There is a lot of shame embedded into the upbringing of Muslim women. Through patriarchal cultural practices that have been passed down and mistaken for “words of Allah,” we are raised to be shrunken. And oftentimes it isn’t until we’re sitting in the midst of our adulthood desperately trying to unlearn the feelings of disgust we feel toward ourselves that we realize how heavy the weight of misogyny has become. And it starts off young.
We are often taught that the foremost “confirmation” of our womanhood is the first red droplets we see on our underwear at the beginning of puberty — this moment, known as menarche, signals the start of menstruation. At meager ages of 11, 12, 13, we are told “You’re a woman now!” and the first reasoning? Your body has the ability to bear children. But rather than celebrate it, it’s met with secrecy. We are told to disguise cramps as “stomachaches,” to sneak pads into our pockets as we go to restrooms, and to do anything to avoid letting men in our homes become even slightly conscious that we are menstruating. In Muslim households we are drilled with the idea that we are “impure” in the eyes of Allah and that we should steer clear of the men in the house entirely. But Middle Eastern Studies Program and Political Science adjunct professor and chair of the Center for Islamic Life at Rutgers University Atiya Aftab says these views come from culture, not religion.
“A menstruating woman is not seen as dirty or lesser due her menstruating status,” Aftab tells Muslim.co. “In Islam, menstruation is not seen in any way as a divine punishment.” She explains that these interpretations have been morphed from religious traditions surrounding the status of a menstruating woman. For example, a woman on her period is exempted from fasting during the month of Ramadan (though she is expected to make up the fasts at a later time) and she is also exempted from the obligatory five daily prayers. While this is often pointed at as a justification to regard menstruating women as “impure” or “dirty,” Aftab feels differently.
“In the case of fasting, it is a hardship for a menstruating woman to abstain from food and water from dawn to dusk,” she says. “Hydration, nutrition, and possibly medication [is] needed.” Therefore, the same mercy that is given to those who are sick is extended to menstruating women. “With respect to prayer, it is required that a person who is engaged in the daily formal prayer must be in a state of ritual purity (wudu/ghusl),” Aftab explains. “A person who is bleeding — male or female — is not a ritual state of purity.” So, it is not the fact that the blood is coming out from the vagina that makes a woman unable to pray, but the fact that she is bleeding at all.
So why are menstruating women so taboo in many Muslim households? Most of the feelings in regard to menstruating women date back to pre-Islamic culture, Aftab explains. “Men would refuse to go near their wives, eat or drink with their wives, or sleep in the same bed when they were menstruating,” she says. And it wasn’t just Muslim households where this was occurring.
Negative feelings toward menstruation exist in Jewish households as well, where followers believed that even those who touched a menstruating woman would be deemed unclean. These same stigmas persist even today in many Asian cultures including in India, Pakistan, Japan, and Indonesia.
But despite these negative generalizations about menstruation, many of the ones that exist in regard to Islam are more cultural than they are religious. In fact, Aftab says it is reported that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) told his companions that, regarding their wives, husbands should “Do everything with her except for sexual intercourse.” (Muslim; ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari).
In fact, Aftab recalls a beautiful story regarding the Prophet (PBUH) and his wife, Aisha.
Aisha related that: “The Prophet would recline on my lap while I was menstruating and he would read the Quran.” (Bukhari). And the Prophet and his wife Aisha shared the same drinking vessel while she was menstruating. Aisha stated: “I would drink while menstruating, then pass the vessel to the Prophet. He would place his mouth on the (same) place as my mouth and drink…”
“The actions of the Prophet demonstrated that a menstruating woman was not impure or dirty and was fully capable of engaging in aspects of normal life in the following tradition,” Aftab says. In the same story, Aisha reported that: “The Messenger of God said to me, ‘Get me the prayer mat from the prayer area.’ I replied, ‘I am menstruating.’ He said, ‘Verily, your menstruation is not in your hand.’” (Muslim). If the wife of the Prophet had no issues expressing that she was menstruating, why do we encourage girls to hide their periods from their fathers, brothers, and eventually husbands?
The Prophet (PBUH) has laid a foundation to regard women with utmost respect — and a state of menstruation does not warrant a change in that. The perpetuation of menstruation stigma is hurting Muslim women in irreversible ways. Years after the fact, feelings of anxiousness and shame surrounding our bodies remain. It is up to both women and men to recognize where they might be perpetuating misogynistic practices surrounding women’s bodies and work to fix these mistakes. Menstruating is one of the most natural things that can happen to a woman. By shunning it and teaching girls to keep it a secret, we are teaching them that there is something biologically wrong with them. The outside world is already bent on bringing down the Muslim woman — there is no need to do the same within their own households.
“Menarche should not be hidden, but celebrated,” Aftab says.