The word period is referenced discreetly in Pakistani society. You mouth it. You make facial gestures. You abruptly end your sentence, leaving the word hanging in the air till it feels heavy and gives away the plot.
In the month of Ramazan though, it is replaced with ‘sick’. If a woman is asked why she is not fasting, the answer is usually, "she’s sick" even though she betrays no symptoms of illness.
“When my brother was younger, he was told his sister is sick, which is why she's not fasting. As he grew older, he stopped asking but my sisters and I still wouldn't eat in front of him [during our periods] till he went to med school,” explained Zainab. She's not alone in her experience.
In other cases, women keep ‘pretend fasts’ to avoid speculation.
“Till 23, when I used to live with my parents, I had to pretend fast [otherwise] my mom felt ‘Baap, bhai kya sochen ge? Very sharam ki baat’ [What will your father and brother think? Very shameful.] She also faked fasts while on her period,” Dilara shared.
When a woman is menstruating in Ramazan she is exempt from participating in the rituals of the Islamic holy month, like praying and fasting, as the excretion of blood from the body is considered najis (impure). This time is viewed as a window of pardon for women to rest as they cope with the week-long ordeal.
Sadly, women carry the burden of shame during this period, which finds its roots in social stigmas.
The stigma stems from Islam’s strong emphasis on cleanliness, that is misinterpreted as a woman being ‘impure’ or ‘dirty’ when on her menstrual cycle. When in truth, it is indicative of ‘ritual impurity’, such that a woman cannot perform some obligatory practices that Muslims have to follow, beyond which she can carry on with her daily life.
This false notion lends support to other (archaic) social stigmas which cloak a woman in shame for normal bodily functions and make her feel guilt and indignity in periods, ultimately making menstruation a hush-hush topic in many Pakistani households, especially around the men in the family.
“I never told my boys [about periods]. When they were young it was considered behayai (obscene). Now [that] they are grown up, I am sure they know about it but don't want to associate any such thing with their mother,” said Hafsa.
Kinza shared similar sentiments. “I don’t think I can [talk to my son about periods] and I don’t think it’s necessary. He’s 18 and a premedical student, he probably knows…"
She added that if her son invites her for sehri when she’s on her menses, she willingly joins the family at the dining table. “I don’t eat all day in Ramazan anyway so it’s not make-believe fasting. The haya (shame), the parda (honour), the lehaz (respect), I think, are better intact. And his father, who is a very important component of the family, agrees that [there’s] no need for this discussion.”
The idea that there is honour and shame in a woman’s body which has to be protected at all costs — even if it breaks her in the process and creates hurdles for generations of women to come — is outdated and needs to be given the boot.
Whether it is a pregnant woman hiding her belly in discretion, a woman on her period constantly checking her kameez in public, or a woman layering herself to conceal her figure, the female form and its natural processes are seen as offensive, reason for discrimination or even, sexual, depending on the male gaze.
Women are taught that our bodies are our shame, one which we are born in and expected to endure at the hands of the patriarchy.
“At my in-laws’, my 30-plus-year-old brothers-in law have no clue about periods so they bully every female in the house [about fasting], [which is why] my mother-in-law pretends to keep all fasts,” said Rania.
During menstruation, women experience extremely uncomfortable symptoms, from weakness and bloating to severe pain and even diarrhoea. In some cases, like with women who have PCOS, menstrual symptoms are so severe that they require oral medication. If women do not take adequate rest and eat while on their period and instead subject themselves to ‘pretend fasts’, the symptoms can worsen and impact their emotional and physical health.
The tiptoeing around menstruation only protects the fragile internalised misogyny which is passed down from mother to daughter; proving more damaging to women than just self-inflicted suffering — it is a loss of self and ownership of one’s body. It teaches a woman that she must choose alienation over disclosure, allow men agency of her body or be ostracised, and consequently, respect the gender hierarchy.
It is also often overlooked how equally harmful this approach is for men. By putting a blindfold over their eyes, men are treated like unintelligent, apathetic beings who must be sheltered from the real world, stunting their emotional intelligence.
Empowering men with knowledge on sexual and reproductive health creates a lasting impact on their treatment towards women; having open dialogue at an early age to normalise natural, healthy cycles of the body equips them for their relationships with women and ensures that they act as facilitators to women rather than burdens — though this can seem like a challenging proposition, it is a necessary part of their learning and growth.
“I told my 9-and-a-half-year-old last year when my daughter got her period. He understands and takes extra care of his sister and keeps asking me how I am feeling when I am not fasting,” said Zara. “I hope he carries the same understanding forward and is this sensible and caring in the future towards other [women].”
Another mother who had the talk on periods with her children said, “I told my boys when they turned 13 how I was on a break, and how these certain days are very painful as well. They try to sneak in snacks for me or offer to make me tea, making sure I am comfortable. I don’t have a daughter so I had to make certain they have empathy for the girls who come into their lives.”
Fortunately, these stories are not few and far between; several women expressed that menstruation is not regarded with the typical 'haw haye' in their homes.
Rather, during Ramazan, it is treated normally and their parents approach it with sensitivity and concern.
Like in the case of Inaya, who shared that she and her sister are encouraged to reach out to their father regarding their periods if their mother is not available.
And Tania, whose father makes those days a little bit easier to deal with during the holy month. “Sometimes when my dad knows I’m not fasting he brings me my favourite food and snacks.”
Lately, there has been a notable shift in perspective as women of recent generations take ownership of their bodies and break out of patriarchal attitudes, choosing to be vocal and clear about where they stand on the matter…
“I was told not to mention periods or if ‘caught’ drinking or eating in Ramazan, to give a reason apart from periods. But when my brothers asked, I told them it was because of menstruation. My mother thinks my brothers and I are besharam (shameless), but between us siblings it’s normalised,” said Qurat.
… and raising boys with knowledge rather than ignorance.
“In today’s technological age, I felt it best that my child has open communication with me and does not seek answers elsewhere,” said Ferwa. It was a sanitary napkin ad on TV that piqued her son’s curiosity. “Shrugging it off and allowing him to laugh and point out ‘adult pampers’ every time the ad came on or that he ask someone else just didn’t fit the bill with me.”
Menstruation is the essence of reproduction, without it there would be no life on Earth, which begs the question, why does something so vital to creating life come with a shame tag?
Sadly, with sexual and reproductive health awareness severely lacking in our part of the world, it is important that parents, being the primary caregivers, educate their children on menstruation to normalise healthy biological functions of the body, otherwise children can grow up to be insensitive, and in other cases, bullies like Rania’s brothers-in-law.
Although there is a long way to go in remedying collective thought on the topic, promise lies in the new generation who are defying cultural norms to remove period stigma. The day we stop hiding pads in brown paper bags and keeping pretend fasts will be a better indicator of that change.
Till then, let’s remind ourselves that there is no shame in a woman’s (bleeding) body.
Names have been changed to protect identities.