Written and illustrated by Kenma
During those days, there was nothing more thrilling than the hot creamy porridge made out of millet grains that had crossed Northern Africa to arrive into our bowls. Two hours before sunset, all sorts of savoury perfumes would start filling the house. The porridge was just the starter. Cucumber and juicy tomato salad, deep-fried plantains lying next to the m’semen - square-shaped wheat galette cooked on an oily plate – bought earlier at the local market. Once everything was set up on the plastic tablecloth, we’d be counting the minutes until we could break the fast. In the meantime, we would put on the radio and wait for the critical moment of the muezzin’s call. Three beeps, an enigmatic invocation, and a stretched Allaaaaaaaaaaahu Akbar... Time to gather around and rejoice in the delicious feeling of replenishing our bodies. It was more than satisfying our bellies or putting oil back in the tank. We’d gone through the hardship of another day with an empty stomach. We were all together in this and that tablecloth would be the place we would bond over. That’s what the Ramadan ftoor* looked like at mine. Most of the days.
Two hours before sunset, all sorts of savoury perfumes would start filling the house...Time to gather around and rejoice in the delicious feeling of replenishing our bodies.
Some other days, the thrill would be replaced by the sting of impatience or frustration. These were the bleeding days. During them, everyone in my household suspected I was not fasting; yet there was a rule that it should be kept secret. Being on your period meant entering a grey zone made out of taboos and new roles: You would suddenly become the food taster, for example. Is that salted enough? And this, not too sweet, hopefully? But be aware not to openly eat in the living room. And also, no complaining when you were given additional chores. After all, you’re eating the whole day, so you supposedly have more energy. If anyone asks, I would just reply, ‘Ntasallini’. It translates as 'I don’t pray' from Soninké**, which is the periphrasis expression that said 'I am on my period'. I always found it curious to use a negative or an incapacity to report on an occurring phenomenon and a sign of great abilities - aka ovulating and potentially getting pregnant.
In the worldwide practice of Islam (I am yet to find a counter-example), while menstruating, women are not supposed to pray, touch the Qur’an, fast, enter a mosque, or have sexual intercourse. To do these activities again, they need to take a full-body ritual of purification. Having interrupted my fast and taken these rituals, one thing I can say is that, at times, I did feel à part***. There was an underground conflict happening inside me: I felt happy to indulge in paninis with my non-practising friends. But these excitements would be quickly shadowed by a creeping FOMO feeling and the eagerness to get back to the family routine.
Being on your period meant entering a grey zone made out of taboos and new roles
A few years back, writer Inès Geoffroy wrote about this exact feeling of exclusion during Ramadan(1); it allowed for a deep sense of relief to wash over the bustling questions in my head. In the article I read from her, she reflected on a series of photographs by artist Héla Ammar(2). She saw those shots as questioning the impurity attributed to menstrual blood. Her article echoed so many contradicting points sitting inside me. I felt less alone and subsequently dared to phrase out loud some of my internal questions. Am I too impure to touch the Qur’an and even express my devotion through fasting when bleeding? If so, why? Peace, intention and centeredness are what fasting allows me to foster: am I not worthy of all these beautiful feelings all the time and throughout the month? How can I cultivate that feeling of belonging during Ramadan when I feel cast out for a few days?
Some say women aren’t excluded; they are simply ‘excused’. Because menstruating sometimes comes with discomfort and pain, this time off-duty is a way for women to rest. Why one rule for all, I might ask? From my research, this is because the degree of discomfort varies from one individual to another and even from one cycle to another. It is, therefore, easier to rule for all women and all cycles. But the answer still doesn’t sound satisfying to my ears. Getting out of the impurity stigma to get stuck with the seemingly caring argument of 'You might not be fit. That is best for you' is not an answer. In the era of empowerment, such an argument reaches the degree zero.
The Ramadan experience echoes another one I had, on the other side of the world, on a beach cave I visited once in Bali. A flamboyant altar was niched inside. At the bottom were laying the remnants of burned incense. As I approached the altar, a sign with cautionary guidelines warned me with bold yellow letters: no menstruating women allowed near the offerings. I couldn’t help but tick with disappointment and feel disturbed. With my Muslim education background, I should be equipped to understand and accept such discourse, right? or maybe the pinch in the heart was there because it sounded too familiar.
Hopefully, our internal strengthened spaces will collide, helping us to enrich each other and perhaps make things shift for Muslim women and all those who want to embrace their faith, body and place in the world
The taboo laws are so firmly ingrained deep inside that they work without any coercion—no need for period police. We’re already doing the controlling work ourselves. But is it prescripted by any religious text? Or is this taboo to be attributed to culture? What would happen if we’d bleed in silence, underneath our djellabas, at the mosque? What if I approach this altar while on my period. Nobody would know. What if we cross that line and tell ourselves we are worthy of it all the time. Would that result in blasphemy? Or instead, self-acceptance and radical worthiness?
I am not sure the level of conversation we’re able to have right now regarding women, religion, and menstrual blood allows us to push forward a new direction of practices. Simply put, I do not know. I find myself torn between all the generational shifts occurring in the wake of #MeToo and the rigid laws I grew up with. What I do know for sure is that these silent laws are a powerful tool for social control. Therefore, cultivating an inner safe space where I can phrase these challenging questions is the first step I’ve found restorative. Hopefully, our internal strengthened spaces will collide, helping us to enrich each other and perhaps make things shift for Muslim women and all those who want to embrace their faith, body and place in the world, all at once.
Written by Kenma
Kenma is a writer and collage artist, currently exploring the narratives shaping her identity.
She uses the blank page for words and images to create new meanings around body image, menstruation and womanhood
Read more from Kenma on her Medium page
*ftoor or iftar is the moment when people break their fast during Ramadan, at sunset and at the exact time of the call for the maghrib prayer
**dialect spoken by the Soninké people, mainly present in Mali and Senegal
*** means “apart”
Inès Geoffroy, Les règles de l’art, Dec. 10th 2018. Article in French and available here
Héla Ammar: Purification, Some photographs can be seen here