Muslims all over the world are observing Ramadan until mid-June, a month-long period designed to deepen their connection with God through prayer, charitable acts and spending time with loved ones.
Most Muslims also fast, abstaining from food and drink between sunrise and sunset, to help strengthen their connection to Islam and practise discipline. However, a small group are exempt from the practice, including those who are physically or mentally unwell, children under 12, the elderly, those who are travelling and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Also among this group are women on their periods, who are expected to make up the missed days after the holy month, and are also released from other religious duties that they'd otherwise be expected to partake in, including ritual prayers.
But periods are still taboo, so it's not always easy for women to exempt themselves from the rituals of Ramadan as they're meant to. Many say they are made to feel ashamed for menstruating and feel pressured to eat or drink in private, away from their fasting relatives.
This year, women are speaking out against period shaming during Ramadan and calling for greater education and understanding from others in their faith. Among them was Twitter user Erin, @stanakmu_, who uploaded a video of herself rallying against people who ask why she is eating or drinking during Ramadan. The post has received a string of supportive comments.
"I understanding why you're asking me, but if you're a Muslim, you should know [why]. People who say 'well, even though you're on [your period], you shouldn't be out here just eating and drinking'. So you want me to faint?... It's not an excuse to go up to a sister and ask her something so disrespectful like, 'why are you not fasting? Why are you not praying?'"
Many others have also been discussing the issue, with some describing those who make menstruating women feel ashamed as "ignorant".
I’m just asking bc lmao I don’t, like my fam is so open about these kinds of things but some girls especially during Ramadan don’t even eat in front of their male relatives and feel dirty and ashamed so I was just wondering like in general concerning periods— sabitch (@chubbythicc) May 30, 2018
Sister anyone making a Muslim woman feel bad during Ramadan because her period has fallen due is displaying ignorance and should be ashamed of themselves. It is the way Allah SWT has created you and the requirement to fast is waived. In peace A✌🏻— Ahmed Bise (@BiseAhmed) May 30, 2018
Sainabou Hydara, 20, a Muslim student in London, has been fasting every year since she was 12 and has had her period each time. "I've experienced period shame in the past, but usually only when I'm at the mosque, where instead of sitting with the rest of the congregation you'll find yourself excluded at the back with the elderly and all of a sudden holding someone's baby," she told Refinery29 UK. "But in my household I've never experienced this, probably because I live in an all-female house.
"I support the women calling for an end to period shaming. Shaming women because of something they have no control over is ludicrous and a terrible reflection of gender relations in the Muslim community."
Overall, Hydara said she'd describe menstruating women's exemption from fasting as "more of a blessing than a curse". "I suffer from Dysmenorrhea, so I have excessively painful periods that require medication three times day throughout my period. If I had to fast it would be a hellish time for me combining hunger, bleeding from my vagina and life," she added.
Hannah Abdule, 24, a Muslim civil servant in London, usually gets her period at the start of Ramadan for five days and is also glad to be exempt from fasting during this time. "It's amazing to have a break while men have to do it for 30/31 days straight. I also think it shows how much mercy God has for women – it would be unfair to ask women to fast during a time when they feel unwell."
She has never felt shamed by others for eating or drinking while on her period during Ramadan, but has seen women hiding food from others. "When I have witnessed this, I've been quick to ask, 'why do you feel you've got to hide the fact your eating?' and the response is often, 'I don't want everyone to know I'm on my period', which is a fair and personal reason."
The main problem, she believes, is a deeper cultural attitude towards periods in general and not just during Ramadan. "I suppose Ramadan is the only time when people are aware that women are on their periods. Usually you can't spot whether a woman is on her period. Also, when a Muslim is seen to not be fasting they're either ill, a bad Muslim or on their period – so sometimes women just pretend to be fasting because they don't want to be in any of these categories or have to lie."
Salma El-Wardany, a Muslim based in London, said that while she had never been made to feel ashamed while on her period during Ramadan, she also supported the women calling for an end to shaming. "If I’m on my period and around friends and family who are fasting, I'm considerate and don’t generally sit around stuffing my face in front of them. But then again, the social activities naturally change during Ramadan, so we wouldn’t go to a restaurant – something without food, so most of the time that obstacle is removed," she told Refinery29 UK.
"While I’ve never known anyone to feel shame for not fasting because of their period, I'll always call to an end of shaming. The Muslim community has a lot of work to do to open conversations, particularly around sex and women, to end shaming, but the shame has always been enforced by culture manifesting as religion, never from theological law. It’s important to recognise that distinction."