Menstruation predates language, so do the taboos associated with it. The primitive civilisations saw menstruation as an anathema, but even the most modern attitudes towards it are just as abhorrent.
Menstruation has been a cause of discrimination against women in numerous communities. In certain regions of South India women are not allowed to mingle with other family members during their monthly periods and in many other cultures they are segregated into separate huts until they stop bleeding.
Muslim law, however gives utmost importance to the sensitivities of women, but unfortunately in sharp contrast to the law, Muslim societies too have given space to this stigmatisation— very subtly and definitely not leading to an obvious apartheid.
Such practise however becomes very stark during the holy month when menstruation can become a predicament.
Ramzan is the 9th month of Islamic calendar during which healthy adults fast upto sunset everyday. The month is observed all over the world with religious and cultural fervour. The fast is seen as a sign of discipline, gratitude and a way of spiritual cleansing.
The muslim women, however, are exempted from fasting during their monthly periods, but they have to make up for these fasts once they stop bleeding. This exemption comes as a concession to them because they are already weak due to blood loss and undergo certain alterations in temperament due to hormonal changes.
An ease of sorts, just like mentioned in Quran:
“… ALLAH intends for you ease, and HE does not want to make things difficult for you.” 2:185
It is noteworthy to mention that “purity” is not a condition for fast, and hence assuming that menstruating women are exempted from fasting due to their “state of impurity” does not hold any ground.
Menstruating women are not impure, something that Jews used to believe, and Allah disses this notion in the Quran as an outright lie.
These notions have risen from misinterpretation of religion to comply with local cultural and societal dictums
Islam has succinct guidelines for the women who are undergoing this absolutely normal physiological process during Ramzan.
Menstruation, postnatal bleeding, and other uniquely feminine concerns are all a part of Allah’s creation, created with perfect wisdom. They are not impediments for women wanting to draw near their Lord.
To refrain from ritual prayer and fasting during this time, is actually considered a form of worship and if done with the intention of obeying God, it earns women good deeds.
Most of the classical scholars opined that the reason why it is forbidden for menstruating women to fast at the time of their period is out of Allah’s mercy towards them, because blood loss weakens them and if a woman were to fast in such a state, she would be debilitated both by menstruation and by fasting, in which case fasting would be an unfair burden and may even be harmful.
The classical scholars even ostracised those men who argued or behaved badly with women over this issue.
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However, there has been a rife cultural tabooization around eating in Ramzan due to periods. Women have often taken to social media, discussing these challenges especially in parochial societies, like ours.
This tabooization mainly stems from deeming menstruation as an ‘act’ of shame with some imaginary sexual connotations and hence changing the perception of femininity.
Women are expected to hide “this shame” from everyone lest they may become a target of scandalous talk.
Most of the times they have to pretend fasting and not eat throughout the day, a practice rather sly and fruitless, in order to conceal their condition from the men in family and otherwise.
Many women often describe how they have to lock themselves in the room so as to avoid being “caught” eating.
“Periods are anyway a reason of shame for women in many regions, but this can become more taxing during Ramzan. My sisters and I wouldn’t eat in front of the family members if we were on our period. My grandmother would always reprimand me when I would some day eat in front of my Father and Brothers.”
– Hina, 21 year old.
“If the Lord of fasting is giving us a concession why should I pretend fasting for those who don’t understand normal female physiology. I eat normally at home in front of my family members while I have periods and I expect them to be mature enough to understand it. However, eating at work may come with uncomfortable stares especially from male colleagues, so I avoid it.”
– Nuzhat, 29 year old.
All of this leads to unnecessary mental stress on a woman who is already struggling due to the hormonal ebbs and tides.
Creating an impression of ‘impurity’ and inferiority in her mind sets a stage for prejudice and bigotry and what was supposed to be a concession and a mercy from God, human behaviour renders it abysmal.
Islam brings moderation in all things, and going to extremes in worship is a kind of unfairness that the Lawgiver forbids.
Hence Islam tells us to hasten breaking the fast and to delay suhoor, and it forbids continual fasting. Keeping hungry when one is not supposed to fast is clearly going against the edicts of moderation and ease.
Ufra Mir, a renowned peace Psychologist expounds upon the need for cultural sensitivity and a proper religious and biological understanding of these issues, she says, “due to lack of cultural sensitivity this issue leads to unnecessary gender discrimination. Even though our religion mentions in detail about all the feminine issues and calls for utmost sensitivity, societies often have disposition to assign sexual undertones to them.”
“The women are often made to feel guilty for a biological process over which they have no control, and are hence made to feign fasting. It is difficult for all and even the most empowered and educated women feel ashamed of it and forcibly fast themselves. This is detrimental for their mental and physical wellbeing,” she adds.
Dr. Sobia Nisar, a leading internal medicine specialist, while explaining the harms of such practices says, “menstruation marks an important and sensitive stage of a woman’s life. She is not only loosing blood but is also battling hormonal imbalances, mood swings, excruciating cramps and a range of somatic and non-somatic symptoms. Not eating is definitely not a good idea because they are predisposed dehydration. A proper care should be taken of her physical and mental well-being”
The reason for all this cultural proscription is the lack of conversations regarding the issues concerning women health in familial and educational settings. And by not talking about a thing, we reinforce the idea that the thing should not be named.
Both, young boys and girls must be taught that menstruation is just another physiological process and there is no reason to feel ashamed of it.
There must be sensitisations in schools, colleges and a forefront should be taken by religious leaders in raising awareness about the health and well being of women, both inside and outside Ramzan.
It is important that the young boys in Muslim households are educated about the reasons for impermissibility of women to observe fast on certain days.
They should be educated when females aren’t fasting they aren’t to be frowned upon, questioned, denunciated or made liable to an explanation. They must be taught to understand and respect it, rather than to look down upon it.
A girl should be taught that menstruation is not a shame and should be a source of guilt, she should be taught to respect her body by taking utmost care of it.
A brother, rather than questioning, should be taught to buy his sister a box full of chocolates when she can’t fast.
Khawar Khan Achakzai is a published author, Doctor and a blogger based in Kashmir.
Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Free Press Kashmir.
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