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Menstrual Taboos: “The First Time I Skipped My Quran Reading Class, I Was 11”

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By Nur Ibrahim:

The first time I skipped my Quran reading class, I was 11.

I stayed inside the room while my brother carried on his poorly-accented Arabic recitations with our Qari sahib. I wasn’t worried about getting in trouble for not attending; my mother had told him I was “sick”.

pakistani school girls

I was nervous about that inevitable awkwardness when Qari sahib saw me walk by towards the kitchen. He nodded in my direction. I wished him salam. He responded and almost immediately lowered his eyes, keeping them firmly affixed on the pages in front of him.

I scurried away, my head bent. He and I both knew that my absence was to be a regular occurrence, for now I had officially succumbed to “it” – that ultimate “demon of impurity”.

I had gotten my first period.

Now, at a certain time of the month, I am excused from many practices; I cannot pray on the prayer mat, read the Quran, or fast during Ramazan, or swim, or wear a white shalwar qameez unless I want to embarrass myself.

Then there are the trips to the store, where tactfully hung piles of brown paper bags are found next to shelves in the “ladies products” section.

We rip off bags and stuff them with all manner of sanitary pads, then drag our feet to the storefront. There, a man (always a man) will pull them out and type slowly and painfully into a register, one by one, as waiting shoppers casually avert their eyes.

Like a toddler’s bathroom cupboard, mine is suddenly stocked up with fluffy plastic packages; bright pink, green, purple, blue, boasting different reassurances to nervous young entrants into womanhood.

My bodily functions are explained on each plastic casing in attractive little graphics surrounded by flowers and stars; bright blue, heavily highlighted droplets proclaiming:

Overnight!” “Light flow!” “Medium!” “Ultra thin!” “Odor-reduction!

Underlining the squeamishness in shops that sell sanitary products is the debilitating inability to talk openly about menstruation without eliciting cringes and groans from men.

This becomes a greater concern when we realise that menstruation is a serious health issue and a major factor preventing young girls from going to school in Pakistan and living healthy, safe lives.

According to a 2012 Unicef report, the biggest challenge facing girls in poor communities is access to washing facilities. Many girls express a preference to stay home rather than deal with an unclean and uncomfortable environment at school, where they could be shamed by both teachers and their fellow students if found with stains.

Only 20 per cent of girls have access to those colourful packages of sanitary pads adorning my bathroom cupboard. In most rural communities in Pakistan, young girls are using rags and pieces of cloth among other implements.

In a country where more and more girls are living displaced lives due to natural disasters and ongoing military operations in the north, talking about safe practices for young girls and women should be a top priority.

Unfortunately, the one space where the matter is somewhat openly discussed – TV commercials – feature absurdly happy and clear-skinned women in light-coloured clothing prancing about; women who tell me it will all be OK; that the right products will end all misery and social anxiety.

TV ads aside, the squeamishness and shame surrounding this most common aspect of womanhood is prevalent everywhere.

The careful restrictions imposed through the lens of religion act as further indicators of the “unclean” and “mentally fragile” state that women are expected to subscribe to as their bodies discard blood.

It isn’t just religion though.

Teachers hardly discuss it; my old elite school devoted one 40-minute session to the subject, that too when I was 16 and had five years of menstrual experience on my resume.

Feminist Gloria Steinem wondered if the world would respond any differently to this natural cycle if men menstruated.

She imagined, “Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.”

Bapsi Sidhwa addressed this as well in her 1980 novel ‘The Crow Eaters‘ which featured the “other room”, where menstruating women in a Parsi family were sent each month:

Thither they are banished for the duration of their unholy state. Even the sun, moon and stars are defiled by her impure gaze, according to a superstition which has its source in primitive man’s fear of blood.

I think we can turn menstruation into our own emblem of empowerment, but in order to do so, Pakistani women must reject language that terms a natural occurrence an impurity. This is a critical first step for our bodies to remain our own, and not be objects of “shame” and “disgust”.

After that, lets look to burning the paper bags hanging from the shelves.

This post was originally published here. Courtesy Menstrupedia.

nur ibrahimAbout The Author: Nur is a literature lover and journalist based in Washington DC. She tweets at @Nuri_ibrahim.

You must be to comment.
  1. Jigsaw

    Your second sentence, where you mention your brother’s accent as ‘poor’, something completely unnecessary in the given context, shows just how much you are filled with hate.

