Why do I have to pretend to fast when my “monthly friend” is visiting?

Published: June 23, 2017
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I was shunned to the room because, God forbid, one of the male members of my family were to know that I was on my period. ILLUSTRATION: LIBERTY ANTONIA SADLER FOR METRO

I sit in the room at the end of the hallway. The door is closed. My head is bent. I am waiting to be called.

I was six-years-old. I stood on the balcony with my mother, father and cousin as we tried to spot the chaand that would symbolise the start of Ramazan. I was excited. I was thrilled; there was nothing I wanted more than to fast for the entire month. I started singing,

Ramazan ke rozay aye, hum roza rakhna chahain!

(The month of fasting is here, and we wish to fast!)

My cousin shared the same enthusiasm; he got up and began singing along with me. But soon we were reminded that we were too young, too thin and too weak to fast. My parents finished the song,

Aglay saal, aglay saal, aglay saal!”

(Next year, next year, next year!)

We smiled with that hopeful glow of innocence that all children seem to exude and sang along with them.

Aglay saal” came soon enough, and along with that came a long awaited friend.

_______________________________________________________________

The room is small. Several prayer mats lay folded on the sofa next to me. I keep a one-arm distance between them and myself. I get up and walk to the door. I peek outside to see if the jamaat (congregation) is over. But it isn’t. I catch her eye as she bends into sajdah (prostration). I close the door.

Earlier, I was drinking a glass of water when she walked into the kitchen. She asked me,

“Aren’t you fasting?”

I boldly shook my head, unafraid and continued to sip on my glass of water. The look she gave me, however, told me that I should be. Her eyes narrowed, and her wrinkled nose turned upwards. She tightened the scarf on her head, scoffed and walked out of the room.

I saw her whisper her disappointment to my grandmother, my mother and my khala.

Why isn’t she pretending to fast?” she questioned my grandmother.

I chuckled – I couldn’t help but laugh because I am not embarrassed by my body; I am not embarrassed by my womanhood. And I shouldn’t have to be.

I didn’t hear what my grandmother had to say. I looked at this woman I barely knew, amidst an iftar at my grandmother’s house as she glared at me. I sighed. This was Karachi – iftaris with distant relatives and far-off family friends, aunties making unwarranted comments on the lives of every young woman they could find. I went up to her and asked,

“Why?”

She looked at me, taken aback. No one ever asks why. We don’t ask why when we’re told that the women’s section is in the basement of the grocery store, we don’t ask why we’re told to speak softly. We never do. Maybe that was part of the problem. And as the word left my mouth, it formed into something I never intended it to be – defiance.

I was curious. I always had been. But I never meant to be rude. I could tell by her face that no one had ever questioned her before and I wondered if our society was an accumulation of matriarchy as opposed to the patriarchy we seem to blame everything on.

She looked at me and sighed,

“Some things aren’t meant to be questioned.”

There always seemed to be a barrier between me and the rest of the world. She wryly smiled at me.

“Beta, girls are precious. So it is your duty to protect yourself.”

“Protect myself from what exactly?”

I pushed, knowing already that she would not answer. She turned around and ever-so-kindly led me to a room down the hallway so that she could join the jamaat.

“Girls aren’t supposed to let the world know when their friend is visiting,” she cooed as she ruffled my hair.

She smiled at me, but it wasn’t really a smile and I realised that she herself could not say the word period. What was she so afraid of? Maybe it wasn’t the over-looming patriarchy that enforced these norms upon us, but the women that believed it was their duty for us, as women, to be nothing more than emotional entities. The physical being, the body was never discussed here and that irritated me to another end.

Her eyes moved from mine and made their way slowly down my body. She looked at my kurta, which I had thought was decent enough for an iftari. Her eyes then moved on to my tights, which were black and fitted. She did not approve. I didn’t understand. Even my choices were not my own.

I was supposed to hide my body, pretend that it didn’t exist. I hated it. I hated feeling guilty for taking up space, but not anymore. I was sick of everyone around me owning me; my body, my choices, my thoughts.

I was shunned to the room because, God forbid, one of the male members of my family was to know that I was on my period. What would they think! The horror.

So here I am – alone, and ashamed; left to rethink my decision of openly drinking water in a month where it’s only acceptable to do so after 7:25 pm. Yet, I don’t want to be alone and I don’t want to be ashamed. It’s almost as if everything I say, or do, or wear is scrutinised by all those around me and slowly I’m growing more into a shell than as a person.

