Normalizing Menstruation Promotes Equality. Period.

When I was eleven, my period leaked for the first time in my sixth-grade class. It was my second period ever, and while age and experience has now confirmed what my mother said to me the day it happened (“Every single woman in the world has leaked”) I was mortified to the point of being momentarily traumatized; boys bullied me for weeks about it, and I exerted all my efforts into avoiding the memory of it. From then on, when I had my period, nothing was more important to me than making sure I didn’t leak. All my thoughts, anxieties, and concerns through the day on those dreaded moments of a month revolved around how many pads or tampons I had in my bag, and how many opportunities I would have to go to the bathroom.

It wasn’t long before I realized this was a concern all my girlfriends shared, and we spent our days in middle and high school clandestinely passing each other pads and tampons in brown bags, so no one would see, and through the sleeves of each other’s shirts like we were exchanging contraband instead of products crucial to our health and well-being. We didn’t talk about our periods above whispers and used euphemisms like “our friend from down South” if we had to talk publicly or loudly. Characters in TV shows didn’t have or refer to their periods; no one in movies seemed affected. Pop stars and models were beautiful all the time and never caved over in cramps, migraines, or nausea, so we put smiles on our faces, saved the complaining for each other when we were home in our pajamas and watching TV, accepting the silence and secrecy as givens and normalcy for menstruating women.

I’d always been passionate about my faith and spirituality, I often talked about the Baha’i Faith’s advocacy for women’s rights, but I never saw how my humiliation or secrecy regarding my period had anything to do with the principle of gender equality. Sometime in my teenage years, I was reading my own copy of the Kitab-i-Aqdas (The Most Holy Book) that my Baha’i school teacher had given me. I came across the passage: 

God hath, likewise, as a bounty from His presence, abolished the concept of ‘uncleanness’, whereby divers things and peoples have been held to be impure. He, of a certainty, is the Ever-Forgiving, the Most Generous. Verily, all created things were immersed in the sea of purification when, on that first day of Ridvan, We shed upon the whole of creation the splendours of Our most excellent Names and Our most exalted Attributes.1

Note 20 of the Kitab-i-Aqdas confirmed:

In some earlier religious Dispensations, women in their courses were considered ritually unclean and were forbidden to observe the duties of prayer and fasting. The concept of ritual uncleanness has been abolished by Baha’u’llah.2

This passage sparked curiosity, and I started reading and educating myself: the concept of menstruation being “unclean” was  almost universal, affecting the self-esteem of a middle school girl in suburban New Jersey who was humiliated by the reality of her own body, and affecting the progress of almost every girl’s education in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and south Asia. Forget merely being embarrassed by a leak, girls across the world suffer physical isolation during the menstrual cycle, and confinement to the home because they lack the necessary hygiene products to make life with a period even possible to function. Obtaining pads and tampons is often impossible for girls and women in rural villages, where periods are still taboo, and mentioning such would mean your social demise.

The link between someone’s period in the developing world and their education is undeniable: according to www.her-turn.org in a report from the United Nations dated May 28, 2016, “In Nepal and Afghanistan, 30 percent of girls report missing school during their periods.” In Afghanistan, the male literacy rate is double that of women. In Nepal, some 76% of men are literate compared to to only 55% of women.

Knowing how clearly and intensely puberty affects the educational attainment of women, it’s helpful to remember Abdu’l-Baha’s teaching that:

The girl’s education is of more importance today than the boy’s, for she is the mother of the future race…3

It is the counsel of Abdu’l-Baha that girls be educated, and her education should be prioritized over that of her brother or brothers. How then can we allow girls to stop going to school because we are too ashamed or squeamish to talk about periods?

How can we allow girls to feel the stress and anxiety of always having a pad or tampon on hand and perpetuate their shame and secrecy because we are too squeamish to talk about periods?

Menstruation as a taboo is not about manners or decency. Alienating or ignoring conversations about menstruation, hiding menstrual hygiene products, taxing them as luxury products (this is a thing in many parts of the US), and worse, shaming women for leaking or mentioning their periods, only perpetuates the stigma of it. This fuels insecurities in girls about their bodies, and limits their capacities to ask for help or seek their own normalcy. Furthermore, it limits men’s capacities to develop empathy for their counterparts who are performing the same jobs they are whilst losing significant amounts of blood and suffering side effects ranging from cramps to fatigue and even debilitating migraines. Perpetuating the stigma of menstruation limits the development of girls and women in the world, and is in direct contrast to the teachings of the Faith and to the equality of rights between men and women.

