You either dread its arrival or look forward to a few days of reprieve from fasting. Periods. The natural and healthy occurrence every woman goes through to cleanse the uterus and prepare the body for a chance at the miracle of life. Bet you never looked at it that way.
How many women really celebrate their menstrual cycles? How many women embrace the rhythms of their bodies decreed by God? How many women understand the changes in their hormones that reflect how they look and feel about themselves throughout their cycle?
I guess it ultimately comes down to period shaming; periods are still taboo in this day and age. So much for a progressive society, am I right? It’s more like we’ve regressed into pre-Islamic beliefs and cultures.
Did you know that menstruation is one of the most frequently discussed Fiqh areas? Aisha, the wife of prophet Muhammad, and other companions of the prophet have shared their knowledge about periods (and other women’s topics). Imagine if our predecessors had chosen to keep the secrets of women’s health behind closed doors.
For most of the year, women keep their period under wraps. I’ve heard stories of men who have never even heard of periods because the women in their homes never let it slip. In fact these women held their periods as a closely guarded secret. Imagine the shock these men feel when they get married and their wife is the first woman to share this “secret”. Unless off course, she chooses to hide it from her husband as well – trust me this happens!
Come Ramadan though, and period-shaming is at an all-time high, with women going to extremes to hide that they are exempt from fasting. It’s not uncommon for menstruating women to wake up for Suhur so as not to alert the men in the family that they are on their period. And many women will not eat all day for fear of exposing themselves.
But here’s the thing – this is the most important time for you to nourish yourself. The Quran describes menstruation as an “adha” translated to “hurt” or “discomfort”. We need to care for our bodies in this time, no matter what time of year it is, by eating nourishing foods and restoring our health. Especially if your period arrives in the early parts of Ramadan, you need as much energy as possible.
I understand the advice to refrain from eating in front of others out of respect and to avoid conjecture. But there needs to be some level of education, understanding and empowerment that should come with the natural cycle of life. Periods and the womb are symbols of womanhood, fertility and youth. We celebrate pregnancy and birth – but for these to happen women have to experience menstrual cycles, don’t they?
Then again, pregnant and breastfeeding women are also faced with scrutiny. Many pregnant women choose to fast without realising that they are actually depriving their growing babies from adequate nutrition, which is crucial for the baby’s development and ongoing health once out of the womb. Many Muslim pregnant clients call me complaining about Braxton Hicks contractions – and the answer is simply dehydration. Your body is telling you that it needs nourishment! Breastfeeding women often make the same choice to fast, and complain that their milk isn’t coming in, sometimes expressing like crazy to ensure they have adequate milk supply for their baby.
Do we forget that Allah has blessed us with exemptions from fasting during pregnancy and breastfeeding? And that you could be causing yourself and your baby harm by fasting? Many women feel tremendous guilt for not fasting when they are pregnant, breastfeeding, or even when they are ill. This is purely because we have not nurtured the women in our lives to celebrate their cycles.
What really breaks my heart are the women who have underlying health issues having to compromise because of the taboo. Many women experience low iron and other deficiencies during this time and really should be eating and drinking regularly to replenish their micronutrients. I know of countless women who have fainted during their periods because they refused to eat during Ramadan in case they were caught.
Then there are the women who have hormonal imbalances and experience things like PMS and painful periods. Having PMS can make a woman very confused about the emotions she is experiencing in the days before her period commences. And sometimes these emotions can manifest in a negative way that is not reflective of the ideal behaviour in Ramadan. These mood fluctuations can lead to self-hate and further reinforce periods as negative anchors.
Painful periods can cause women to withdraw and suffer alone and silently, when this is the time they need the most amount of support and care. One of the biggest reasons we need to break the taboo that surrounds periods is to open up the conversation about period pain and endometriosis. Many women’s lives are turned upside down because of period pain and endometriosis, and nobody wants to talk about it. For these women, Ramadan can be exceptionally difficult, especially if they feel guilt on top of their pain.
Let’s stop surrendering to society’s scrutiny and start to celebrate our cycles. Periods are nothing to be ashamed of. Remember that the sirah (stories on the life of the prophet) shares about him being emotionally, physically and spiritually intimate with Aisha during her menstruation, just that she had a cloth wrapped around her pelvis. He would lay down with her, he would fondle her, he would lean in her lap and recite Quran; she would comb his hair, she would wash his head when they would bathe, and she would let him know when she was menstruating. There was no shame between them, and there was no shame when Aisha would share these stories. Let’s take a page out of the sirah and tackle this taboo once and for all, not just for ourselves, but also for our children.
Heba Shaheed is the Co-Founder of The Pelvic Expert and a women’s health coach and physiotherapist. She provides online programs combining women’s health physiotherapy, nutrition, hormone balancing and self-care for pregnancy, birth recovery, pelvic pain and menstrual dysfunctions. Visit www.thepelvicexpert.com.