An animation of a young woman walking through a flower garden.
Campaigners are using TikTok and Instagram to fill knowledge gaps around period health. Illustration for Hyphen by Heedayah Lockman

‘It causes us so much suffering’: are attitudes finally changing around period shame?

Many menstruating women grow up in households where periods are still seen as shameful. But a new generation is pushing back against the stigma

Noor grew up believing that menstruation should be kept as a dirty secret. “I would wake up for sehri and pretend to eat so that my dad and brothers didn’t know I was on my period,” she says. Now 32 and living in London, she wishes to be referred to only by her first name, for fear of upsetting her conservative family. “My mum told me it was something I had to do to save the men in my family from discomfort.”

Her experience is not uncommon. Despite the fact that people are exempt from fasting and praying while menstruating in Islam, many Muslim women recount growing up in families or wider communities where the subject of periods was taboo. In order to spare the feelings of their male relatives, many described pretending to pray and fast.

“It’s ridiculous when I look back on it now,” says Noor. “But, unfortunately, my family still haven’t changed their views.”

Tuka Mohammed, 23, grew up hiding the fact that she was on her period from her father — something she had learned to do from the women in her family. “If he asked me if I’d prayed, I would just say yes, because that’s what I’d seen my mum and sister do. I was like, ‘I can’t just say I have my period’,” recalls the musician from London. 

“Sometimes we’d have arguments because my dad would accuse me of lying,” Mohammed explains. Then she would have to tell her mother about her period, who would then pass on the message to her father. “It just made me feel a bit icky and shameful,” she adds. 

While such practices are often attributed to religion, there is nothing in Islam that tells women to be ashamed of their periods. 

“I wouldn’t extend the term Islamic or Muslim to any behaviours that deal with menstruation as a taboo,” says Dr Shuruq Naguib, a lecturer in Islamic Studies at Lancaster University. Indeed, menstruation is not regarded as something unsanitary, or a menstruating person as impure. The period of menstruation can be seen as bringing a state of ritual impurity, allowing a break from regular religious duties, acknowledging the mental and physical strain that menstruation can place upon the body. 

“People bring legacies of understanding, habit and personal attitudes to their faith,” Naguib says. “These cultural taboos around periods contrast with the Quranic textual tradition in its openness and even shocking explicitness, not just in relation to menstruation, but any state of ritual impurity.” 

Naguib is critical of cultural ideas that women should pretend to pray and fast while menstruating. “Whatever God has asked us to do is an act of worship, and that includes suspending prayers, and breaking the fast. It’s not an act of formal worship, but an act of obedience — it’s an expression of worshipping God in the broad sense,” she says.

Period shame is not a problem unique to Muslim communities. Many people in secular and other religious cultures who menstruate also report feeling confused and embarrassed about having their period. Research from Plan International in 2018 found that 79% of girls and young women in the UK have experienced symptoms linked to their period that concerned them, but had not seen a doctor or health professional owing to embarrassment, while a 2022 survey by ActionAid revealed that a quarter of UK women have faced period shaming. 

“There’s a lot of violation — emotionally and sometimes physically — that happens because women and younger girls are not allowed to speak on this very painful and vital part of their life growing up,” says Zayna Hasan, 28, a holistic therapist. “There’s no utility to hiding your health and bodily functions.” 

As the eldest daughter in her family, Hasan, who grew up in the US, took it upon herself to break the cycle. “I felt a personal responsibility to speak up about it. I think it’s very confusing growing up having to reckon with the fact that very normal things about you aren’t accepted,” she says. “I think Muslim men, and in my experience, South Asian men, are woefully and wilfully uneducated about things like this, and it’s putting women in danger.”

Those dangers can range from undiagnosed period-related health problems such as endometriosis — a painful chronic condition that if left untreated can cause problems including excess menstrual bleeding, digestive issues and increased chances of infertility — to physical violence against menstruating people in the most extreme cases

Attitudes, however, seem to be slowly changing, in part owing to a new generation of Muslim women and girls who are pushing back against these harmful practices both within their own communities and in online spaces such as TikTok. “This is all made-up cultural stuff that they blame on Islam — it degrades our religion and degrades Muslim women,” says Sabiha, 16, who last year won the Sheffield Youth Voice award for her work campaigning to end the shame and stigma around periods. 

“The worst thing about it is that we’re told these things by our own mothers and grandmothers,” she says. “It’s not men that are saying you should hide it — they’re the reason we’re hiding it — but because we’ve been told by another woman we feel like it must be right. But it’s not.” 

A lack of access to the information she needed to deal with heavy periods and painful cramps as a young girl led Dr Fatumina Said Abukar to work as a scientist and period educator. Now she uses platforms such as TikTok to host live discussions about period health reaching a broad audience, including people who may not have access to traditional support networks. 

“There are many disorders associated with periods that impact every aspect of menstruating women, including their fertility, performance at work and overall quality of life. Open discussions ensure that women have access to accurate information and resources to navigate menstruation-related challenges and seek medical help without feeling embarrassed,” she says, pointing to the work of Muslim campaigners and content creators such as Amaliah Magazine and influencer ratwhack

Though there is still some way to go before the structures that support period shame are dismantled, Mohammed says she has “a lot of hope”. 

“It causes us so much suffering and we’re just supposed to get on with life as if nothing’s happening — especially in Muslim households where you can’t even talk about it,” she says. “I would also urge women to check in and connect with their bodies and see what it has to offer. I see it as a really cleansing time, a time for release.” 

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