Today, I’m a sixth-grade teacher in New York City. Every year, when showing our new batch of middle school students the girls’ bathroom, I show them how to dispose of their menstrual hygiene products correctly. I tell them where they can get a pad if they don’t have one. When they giggle and laugh because they say it’s weird to talk about, I tell them even I, Ms. Kardan, tell their male teachers that I have my period because they need to know I’m not trying to ditch work when I ask them to step in to my classroom so I can jet to the restroom every two hours.

Every year, my students feel comfortable enough to tell me if their periods just leaked and they need a new pair of pants. They feel comfortable enough to yell my name because their periods surprised them while they were they were in the bathroom and they need a pad. They don’t cringe with humiliation when they realize there’s blood on their seat like I did when I was in sixth-grade, because they have a teacher who tells them they’re human, and their period is part of what makes them human.

Fighting for the equality of men and women is more than the law; it’s about making girls feel like their truest selves, their most bare and true biological selves, is nothing to be ashamed of. Our Faith codifies it into the law, and it’s time we act upon it.

If you’d like to explore this topic some more, here are some links which you might find useful:


 

  1. Baha’u’llah, the Kitab-i-Aqdas []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London []

About the Author

Nadia Kardan

Nadia Kardan is a writer, schoolteacher, and active feminist. In addition to teaching full time, and finalizing her first novel, Nadia hosts weekly devotionals entitled “Feminism and Spirituality” designed to deepen attendees on the the spiritual solutions to gender equality and on the laws of the Baha’i Faith. She lives in New York City with her cat Emma.

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Discussion 36 Comments

  1. Thank you. This is so important on so many levels. We must keep talking about menstruation within our families and workplaces and schools so that someday no girl ever will need to feel isolated and humiliated and alone in a time when she needs more support, not less!

  2. WOW this is AWESOME!!! Way to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. I had the exact same experience in middle school (only we called it junior high back then) and I still have nightmares about it. This is so refreshing. Thank you!!

    1. Thank you! I’ve shared this work by Steinem and we (friends/team and I) made a reference to it during a presentation on Menstrual Inequity at the ABS conference last year. I appreciate your thoughts and comments!

  3. Thank you Nadia for an excellent and much needed article to be shared and acted on throughout our world.
    Here in Wales (UK) in April a £2.3 million ‘Period Dignity Grant for Schools’ was announced by the Welsh Government to provide over 141,000 girls and young women with free sanitary products in primary and secondary schools across Wales. The First Minister Mark Drakeford announced, ‘In March, we declared free sanitary products would be available to all women in Wales’ hospitals – it is only just that the same happens across our schools. It is essential ample sanitary products, as well as good facilities, are available to all female learners so they can manage their periods with confidence and remove what is an unnecessary barrier to their education.’
    Female students have also led campaigns in their schools to highlight the issue.
    As you wrote: ‘Fighting for the equality of men and women is more than the law; it’s about making girls feel like their truest selves, their most bare and true biological selves, is nothing to be ashamed of. Our Faith codifies it into the law, and it’s time we act upon it.’

    1. Thanks for the information! In New York City, it was recently ruled that sanitary products must be available for free in all public schools and institutions as well. Wales is on the right path.

      Thank you for your comments and for reading.

  4. This conversation is so welcome. Learning of the progress being made in New York CIty and Wales is very hopeful for wider recognition. I was so traumatised by my own middle school experience with a period that it coloured my attitude to education generally, until becoming a feminist and better understanding the underlying cause and attitudes. Thanks so much Nadia.

    1. To explain further, my comment above referred to a music examination in which I had previously excelled. Because leaving the room was disallowed, and I felt too ashamed to give my reason for doing so, my teacher accused me of cheating, saying that this must be the explanation for my previous high marks.

      1. I’m sorry this happened to you; thank you for reading and for your thoughts. With our work, I hope no girls will have to experience such shame in the future.

  5. We have similar issues in South Africa where many girls stay home during their periods and so miss school, but I had never made this most basic link. The article made me so excited! Thank you so so much! I’m sharing this story everywhere!

  6. Thank you for this article. The humilating and embarrassing memory of my own leakage in school just dissipated from heart while reading this. It is normal and everyone leaks some or other time.

  7. Es ist einfach nicht zu glauben. Im Kloster als Kind-hatten wir noch solche Zustände. Aber heute in der modernen Welt? Die Welt ist eben noch gar nicht modern- muss ich feststellen? Gottlob haben wir, dürfen IHN haben- Abdu‘l-Baha! Es ist wirklich die Religion für unsere Zeitalter! Eine andere Erlösung für uns Freuen gibt es niemals

  8. Good article and discussion starter. When I was about 45 (over 20 years ago) my friend went through a rough, early menopause. She was an emotional and physical mess. I wondered how our tiny Baha’i community would react if that happened to me. It was a topic that I felt could not be discussed or empathetically understood. That never happened, but it brought home to me the belief that this and so many our things that impact us should be topics that can be discussed and understood.
    Thank you for opening up this discussion.

