Periods: The Secret Shame of Womanhood
When you first start your period, you’re either excited to have finally approached ‘womanhood’ or puberty, or curled up from excruciating pain, or frustrated because it’s something you’ll have to deal with for quite a few decades.
I was nine when I started my period, knickers soaked in blood on a Sunday evening, a bit confused even though I’d known about it for over a year and had just had Sex Education a week prior in school. I just didn’t know it would be that much blood. I called for my mum, who told me I’d started my period, and she helped me to change, wash up and showed me how to put a pad on. A few weeks later, the rest of the women in my family knew and so did my dad. Some point during the next few years, I was told to never mention or discuss periods around any man, to not breathe a word of it because of the shame it was tinged by.
Because being a woman and having periods, in a South Asian community was deemed as embarrassing and sharam [shameful], as if it was something dirty.
It is exhausting, and devastating, that the community, and many Muslims, view
periods as something to be ashamed of, instead of being a natural part of life and growth.
We have been taught from a young age to be ashamed of a normal part of womanhood, taking those first steps into puberty and waging a war with cramps, exhaustion, low energy, cravings and back pains.
Alongside this, we have to be quiet about the monthly bleeding, for fear of being looked at with disgust, so deeply entrenched in the cultures silencing the voices of women, all conversations hushed, and only with other women.
The weirdest part of it all is that in Islam, it literally mentions the menstrual cycle in the Quran various times, and women are not supposed to pray or fast whilst on their periods. God gives us a break. We’re able to go on with our lives, and deal with the symptoms, without the religious obligations weighing us down further.
The lack of education within the culture is prevalent, especially amongst men, especially in the homelands. A man I know, in his mid-to-late 30s, is unaware of periods; he was never taught about it, and nobody ever mentioned it, leaving it under an umbrella of silence and shame, like some sordid secret.
Protecting men and their fragility comes first in my culture, controlling and hiding the birthing of blood - because it’s patriarchy before anything.
Of course, other women aren’t blameless in this, since they too uphold the very values that suffocate and prevent more of us from talking about it. Even to each other, we don’t say “I’m on my period”, we say “I’m not praying”, with the understanding that the other will, obviously, know what the statement means, using carefully guarded words to conceal the word ‘period’, because of the shame attached to it.
A few months ago, my aunt and cousins came over to visit my dad after he’d been discharged from hospital, and I was on my period the day they visited. I left a packet of sanitary pads in the bathroom on a shelf, as it was easier to have it in there than be going back and forth from there to my bedroom when I needed to change. My male cousin went into the bathroom and after he came out, my mum and aunt called me into the kitchen to talk about two things. First was to change out of my crop top and sweatpants because he was there and it was ‘shameful’ to dress like that around a man who wasn’t my husband, and secondly because having the pads in the bathroom, in plain sight for the men to see (the only man I live with is my father anyway), was extremely shameful and embarrassing.
I stood there, eyebrows raised in disbelief, looking at my mum like ‘are you being for real?’, before saying “it’s a normal thing, they’re aware of what periods are, it’s literally not that deep”.
My aunt said “ya Allah (oh God), it is shameful.”
But like . . . why is it?
Why is me having pads, things I need, in my bathroom, the comfort of my own home,
shameful? I mean, my dad knows when I’m on my period anyway since I don’t pray for those
few days. It’s not even the act of hiding pads from sight, because men may see them, but
during Ramadan, many of us have to pretend to be fasting. If my male cousins visit during
Ramadan, I have to pretend like I’d been fasting and eat Iftar with everyone because it’s “embarrassing” and sharam. Some of my cousins have to even wake up for the breakfast before sunrise to eat as well, going to extreme lengths to hide the fact they’re on their menses.
Habits, norms and values affect our lives and have rooted themselves into the actions we take and the excuses we carefully construct.
Shame is a cage used to trap and silence women, coiling a hand over the eyes of men to shield them from the most mundane truths.
Shame is part of our lives, in places it really doesn’t need to be, and it’s something we must, honestly, try to battle, a barrier that must be torn down to the ground.
Periods have been, for decades, the secret shame of womanhood, merely because discussing the red waterfall coming from between our legs is seen as something vile, awkward and disgraceful. Though honestly, it isn’t just in Muslim communities or South Asian cultures that periods are seen as a taboo topic.
Even in the Western world, women are taught to talk in hushed voices about periods and cramps, to hide the tampons or pads when going to the bathroom.
The awkward shuffling, quickly dropping eye contact and silence that falls when it is mentioned to a man is so stupid, in big big 2020.
Patriarchy affects every culture and country. (Down with patriarchy, amirite?)
And our culture is so embedded in shaming a woman’s natural bodily function, that it
makes us have whispered conversations behind cupped palms over mouths, looking over our shoulders to make sure no man hears the dreaded word.
The shaming and hiding of the menstrual cycle is one that has to end, because it’s not something we need to be ashamed of or conceal, and we shouldn’t have to hide the fact we’re eating during Ramadan when God excuses us from the religious practices of prayer and fasting...
Men won’t die if they see women drinking a glass of water.