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‘I used to hide my period during Ramadan – but I refuse to feel shame any longer’

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The holy month of Ramadan takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which changes date each year as it follows the cycles of the Moon. In 2023 it is estimated to begin on Wednesday, March 22 and continue until April 21.

During this time Muslims worldwide will be fasting from sunrise to sunset, not eating or drinking anything during these hours of the day in an effort to bring themselves closer to Allah.

However, there are a few exceptions to this rule including those who are unwell and pregnant women, as their bodies require more nutrients.

Muslim women who are menstruating during Ramadan are also exempt from fasting and excused from prayers – though they do still have to make up the fast at a later date.

While some may mistakenly believe that not having to fast is a good thing, it turns out that it comes with its own unique set of challenges.

London-based Engineering scientist Dr Fatumina Abukar told The Mirror how there can be a lot of ‘shame’ around being on your period during Ramadan and because of this many menstruating women often end up hiding food and lying about fasting.

This sense of ‘shame’ is something Fatumina has experienced personally, as she was raised not to talk about her periods.

“Until the age of 18, I felt very uncomfortable even getting pads because periods were not something I felt comfortable talking about. If I tried to talk about periods in front of my aunties they would be looking at me like ‘you shouldn’t be talking about this’,” she says.

“During Ramadan, you’re not just eating with your immediate family, you’re eating with uncles and young children and family friends, so the moment they see you eating [during the day], they know you are bleeding. Without even wanting to tell anyone, you’re shouting that you’re on your period and everyone reacts differently to that.

“So what I used to do was pretend I was fasting, I used to pretend that I was praying with the rest of the congregation, but really I was bleeding.

“You will be told by the elders not to talk about periods and if you do, you can end up being excluded because a big part of fasting is that you’re suffering together, it creates a sense of community.

“I’ve been in situations where I’ve spent hours cooking and helping other women in the kitchen and while I wasn’t eating for most of the day, they saw me take a small piece of bread or cheese and then when it came to eating time, I wasn’t offered the food, because I already ate.

“It’s an exclusion thing. Sitting in that room with everybody else, my needs were not met as much as that of the other people because they assumed that I’d been eating the whole day when in reality I found it difficult to eat as everyone, even non-Muslims, will ask you why you’re not fasting if they see you.”

Fatumina admits this can feel ‘lonely’ and it’s especially hard knowing that others who are exempt from fasting aren’t treated the same way as women on their period.

“It is lonely when you’re not fasting and you do feel excluded. You feel watched, it’s almost like a paranoia that everyone is watching you and judging you,” she explains.

“Religion-wise menstruating women are exempt from fasting during Ramadan. So, religion-wise, as a woman, you can eat in public, and you can eat privately, there is no issue in doing either. The issue comes from culture or society as there is a period taboo.

“Periods are not taken seriously, it’s seen as less serious than a headache and it’s the reason why I think a lot of people expect you to eat privately [during Ramadan]. Islamically you have every right to eat, but many women are made to feel disrespectful for it.

“There are people with other health conditions that are also exempt, for example, if you’ve got diabetes you don’t have to fast, but the funny thing is if someone has diabetes and isn’t fasting, no one questions them, it’s seen as a more legitimate reason to not be fasting than periods.

“If more people realised the physical and mental impact that periods have on you, then there would be more understanding, especially when it comes to fasting.

“Ramadan is all about being accepting and being loving and coming together and really and truly people should be nicer to a woman who is bleeding because we are not well and our body needs more nutrients.”

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The taboo surrounding periods isn’t something that’s specific to Islam but is a “worldwide issue” according to Fatumina, who after spending years feeling ashamed is now keen to normalise the conversation around menstruation.

She adds that she’s also no longer afraid to be open and honest about getting her period during Ramadan and will “talk about periods the way [she] talks about coffee” and hopes to encourage others to do the same.

“The shame is a societal problem. Periods are taboo almost everywhere in the world. But it’s the most basic biological thing, it shouldn’t be a big deal.

“I’ve got to a point, and it’s been this way for a couple of years, that I will shout out loud that I am on my period now.

“I’ve been in situations where my male cousins will make jokes when I go and see the bigger family and everyone is fasting and they’ll be like ‘why are you not praying? and I’ll be like ‘I’m bleeding through my vagina, do you want any more information’ and they’ll go ‘no, no, no, no’.

“The moment that I started becoming more open about it, it just became easier. Suddenly it wasn’t a secretive thing. When something is secretive there’s fear about it getting out, but once it’s out there it’s too late.

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