  9. Awesome article!! So helpful to keep in mind as I animate my junior youth group – which currently consists of all guys except one girl; a great opportunity to normalize periods with everyone, especially the guys. Also helpful to keep in mind as I raise my 2 year old daughter and soon-to-be son. I’ve been trying to normalize my period/not hide it from my daughter so she sees it as a normal part of life.

    1. Simply mentioning it once is the entry point to conversation and can make all the difference for children. Thank you for your comments and for reading!

  10. I feel this is so important for men too, who are misinformed about women’s bodies. I’m sure we’ve all heard some of the misconceptions men have (periods only last a day, we can “turn it off” if it’s not convenient, etc..) I’m raising sons and I want them to know how bodies work and how to respond if a young woman has a leak or doesn’t feel well because of her menstrual cycle. I didn’t realize how important this issue is, thanks for bringing it forward for us to start the conversation.

    1. A few years ago, my very well educated friend asked me (very genuinely) if I had the capacity to hold my menstrual flow. I laughed in his face (for a very long time), but it definitely made me realize how little men know and how important it is that they do know. Thank you for reading!

  11. Your specific point that experienced women conveying the truth of the period experience really resonated with me. I was in my early 40’s and being made miserable and terrified by heavy periods that went on and on, dealing with them at work, etc. My primary doctor was female and 15 to 20 years older and she told me about entering medical school AFTER getting her children through high school. She endured the same heavy, debilitating menstrual flow while on her general surgery rotation. She simply had to let the flow run down her legs and into her rubber surgery clogs — because she couldn’t excuse herself.

    We were perimenopausal when we experienced this. I bled for 52 days before finally seeing my gynecologist and telling her I didn’t want the plumbing anymore, I wasn’t going to use it again. At that point, you have to learn that the loss of menstruation can feel like the loss of your essential feminity — you are no longer capable of giving birth. This facet, too, of moving from being a fertile, adult woman who menstruates to being the wise woman, “the crone”, is one I hope you address in your talks and writing.

    Incredibly important work you are doing.

    1. Thank you for your comments and for sharing your story. I hope I will gain the wisdom to be able to write authentically about the things you’ve suggested; I’m certainly ready to read more and learn. Thank you again! -Nadia

  12. What promotes equality is for husbands and fathers to perform their duties as the sole financial provider for their wives and children so that women and girls can deal with their periods and pregnancy without stress and anxiety.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts! I look forward to exploring what you brought up and the implications of it in future pieces. Best, Nadia

  13. Important and helpful article Nadia! Thank you for doing this work and for the thoughtful links you make with the Teachings of the Faith and the implications of this being a completely new age, one in which all our old habits have to be re-examined. I’ve thought a lot recently about how rather than seeing a period as a shameful annoying thing that gets in the way of productive life, how being a cycling woman can be a window to access some of the more spiritual aspects of myself, even potentially allowing me to bring richness to my family and community. And then my thoughts turn to how society and educational systems and relationships will have to honour the feminine rather than perpetuate the mistaken notion that we are all the same every day. Look forward to thinking more about these things over time with folks like you! Thanks!

    1. Thank you for your beautiful and thoughtful comments. I love that there are menstruating women who use that time to unlock their spiritual potentials. So much love to you! -Nadia

  14. I am perpetually amazed by the awesome wisdom and foresight of Baha’u’llah, who excused women “during their courses” from the obligation of prayer or fasting, and also from the duty of service on the Universal House of Justice (probably for similar reasons). We are all mariners in His Holy Ark, sailing across the Celestial Concourse upon Crimson Seas!

    1. Hi Sheila,

      Thanks for your comment! Yes, I am grateful for the Baha’u’llah’s wise exemptions for women who are menstruating, pregnant or nursing from fasting and I am very moved by the words women who are menstruating can recite in lieu of an obligatory prayer (to repeat 95 times a day between one noon and the next, the verse “Glorified be God, the Lord of Splendour and Beauty”).

      As to the exemption of women from serving on the House of Justice, we know that Abdu’l-Baha tells us the wisdom of this will be revealed as manifest as the sun in the future. I know I’ve met many people who found this a challenging question in their investigations of the Baha’i Faith, and I always try to make it clear that we, as Baha’is, are currently as much in the dark as anyone – at least I am!

      Thanks for reading our article and for taking the time to share your thoughts!
      – Sonjel

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