  2. B

    What a pointless article. If you are given an excuse to not pray or read the Quran due to your monthly periods, that is a benefit and a privilege. A lot of Muslim men would love to be given a ‘break’ from the daily prayers a few days every month. Another thing is, if you are talking about Islam in the article. then it is Allah SWT who has given women the freedom to not pray during their menses, so in this article you actually have a problem with Allah SWT.

  3. Bijuri Dey

    So unfortunate that those girls have to suffer this way. We must understand and make others understand that God doesn’t really care how we are praying. Menstruation has nothing to do with impurity or satanism or some bullshit like that. Besides God doesn’t care whether someone is praying while having her period or not until her devotion is true. Menstruation is just a biological matter. We need this kind of articles more often to enlighten people who think this kind of biological matter is related to satanism and all these bullshits.

  4. aneed

    We all know it’s typical in all women’s life in every religion. I want to know as a man and a Muslim what are your expectations, how do you want us to react, do you want us to have ceremonies and lavish dinners and celebrate with fun n fare that our daughters are menstruating and are of the age to conceive or talk openly in school, college’s and offices with our female colleges about how is it going . I want to know exactly what do you want us to do. I am tired of hearing a hue and cry about menstruation, it’s a natural process and all impure blood from body comes out every month. which is not bad for the one menstruating, you are asked not to do religious things because of the impure blood oozing out, it doesn’t mean ur impure, We all shit and pee which is impure and cannot pray with pee or poop in our pants. but once we clean we can do our religious duties. Also there is another aspect of hygiene. Please remember we respect women if they are having menstruation and not look down upon or frown. Our mothers, sisters and wife’s menstrate, when my wife has menstral pain, I’m by her side all the time massaging, preparing food for her, taking care of her. These are personal things and let me tell you we all men get embrassed when we goto the store to buy condoms or anything personal even when the store guy is a male, imagine if it’s a female store keeper it would be very embrassing. In fact we respect that you pick your napkins from the store and we look the other way just not to make you uncomfortable.

    1. swati

      What we want from men to understand that it is not poop or pee or impure blood. It happens to us for 3 to 6 days and we are not impure during that time. We want to remove the false beliefs about menstruation. One of which is women are impure during menstruation so they can’t worship or cook. Their are some families where menstruating women sleeps on floor. Buying condom or sanitary pad should not be embarrassing for men as well as women because if it become embarrassing then people won’t buy them which lead to many problems. These are not personal things, these are essential things and people should have knowledge about it. There are many women who doesn’t have menstrual cramps and can function as normal but because of the popular believe women are not allowed to do any work during menstruation time. I am happy that you don’t look down upon women and help your wife during menstrual cramps but many don’t do this. This is for them. There are many problems related to menstruation which women don’t have any knowledge and many women ignored their own health. If women finds it embarrassing to talk to their parent or to their husband or any close friends or to search on internet about these things how they are going to say when they have any problem.

    2. Hanima

      Menses is not impure blood, it is the unused ovary eggs. Brother with all due respect, Looks like you missed a whole class of 9th std biology there.

  5. Hanima

    I totally agree with the author here. I as a muslim woman have gone through each of these situations Ms. Nur has. I am sure every woman from any other religion has too. But what i would like the readers to know is that, no religion states the menstruation is impure. We all know menses is hell on earth for women because of the cramps (only because of the cramps), so fasting in ramadan is a difficult task, especially for women who have to take pain killers due to the cramps. ( Yes! for some it is that painful). As far as reading the quran goes, ofcourse you can read it while on menses, only condition is you hands come in contact with blood some or the other way hence, just use a small paper to read it. The namaz situation… Well, if you know what yoga is, you might be aware that the niyyat, ruku and sajda involve alot of yoga poses. when on menses the body is already tired, so just so that women do not strain themselves namaz has been excused.

    I know people will differ my pov, but here is the thing. We have forgotten the difference between Religion and Tradition. Like someone in the comments asked the author whether we should celebrate the daughters coming of age in public? Let me tell you, people who are from south india, they do that. You can google it if you want. Hindus from south do so and because it is a common tradition there for years, muslims do so too. I tried to convince people about the difference and they laughed. Half of the religion we are being taught is built on myths. Do not fall for it. Learn on your own. Research on the topics that concern you . Do not settle for answers by elders just because they say do not question your creator. Guess what, My creator knows the love i have for the question WHY! and he will make sure i get my answers.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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