I’m not praying’ have become the universal code for ‘I’m on my period,’ most women never stating it outright.
We are all affected by the opinions, habits and customs of those around us and detangling religious rulings and culturally accepted practices is no easy task. Until we breakdown the stigma and silence of periods, shame will be routinely be in places it has no right to be. As Yassmin Abled-Magied, Muslim speaker, engineer, and activist, rightly points out, "the shaming around periods during Ramadan is just one example of the patriarchy interfering with a beautiful faith." Of course, this shame is not exclusively placed on Muslim women, it can be seen in decades of female oppression and there isn’t a culture, religion, or country the patriarchy hasn’t infiltrated.
In an era of loud movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, it’s obvious that silence is no longer golden and now is the time to start our own conversations. I hope that the recent Twitter outpouring is the beginning of a conversation that Muslim communities so need to have, and is perhaps the first crack in the walls of silence. I hope more women assert their right to be in spaces and eat freely in front of men during Ramadan. Contrary to popular opinion, the men don’t faint to the floor every time a sandwich makes an appearance. If perhaps we can keep this conversation going then we change this cultural convention. Then more girls will enter womanhood happily and in joy, waving their own period knickers around, free of shame and silence around a bodily function that is entirely natural.
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