We’ve all been there, ladies. Don’t deny it. Who hasn’t taken a surreptitious look around before scoffing a bite of [insert chosen food here] while on your period in Ramadan?
Lately, I’ve been wondering why on earth we do this…why are we hiding?
Clearly it’s because of the many social and medical benefits of pretending to fast while menstruating. Not to mention the frequent suggestions found in the Quran and Sunnah that this is the best way to deal with the Crimson wave cravings during the Holy fasting month…
That last paragraph was total nonsense, just an FYI. So why do we ladies–suffering with stomach cramps, aching lower backs, low energy, volatile emotions, an intense need for chocolate-based snacks and all the other wonderful side effects of our monthly visitor down below–put ourselves through the extra hardship of hiding our Allah-given right to eat when others fast?
I’ve asked this question to a wide range of Muslim sisters, and received explanations ranging from the vague, yet formidable declaration that it is “an issue of modesty,” to not wanting to expose the inner workings of your nether regions, to it being entirely disrespectful to those who are fasting.
In my friendship group and beyond, there are ladies who have no issue with eating openly in public, outside of their homes, to women who feel obliged to pretend to their own brothers and fathers that they are, in fact, fasting or even praying!
I have to admit I have a hard time understanding this need to hide.
I am of a mixed race (Welsh/Arab) heritage, and come from a household where it was completely acceptable for me to call my brother to bring me a sanitary pad while in the loo, or beg my dad to bring me home my favourite chocolates because nothing else will help lessen the pain.
The idea that our periods are shameful, or something that must be kept from the menfolk, is quite alien to my experience.
Having said that, I am a curious person, and have attempted to unravel this concept, and pinpoint its origin.
The subject of menstruation is one of the most written about topics in the area of fiqh simply because of the individual nature of each woman’s experience. You can find a ruling on pretty much anything to do with periods from fairly common sense issues like how long should it last right up to the almost-farcical “Can I prepare my husband’s food?”
You would be safe to assume that a topic so heavily scrutinized would have no taboos left, especially when you pair this with the fairly nonchalant attitudes towards women’s periods we find in the Sunnah.
The Prophet’s wife, Aisha, used to lie stretched out in front him praying while on her period. He would also lay his head in her lap and recite Qur’an all while she was ‘of the blood.’ He (sal Allahu alayhi wa salam) even made a joke about her going to grab a mat from inside the mesjid when she hesitated due to her being ‘on.’ His humorous “You don’t have menstrual blood on your hands,” summarizes the kind of attitude I thought we were supposed to have towards the subject. But we can no longer be naïve enough to think that the culture of the Sunnah is the only kind of culture that shapes how the Ummah thinks nowadays.
The world is getting smaller, and for most of us living in the West, our identity as a Muslim is a complicated issue, loaded with facets pertaining to identity and a general desire to belong.
Most Western Muslims, I would argue, are suffering from a form of the Welsh term hiraeth. The word doesn’t really have a direct English translation and, although I boast Welsh heritage, the most Welsh I can remember is mostly to ask whether you like coffee. But what I can gather from Sheikh Google is that hiraeth means to be homesick for a time or place you cannot get to, or may never have visited in the first place. We feel hiraeth for the time of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa salam).
But as a Muslim living in the West, it’s silly not to admit that we aren’t in any way affected by the latest goings on of the Kardashians, just like everyone else on the planet.
Popular culture is all around us, and does, to some extent, shape the way we think, and how the society we live in views the intimate goings-on of a woman’s body is no exception.
Recently, there’s been quite a lot of debate and discussion on the topic of breastfeeding in public. A lot of people feel uncomfortable at the sight of a woman nourishing her child from her breast in a public place. This has led to a number of incidents where new mothers have been forced to hide away, move seats, or even leave establishments because of this.
When you look at the reasons given, it comes down, ultimately, the sexualization of a woman’s breasts. There’s no denying that boobs are sexual, but considering the fact that Allah decided these would be the instruments mothers would use to feed their children, I find it quite interesting how this natural function is being superceded in priority by what men find sexual in society.
The message is clear: If it’s sexy, and fulfilling the concept of male sexual desire, it’s all good. If it is somehow tarnishing this idea, it is unpleasant, uncomfortable, and should be kept hidden. Periods are not sexy. In fact, periods are mostly gross, and for most women, warrant comfy PJ’s, a hot water bottle, and a Netflix subscription rather than a night of passion.
And this is my point.
Periods, like breastfeeding, remind us of the uncomfortable truth that women’s bodies are not just objects of sexual desire.
We don’t have to look far to see examples of this suppression in the wider society. The tampon tax is not directly related, but does highlight a general disregard for the importance of sanitary necessities. Likewise, a woman’s decision to run the London marathon without a tampon or sanitary pad to raise awareness was met with such disgust and outrage, both in the media and on social media, that the original message she wanted to promote was lost.
