Setting the record straight once and for all
Ramazan, the ninth and holiest month of the Islamic calendar, is considered to be one of exceptional blessings. During this month, Muslims all around the world fast from fajr (dawn) till maghrib (dusk) and observe taqwa (a path that lead towards Allah). The practice has been made obligatory for every Muslim, although there are some exceptions. In general, those travelling, sick, pregnant, breast-feeding or menstruating are allowed to miss a few fasts which must, however, be compensated for after Ramazan.
Amongst all of these, there has always been some discrepancy when it comes to menstruating during Ramazan. Certain social taboos surrounding menstruation perpetrate more distress than anything else. Even though modern society has accepted the female reproductive cycle as natural, women in our part of the world are still expected to hide it.
One of the major problems associated with this is that, as a society, we still believe that menstruation should not be discussed with boys. While a girl has to remember her monthly cycles, worry about stains or act like she would any other day when her body is feeling otherwise, boys are considered too sensitive to be informed about it. This leads to women having to lie unnecessarily, often pretending to be fasting when they are not just so their father, brother and other male relatives do not find out about their ‘condition.’
Moreover, lying is probably the least bothersome of their problems. Many women are expected to wake up for and eat sehri and iftaari with their families in order to maintain the facade of fasting. For instance, 28-year-old Sarah Shahid*, a research scientist currently living with her uncle abroad, faces a similar situation. “Since I was living with my uncle’s family, I had to wake up for sehri and pretend to be fasting all day. It was particularly difficult to fast when I couldn’t as I was always afraid of questions I might have to answer,” says Sarah. On the other hand there are women like 29-year-old PhD student Naila Tahir* who only wakes up to prepare sehri for her family. “I do not necessarily have to sit with them during the meal,” says Naila. “Sometimes, I join them out of respect for the holy month. Other times, I take a nap.”
Although women are exempted from fasting and praying during that time of the month, they are allowed and even encouraged to continue with other forms of remembrance, such as oral recitations. The exemption has been given to help women deal with cramps, pains and other physiological effects of menstruation without the risk of falling ill. Several religious scholars and other learned individuals hold the same opinion. For example, religious scholar Dr Zakir Naik has been quoted as saying, “God does not want to overburden women. As the blood flows out, you not taking nourishment, not taking food is an overburden.” What he means to say is that if a woman is asked to refrain from eating or drinking during her period, it will be overburdening her body.
According to gyneacologist Dr Shameem, “There are no negative effects of fasting during Ramazan, other than general problems like dehydration.” While is this indeed true, the extent of the ‘burden’ varies from woman to woman and some feel it more than others. For instance, 24-year-old teacher Madiha Sheikh* undergoes a considerable drop in her blood glucose levels during menstruation, so much so that she often has to visit a clinic for intravenous (IV) glucose on her first day. “Normally, my mother asks my father to take me to the clinic,” shares Madiha. “But during Ramazan, it is difficult to explain to my brother why I suddenly have to get an IV as I am apparently fasting.”
The problem usually is not restricted to dehydration and low sugar levels. Many medical researchers report that even slight hormonal changes can inculcate feelings of depression, anxiety, anger and self-hatred in women. The added stress of ‘faking the fast’ is only likely to make things worse. Also, women are forced to sneak food so as not to get caught by a man family member.
The lack of dialogue regarding this natural phenomenon creates a barrier which is troublesome, to say the least. Several women like Madiha are forced into embarrassing situations due to their inability to talk to a male about menstruation. It is one thing to not eat in front of a person who is fasting out of respect, but it is completely different to have lunch in hiding at your own home! The real problem is that women become conditioned to this mindset. Even in neutral situations, when they are not required to fake a fast, women continue to do so. When working in a hospital setting, Naila reminisces, staff members, who had not fasted for their respective reasons, would usually eat their meals hiding in the courtyard. “I was too embarrassed to join them, thinking they would think I’m going through my menstrual cycle,” she recalls. While each person might have a different reason for not fasting on a particular day, women tend to think that menstruation will be the first justification that comes to people’s minds.
When society becomes more willing to discuss menstruation, women will have one less thing to worry about. They will no longer have to wonder every time about their clothes, emotions or pains. Islam already gives utmost respect to women. It’s high time that society follows suit for a more female-friendly environment, both inside and outside our homes.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Kanwal Tariq is a bio-technologist, a writer and a feminist. She blogs at Whirling Cosmos (kanwalmeghjii.wordpress.com/)
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, June 28th, 2015.