Like every Ramzan before this year, 20-year-old Farheen Jeelani has to fast for six more days even when she isn’t supposed to, only to avoid the “embarrassment that follows” if someone, especially a male member of the family, asked why she wasn’t fasting.
An undergraduate student at a college in Srinagar, Jeelani vividly remembers the first time she got her periods when she was in the seventh grade. It had frightened her when she noticed blood stains on her trousers while playing with her cousins.
Her aunt told her what it was. It was the first time she had heard the word periods and also that it was something to be kept a secret, especially from her father, who is a doctor himself. Jeelani can’t openly say when she is on her period.
She has to wake up before dawn to sit down for the sehri meal, that moreover she and her sisters prepare, just like the rest of her family, and fast through the day — even as Islam allows women to abstain from fasting or praying during menstrual cycles.
Jeelani, however, isn’t alone. What is natural to women’s bodies is considered unnatural by the men who dominate the society and who have made it taboo, a practice espoused even in families accorded the status of “educated”.
Shaming women’s bodies
Hiding her periods from the family is difficult at times. In the last two years, the month of Ramzan was observed under lockdowns, meaning that the men of the family stayed home. The window of opportunity to eat or drink before they returned home no longer there.
This Ramzan, Jeelani was exhausted on the first day her periods had begun. Her body in pain and on the verge of collapse, she “dared” to enter the kitchen to quietly brew herself a cup of tea when suddenly her father entered the kitchen.
He asked Jeelani, “who was I making tea for.” The question “embarrassed” her and she confined herself to her room for the rest of the day. Like many women, Jeelani has often experienced embarrassment upon being spotted eating or drinking by male family members.
She doesn’t just pretend to fast, she has to actually go through with it. “I have to fast just like I do when I am not menstruating,” said Jeelani. “I don’t eat anything at all till iftar but just discreetly drink water whenever I get the chance.”
Instead, similar conditioning of her peers in pretending to fast and the rigidness of men in opening up to conversations about periods has left her with a deep sense of guilt and self-doubt. “I keep questioning myself for not being able to tell my father that I can’t fast because I am on my periods,” she said. “Even though it is clearly mentioned in Islam.”
According to the hadith, teachings, and deeds of Prophet Muhammad, women are exempt from fasting during the month. The practice of women pretending or forced to fast during their periods is rooted in the cultural taboo and not Islamic scripture.
Breaking the taboo
Noor-us-Sama felt liberated in the last Ramzan after she sensitised her younger brothers — 16 and 18 — about menstruation and that women needn’t fast during it. “If women don’t talk, we will never be able to break free from this taboo,” said the 22-year-old graduate.
The first Ramzan after she got her first periods, then a sixth standard student, Sama was woken up by her mother for sehri. “I was a child back then. I had convinced myself that I will be rewarded [by God] for this,” she said.
Forcing herself to keep fasting till iftar had drained her. Worried, her mother didn’t wake her for the sehri for a few days. “But my little brothers told everyone in the family that I didn’t fast for a few days,” she recalled. “They mocked me for it.”
Another time, while preparing iftar for the family, Sama ate a little from what she was cooking. Her brother noticed her eating and kept asking why she had broken her fast. “I felt ashamed to accept that I had eaten something,” she said. “It slowly became a norm to quietly eat for six days — if I ever got the chance.”
Instead of educating her brothers then, she kept with the practice of pretending to fast for several years until this year. “This year, I didn’t fast and in fact, my brother told me that I should not fast when I am on my period,” Sama said, adding that they not only ensured she had eaten but also helped purchase her sanitary pads.
Bringing about this change wasn’t easy. Sama’s mother continues with the practice, reluctant to even talk about the subject of periods. “My mother had been pretending to fast for years and so did I,” she said. “If she had spoken for me, it would have unburdened me.”
“Not talking about periods is considered to be part of haya (modesty) and many women think that they will be considered more worthy of respect by doing this,” she said. “This just takes away our voice.”
Rumana Masoodi, the senior resident doctor at the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, said that women were forced to fast owing to the stigma attached to menstruation and their bodies. During periods, she said, women must consume fluids and nourishing food to prevent dehydration and exhaustion due to constant bleeding.
“A woman can even collapse whether at the workplace or at home due to low energy levels,” Masoodi said, advising menstruating women to carry and eat whenever possible foods that provide instant energy. “Sometimes the culture forces people to do things. That makes it difficult for women to eat openly.”
Shehryar Khanum, the founding member of Mehram, a non-profit working for the welfare of women, said that women often don’t speak about menstruation due to the “social construct existing since times immemorial”. Women, she added, “have been historically and contemporarily been used as agents of patriarchy.”
During Ramzan, women are expected to do extra work while being on their periods, said Khanum. “For most, it is not easy,” she said. “There is loss of blood, weakness, cramps, backache etcetera. They hide this pain, pretend that they are fasting and do home chores. Why can’t we see the problem in all of this?”
A change can only begin when mothers stopped their daughters from fasting when they are on their periods and there was no shame in discussing it publicly, said Khanum. “We as women need to unlearn so much as we have always been made to believe that we need to hide and feel ashamed,” she said. “The onus of honour should not be on women only.”
“When women speak out about it, men get conscious,” Khanum said. “But that’s the whole point. Why should women be conscious about periods? Men should have that understanding and education that they do not make women feel uncomfortable about having periods.”