I live in a city where womanhood is discussed solely behind closed doors – with hushed voices, hidden away from the men in a tight box; one we have been told to fit into. I live in a city where women on their cycle wake up for sehri and pretend to fast because the word menstruation cannot be spoken beyond an octave of a whisper. Yet, when I’m told to sit in a room and hide myself, I do so because generations of women before me did the very same thing, and it’s all I’ve ever known.

The notion that we have adverts about new lines of pads, that show all these happy girls frolicking around the screen is apparently groundbreaking in our society. Groundbreaking…We are talking about something that is no innately natural to women, why should discussing or educating people on that be deemed as revolutionary? I know we live in a conservative society, lest I ever forget, but that does not mean that our periods should be slipped under the cracks so that the people around us don’t feel uncomfortable.

I sit in the room thinking back to when I was six-years-old. How innocently I sang the song, yearning to fast. How my cousin and I used to be equals. Yet equality is not a word that always exists when it comes to women. I hear a knock on the door. My mother walks in and sits next to me. She takes out a KitKat from her bag and hands it to me. I smile up at her as she leans back against the sofa and sings,

Ramazan ke rozay aye…”

Maheen Humayun

Maheen Humayun

The writer studied Literature and Creative Writing from John Cabot University in Rome. She is the author of the novella Special. She is currently a sub-editor at Tribune. She blogs at karachiiloveyou.wordpress.com/ and tweets @MaheenHumayun

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • khan ahmed

    I have never wholeheartedly fast, sometimes broke it when alone.Recommend

  • Silenius

    I’ve noticed that women always make it a much bigger deal than men have. When I don’t fast and guys ask me, I tell them the truth and they really don’t get all horrified like women do.Recommend

  • Ahmar

    Fascinating. Next, lets have a blog about erections and wet dreams. Why do I have to live in a society where manhood can not be discussed, even behind closed doors, or in a blog for that matter? I asked an older gentleman this question. He smiled wryly at me.

    “Beta, boys are expendable. No one gives two cents about your male problems. Now do what men have done for centuries. Sort yourself out and go to sleep.”

    And so I was shunned to my room, alone and ashamed. I wrote a blog about it and sent it to all the newspapers. It was rejected, as they were busy publishing blogs about menstruation while universities were busy plastering walls with sanitary pads to celebrate womanhood.

    https://mic.com/articles/140520/pakistani-students-are-covering-a-wall-at-their-university-with-menstrual-pads#.Ir3R90RjJ

    Coz you know, menstruation is something which cannot and has never been discussed in our society beyond a hushed whisper. Except for all those tv ads from Whisper and Always, with young school girls dancing around with joy. Oh why can’t we men stop oppressing and body shaming women, I will never understand.

    Some more gems of wisdom here…

    //Women’s section is in the basement of the grocery store.\

    o.0

    Like seriously….which stores have you been going to in Pakistan? All the stores I’ve been in to….women are in every section. Basement, first floor, middle floor or top. From groceries, to clothing, household goods, gift section, everywhere!! Like I’ve seen women in men’s clothing/shoes section buying stuff. Someone really needs to tell them they are not supposed to get out of the basement.

    Despite all the feminist nonsense, you do raise a valid point. People being forced to pretend to be fasting when they’re not in fact fasting. That is just silly. Like if someone isn’t fasting, let them be. Mind your own Rozah, I would say to them and move on.Recommend

  • Dr. M

    The story starts with the meloncholicly sweet childhood memory and then slips bait to the teenager-like frustration. A young girl getting offended by stares and smiles around.Inspite of taking a plunge into sensibility she decides she ought to voice her confused notions out loud.
    This article would have made much sense only if the writer had ventured into third phase of self discovery Recommend

  • Custard_Pie_In_Your_Face

    Sort yourself out and go to sleep – Advice that’s served me well many a time.Recommend

  • farhan

    women dont like facts, they like someone to lie and make them feel good, to massage their inflated egosRecommend

  • Silenius

    well, you just took it to a different tangentRecommend

  • Hassan Ahmed

    You see, us guys accept that nobody is perfect. Guy ‘A’ didn’t fast, so what? I stayed awake and watched a whole season of Game Of Thrones last night, who am I to judge? That’s how our brains work, when someone screws up, we don’t kick them out of our goodie-people list, because we ourselves are not perfect. Women on the other hand, I shouldn’t say.Recommend