Whether you agree with her tactics or not, the reaction her protest was met with shows how much the general population opposes such an open representation of female fertility.
I always remember being told, in an English literature lecture, about the origins of the word “gossip.” The term comes from the words “god’s sib,” i.e. “god’s sibling,” and was used to refer to women who assisted with a birth, essentially midwives, because they were helping God to bring life into this world. Childbirth was historically the realm of women, with fathers-to-be relegated outside the birthing room to wait. Along with the evolution of western medicine came the suppression of female education, which meant the role of doctor was predominantly, if not exclusively, reserved for men. As the roles reversed and women became the helpless onlookers, the term “gossip” emerged as one associated with women who liked to pass the time with idle, pointless, chatting. To a biracial on-the-fence feminist Muslim woman such as myself, it all makes sense. The fact that the area of medicine most controversially dominated by men–gynecology– literally means “the study of women,” implies that men still feel the need to know and control the unknown; in this instance, what’s going on in a woman’s lady garden.
If I’ve lost you at this point, I’ll summarize what I’m trying to say: Periods are gross, and (according to men) should not be seen or heard about because men don’t like or understand them.
To go back to my original question, about why our Muslim sisters hide, I don’t actually think it’s us Muslims that were originally to blame for our espionage-esque Ramadan routines.
The society we live in thinks periods should be hidden, so we hide them.
Over time, we Muslims have added our own individual spice to the culture of period-hating. I’m not here to discuss the various rulings on what the correct Islamic etiquette is because a) I am not a scholar, or even a remotely knowledgeable student and b) There isn’t very much evidence either way.
I’m more interested in why hiding is our default response, and the repercussions of both showing or hiding. The most obvious result of eating in public during Ramadan is announcing the arrival of your Aunt Flo. This, in itself, is seen as reason enough to not do it. Fair enough, if women feel this is a private matter (literally) and should be kept that way, but still – why? Every woman on the planet, excepting the mature and the ill, has a period. Every one of these women will not be fasting at some point over the 30 days unless they opted for the ‘no period’ month with the assistance of modern medicine. Why does something so common, so every day, still need to be kept hidden like a dirty secret? Aren’t we simply basking in our own fertility? I leave the answer up to you.
But it definitely seems to be a topic decided by personal preference, and each individual’s interpretation of the M word: Modesty. The variation in the degree of this modesty is noteworthy. Although our faith does not always dismiss culture and cultural norms, we are advised to remain balanced and on the middle path.
Whether you feel comfortable tucking into your lunch in front of work colleagues, or a grill house full of brothers is up to you, but I do think there is one area we can all give our sisters of the world a helping hand.
It still surprises me when Muslim women, especially those who classify themselves as feminists or community activists, encourage their male family members to believe they are still fasting while on their period.
Some will even go to the extent of actually fasting or lying to avoid awkward questions.
This is where I need to get real.
Sisters, Allah gave you the right to take a break. Your iron is low, and most of you is hurting; don’t make it any harder than it has to be. The real issue is not that your dad or brother will find it uncomfortable; it’s that you find it uncomfortable. And this is not okay.
This is your body, and periods are something that will affect you for most of your adult life. So you really need to suck it up, think about it, and get comfortable with what’s going on down there.
Once you do that, you can decide on a way that is comfortable for you to explain why you are tucking into that samosa before iftar. You do not need a standard, one-size-fits-all response. You can, most definitely, tailor it to your audience.
My guess is, your dad is going to have a pretty good idea already…if he doesn’t, I’m worried. Brothers, depending on age, may or may not have a clue, but judging by how readily available knowledge is nowadays thanks to the Internet, I’m pretty sure they have an inkling.
This is where you can actually do a service to the rest of womanity. At some point in the future, your brother will most likely get married. His future wife will most likely have periods. Imagine the shock on your poor bro’s face if this is a total revelation to him.
WARNING: Major assumptions about to be made.
Picture his beautiful, adoring, wife that suddenly transforms into a shrieking harpy, demanding to know why he left the the cap off the toothpaste, yet again, before crumpling into a flood of tears in a fetal position on the bathroom floor, demanding Midol. You have the power to do them both a favour by easing him into it gently. Ask him to make you a hot water bottle. Tell him your cramps are painful. Text him to bring you home some chocolate after work. By the time he gets married, he will be proficient in the potential period problems, and will be eternally grateful for your very useful training.
In all seriousness, I still don’t get what the big deal is. I appreciate people wanting to be respectful, as well as maintaining individual standards of modesty. However, I do feel it is something we have taken to extreme, and need to get back to the point where we can joke about the fact that the blood from Shark Week is not “on our hands.”
To quote Othello “O bloody period!” but, then again, so what?
Written by Hanan Issa