Red rivers of shame; periods and silence
(This article was originally written for and published on Vice)
I remember getting my period and marching 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, declaring that I had started my period. My mother shouted out a cry of joy and my father and brother congratulated me, the entire scene reminiscent of an army returning from battle. I had conquered girlhood and now with the spoils of war I was entering womanhood.
It was the first and last time such joy and absolute 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. The recent storm on Twitter from Muslim women calling for an end to period shame, especially now in the month of Ramadan, drives home just how deeply rooted our shame has become and how very debilitating it is.
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. Islam is about making life easier and fasting an eighteen-hour day while juggling cramps, low energy and back pains is neither easy nor safe, and as the exceptional Blair Imani points out, ‘those of us who undergo the monthly renewal are able to care for ourselves without the additional burden of religious obligation.’
However, it is the cultures surrounding Islam 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. After all, they might be the ‘stronger and superior sex’ but this would clearly tip them over the edge. The notion is both hilarious and absurd, especially since once upon a time it was men we sent wading into battle and off to war, forcing them to trade in violence and blood, yet this very controlled and mostly hidden display of blood from their women is where they draw the line. 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, and while that has happened for decades, it’s also important to remember that women have enforced the trappings of the patriarchy and are as complicit in silencing one another as the men.
I grew up within a Pakistani family and 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. If there are women in those mosques the words ‘I’m not praying’ is the universal code amongst Muslim women for ‘I’m on my period’, never obviously stating it. It is those same women who are later affected by the shame they’ve had a hand in building, and not because they consciously want to, but rather because they are still deeply entrenched within and affected by the cultures they’re living in.
We are all effected by the opinions, habits and customs of those around us and detangling religious rulings and culturally accepted practices is no easy task. The walls of silence are incredibly high and not easy to scale and until we can get over them, shame will be routinely placed in places it has no right to be.
It’s also worth noting that this shame is not exclusively placed on Muslim women and Yassmin Abled-Magied very rightly points out, ‘the shaming around periods during Ramadan is just one example of the patriarchy interfering with a beautiful faith.’ It’s not just Islam but can be seen in the decades of female oppression and there isn’t a culture, religion or country the patriarchy hasn’t infiltrated. We have all become tangled up in a terrible game we have no interest in playing and in a time where silence is no longer golden, it’s our time to start the conversations.
I hope that the recent Twitter outpouring is the beginning of a conversation that Muslim communities are so desperate for and perhaps the first cracks in the walls of silence. The shaming and hiding of periods is theologically unsubstantiated and it is only the cultural catching onto an idea and making it bigger without sound religious backing, that has wrapped periods in whispers and secrecy. I hope more women assert their right to be in spaces and eat freely in front of men during Ramadan, after all, we are part of communities of babies and old people and ill people, there is always someone eating around us, and 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, and perhaps we can be as revolutionary as to eat around the male members of our families, then perhaps 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 happens to the majority of the population, and one in fact that brings sweet life to us all.