Earlier I conjured up a memory from my trip to Afghanistan and I thought “I really have to write about this”. The story starts off in my aunt’s home in central Kabul where I stayed for the summer of 2010.
My trip to my country of birth had coincided with Ramadan and this Islamic month brought with it a procession of holy rituals. Everyone in my family home was fasting (not consuming food or drink from dawn to dusk).
Now as many of you may be aware, women who are menstruating do not take part in the fast, and with the number of female cousins I had I assumed that we would naturally be excluded from the fast during menstruation. Sadly, I was mistaken.
My cousins had developed a ritual that both saddens and angers me simultaneously. They pretended to be fasting in order to hide the fact that they were menstruating. I found this out when I told them I had come on my period, they grabbed my hand and took me into the other room
“You’ll have to pretend you’re fasting, we don’t want the men to know we are menstruating!” Huh? Pretend I’m fasting!? I thought they must have been joking.
They quickly explained how they had engaged in this practice for years and I was now an involuntary member. I didn’t understand, and questioned rather naively “Our periods are natural, it is nothing to be ashamed of”, “If God created us, he created menstruation too. Why would he want you to go through all this trouble?”
Menstruation has a humiliating factor in Afghanistan. It is not a subject you can bring up in front of men and and now I was being asked to pretend it didn’t even exist. My ovaries had to be extinguished in order save men from the ostensible humiliation of hearing about them.
I was told that for Suhoor, which was the time everyone wakes up in order to eat a meal, I will have to get up along with everyone else and eat. Now, eating at 3am is not necessary for me since I am on my period and therefore not fasting. I found it shocking that my cousins had the diligence to get up, even when they didn’t have to, and pretend they were part of the ritual.
Nonetheless, the part that angered me the most was the fact that it was all done to appease men. Despite the fact that men are more than aware of the process of menstruation, especially ones with wives, the ostensible befouling effect means that periods are to be kept a secret around brothers, fathers etc. If a woman is on her period: she is simply dirty. Therefore in order to save the shame of this, my cousins concealed its existence all together. And I thought, if this is what they go through for Ramadan, imagine their routine all year round?
I steadily learnt the routine of concealment while in Afghanistan. Not only was I never, ever to mention the word period, which is pronounced “mareez”, a word which literally translates into “sick/ill”, my underwear/bras were not allowed to be hung outside for drying and my breasts were seen as incontrovertibly blasphemous.
Every sign of my womanhood was considered offensive to men.
Indeed, menstruation-phobia is not exclusive to Afghanistan. The western world displays signs of menstruation-phobia in a less overt and more subtle manner. The concealment of tampons and sanitary towels is almost obligatory. Admittedly, the extend of concealment is not as severe as in Afghanistan, however women are still pressured into keeping any reminders of menstruation out of sight.
Throughout western history, the message has been that when you are menstruating, you are dirty:
Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder: “Contact with the monthly flux of women turns new wine sour, makes crops wither, kills grafts, dries seeds in gardens, causes the fruit of trees to fall off, dims the bright surface of mirrors, dulls the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory, kills bees, rusts iron and bronze, and causes a horrible smell to fill the air. Dogs who taste the blood become mad, and their bite becomes poisonous as in rabies”
Religion also vehemently enforces the idea of menstruating women as impure and unclean:
Leviticus 18:15 : “‘When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening”
Leviticus 15: “Any bed she lies on in this state will be unclean; any seat she sits on will be unclean”
Qur’an 2:222: ”They will ask you about menstruation. Say, ‘It is harmful, so keep away from women during it. Do not approach them until they are purified of it”
These attitudes continue today as women, just like my cousins are made to hide any sign of menstruation. It is offensive to speak about menstruation, to be caught with menstrual products and the worst of the worst– to have a visible leak– not to mention menstruation as a justification to trivialise and undermine women. She’s just on the rag, ignore her.
Menstruation products follow this deplorable trend and portray menstruation as an unwelcome disaster that needs managing, some equating the intensity of a period to a hurricane:
This particular format of media entrenches the idea that periods are negative, unwelcome catastrophes and that period blood is unequivocally disgusting. Disgust towards menstruation only furthers the idea that periods make women dirty. This distances the menstrual cycle not only from everyone around, but the woman herself.
Anyone can be period positive and the more people that get involved, the closer all women are allowed to feel to their menstrual cycle. Now this doesn’t mean we have to look forward to menstruation or even celebrate menstrual blood, but recognising that menstruation is not equal to impurity will undoubtedly have a positive impact.
I am not asking you to love menstruation, instead I am asking you to understand that criminalising menstruation forces a detachment from women and their natural cycle.
We ought not to criminalise and shame women for menstruation. We ought not to associate periods with bad moods, attitude or behaviour.
We should create a comforting and welcoming environment for women to speak, share and communicate about their menstrual cycle. It is not something to be ashamed of and It certainly does not make us dirty.