In the summer of 2017, I was fourteen, and it was Ramadan. I remember a friend telling me she pretends to fast when she is on her period, so her dad and brother won’t know she is menstruating (during Ramadan, women do not have to fast when on their menstrual cycle).
This meant she would wake up at 2:30am to eat with her family for the meal at dawn, then proceed to eat throughout the day in private, without anyone knowing. I was shocked, the thought of doing this seemed ridiculous to me. What was so shameful, or disgusting about periods which meant it had to be hidden from her own father?
I was thankful that my parents were open about menstrual health, so there were no secret snacking sessions taking place, but they didn’t have a choice. From the age of twelve, I suffered from severe dysmenorrhea; meaning I would pass out, vomit profusely and experience extreme pain each month. So there was no chance of even trying to hide my periods because it impacted every aspect of my life.
What my friend told me stuck with me. As I grew older and spent more time on social media, I came to realise that her experience was not unique. Hundreds of girls, from all backgrounds, experience the same stigma towards their periods. Even girls within my extended family are told to hide their periods from fathers and brothers.
Men hold this belief that a woman menstruating is somehow ‘dirty’ and women who have been plagued with internalised misogyny pass these sexist views down to their children. From a purely religious perspective, Islam does not say what women are unclean when they menstruate, it actually allows them a break from regular duties of praying or fasting, acknowledging the mental and physical strain it places upon the body.
It is culture, in these examples South Asian and Arab culture, which presents periods as something which should be hidden.
Perhaps it could be argued that the root of these stigmas lie within the foundations of our healthcare. Little research has been done into women’s health, and healthcare professionals seem to take little interest in this topic area. Women’s health issues are often dismissed as them being overly ‘emotional’ or ‘dramatic’ until it manifests into a more sinister condition.
Menstrual health is rarely taken into account, as seen with scientists refusing to listen to the 30,000 women who experienced disruption to their menstrual cycles after taking the Covid-19 vaccine. When I was thirteen and struggling to understand why my academic, social and spiritual life was being disrupted regularly, the only answers doctors could give me was to go on the pill.
My condition affects around 20% of women globally, how many of us have felt gaslighted both by our medical and cultural communities?
Whilst my periods are beginning to improve, and I feel less alienated from society by them, I am still dealing with the consequences period stigma had on my life. Women are told that their bodies are something to be ashamed of, something to hide and to not let take up any space, otherwise it will disrupt men and the neutrality of the status quo.
It wasn’t until 2017 where we saw the first time red liquid was used to show blood instead of a blue liquid in a menstrual advert. In some cultures, girls are forbidden to use tampons, as it is considered a loss of ‘virginity’. All these things – the hiding of periods, the blue coloured liquids – it fills me with an immense amount of rage.
How many women go through their lives believing that they are disgusting, dirty, untouchable, because their bodies have a perfectly natural cycle of bleeding and shedding?
How many girls and boys lack any form of concrete education around menstrual health, only knowing what they learn from taboos passed down through generations or on social media?
If we are to take this conversation one step further, it has been said that society itself was not built to accommodate women’s bodies. The world operates on a 24 hour linear structure, designed for and by men, so how can a woman whose body operates on a 28 day cycle fit into this?
Essentially, period stigma impacted my dysmenorrhea, as I am continuously trying to unlearn the things I have been taught about my body and menstrual health. I am living with the consequences a lack of understanding from friends and teachers had on my social and academic life, whilst making sense of why so many people from my religion and culture hold misogynistic views towards periods, and women’s bodies in general.
I may never find the answers to the questions posed within this body of work, but at least I can say I am asking them, and trying to seek out other voices like mine who are refusing to stay silent, because that is a small step in the right direction.
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