‘We menstruate and they see it as dirty. Attention seeking. Sick. A burden. As if this process is less natural than breathing. As if this process is not love. Labour. Life. Selfless and strikingly beautiful.’ Rupi Kaur
I remember when I started my periods; I don’t think it’s a moment you can easily forget. I was young. It wasn’t glamourous. I didn’t know anything about periods at the time. Sex education didn’t start as young as it does now. It’s no exaggeration when I say I thought I was dying. I didn’t understand what was happening to me.
I was told it was part of growing up. A part that involved stomach and back pains, mood swings and an insane addictive craving for chocolate. Yes, I was that stereotypical girl.
I share this with you because there’s been much talk over the past week or so on this subject, particularly given that it’s Ramadan at the moment, and many Muslims are fasting. But there are those who don’t have to, particularly if you have a serious health issue, are pregnant, breastfeeding, too old, too young, basically you fast only if you are mentally and physically able to.
Now within the category of those who are exempt from fasting, are menstruating women.
The reason why this is being talked about a lot at the moment is because some Muslim women have taken to social media to share their experiences of how they’ve had to ‘fake fast,’ ie pretend to fast so their families, particularly the men folk, aren’t aware that they are menstruating.
Now firstly I want to point out that this isn’t a new phenomenon, this has been going on for decades, generations even. It has been discussed before but perhaps not so open and publicly. I think social media has helped break down some of the barriers that existed before, it has provided people with a space to discuss and relate to others experiences. I also think there’s an increasing appetite for change particularly when it comes to issues affecting women.
Growing up, I never really felt any shame when it came to periods, I normally hate menstruating for the reasons I listed earlier, but in Ramadan I welcome it as a sweet reprise, a mercy from God, to provide a much needed break in what can be a challenging month of fasting.
I come from a family of six girls, so menstruating was as normal as breathing. We didn’t hide it from my dad and he admirably took it in his stride, often buying us the necessities we needed, whether that was chocolate or pads.
But this wasn’t the reality for some of my friends at school, who often expressed shock when I told them that particularly in Ramadan, my dad would get us to taste the meals he was preparing. In fact as sisters, we knew if dad was shouting you from the kitchen in Ramadan, it was only for one reason, he had created a recipe akin to Heston Blumenthal ’s and you were his guinea pig.
Halima Mohammed is a 31year old Somali Muslim, she had a similar experience growing up to mine;
‘I have never understood how some Muslim girls hide their periods from their brothers and dads, that doesn’t exist in the Somali community, it’s just not in our culture. If someone asks you why are you not fasting, we have a Somali saying which loosely translates as ‘God has excused me.’ I think generally when I read items in the media about British Muslims I find it’s actually centred around the experiences of British Pakistani Muslims. For Africans this is a non-issue.
It’s important to point out also that there is a huge difference between the woman who isn’t eating in front of men because she is hiding her reasons from them and the woman who isn’t eating in front of those who are fasting out of respect for the fast.
I remember when I moved from a girl’s school to a mixed school for sixth form, it was Ramadan, and I wasn’t fasting. A non Muslim approached me and asked why I wasn’t fasting, I couldn’t believe that in the 6 years he had been at this school he hadn’t seen a single Muslim girl not fast during her periods. When I told him I was on my periods and was exempt he went bright red and walked away. But I was in shock more because this was the first time he had encountered someone eating whilst on periods.’
Sana Nosheen aka LookAMillion is 21 and a social media influencer, she believes it’s got less to do with culture and more on individual preference
‘I’ve never hid that I’m not fasting from my brothers or my dad, I’ve not been fasting this year due to health reasons, and I’ve been eating and no one’s had a problem with it. But I remember at school, whereas other girls were more open about being on their periods, I would never tell people. Not because I felt shame but because I was just shy.
There are many reasons why people don’t fast, periods is just one of them and the most popular, people need to understand that there are a whole host of other factors and also to mind their own business. Ramadan is about focusing on your own spiritual journey, you should be less concerned about the actions of someone else.’
Nabeelah Hafiz says culture does have a big part to play
‘When we were younger, we were taught to conceal our periods, we were taught it was a natural experience but told it should be kept between women. So although we weren’t taught it was shameful, it became an object of shame because you were hiding it.
As time has moved forward, I have taken ownership of my body and that has involved me learning to empower myself through my cycle, I am woman who bleeds and that’s powerful. It’s not something I learnt overnight. It’s something I learnt how to fully embrace. But definitely I know for some families it’s still a taboo subject.’
Nabeelah is right, it is still a taboo subject within some communities and one that is rightfully being addressed. To put it simply it’s a matter of fact that half of the worlds population experiences menstruation, it’s this fact that allows women to have babies. It’s part of our biology.
Being on your periods can be traumatic, painful and deeply uncomfortable. To have to lie and cause yourself more discomfort for the benefit of those who should be supporting you is not only unfair but unjust.
If boys aren’t taught how to care and empathise with women during times of need, if they are taught implicitly to ignore them when they are most vulnerable, if they are taught that periods are shameful and should be hidden, then how will they ever grow to understand the emotional and physical needs of a woman?!