Muslim Women Confront the Menstruation Taboo |

Muslim Women Confront the Menstruation Taboo

Three Muslim women share their reflections on how they and their families deal with the topic of menstruation – and women’s temporary exemption from fasting – during Ramadan.

“It was all very hush-hush. When you were on your period, you were not allowed to touch the mushaf (copy of the Quran), but also not the prayer rug, nor the prayer scarf. In Ramadan, we [menstruating females] all had to get up for suhoor and “fast” all day. Occasional tasting of some food was allowed to make sure the spices were perfect in the food we would make “for the men.” I felt dirty and disgusting. It was hard to hide everything regarding periods in that small apartment with all those people.”

Shabana, who shared that memory with me, was born in Pakistan and lived there until her teens. Now she’s the mother of two adult children and a mental health professional in California. Looking back on her youth, she realizes how unhealthy and un-Islamic her family’s outlook on menstruation was. She continues:

We moved to the U.S. when I was sixteen. What a culture shock! Well, menstruation got easier since now we had sanitary pads. However, the Ramadan issue still remained. I have a brother and two sisters. We had to hide our periods from my brother by still waking up for suhoor. I remember him saying when we did Maghrib jamaah (group prayer at sunset), “Why is aapi (elder sister) not praying with us?” My mom would make something up, like, “Oh, she had to do such and such…” If we wanted to eat, we would go into the pantry or hide somewhere. Periods were still a “punishment,” and that is what I knew. There was no room or reason to question.

Shabana’s experience is not unique. Nadia shares:

I grew up in Scotland. Both my parents were from Pakistan. My dad was never religious and rarely fasted. He also worked long hours at his shop, so mum was responsible for our sporadic Islamic education and everything else, really. I have an older brother and sister. I learned about periods at about age 9 and started menstruating at 11. I suppose this was around the time I began to fast. Periods were not to be talked about in front of my dad and brother at all, not just in Ramadan. It was a strict taboo. I'm certain that my mother wouldn't have dreamed of letting my father know when my sister and I began our period, or any complications or incidents pertaining it — for example, when I developed a low iron count due to heavy periods, or when I had to stay home from school because the cramps were so bad.

Nadia tells me the negative effects of her family’s attitude toward menstruation still bother her to this day.

I never questioned the validity or the fairness of periods being “hush-hush.” Looking back, I feel a lot of retrospective compassion for the situation though — for my sister and myself, and also for my mother, who felt she had to do this. She truly felt that she was upholding hayah (modesty). I remember one incident when my older brother was being particularly bullyish towards me, wanting me to hurry up and do the chores for him (that's a whole other cultural problem to unpack right there!). My mum, very reluctantly, explained that I was having a bad period, and that's why I wasn't “up to par.” My brother reacted with initial disgust, defensiveness for his not knowing, then finally, blame, coming to the conclusion that it was my fault for not somehow “sorting myself out” to make my periods more manageable. Misogyny at its finest! So yes, the taboo around periods in general didn't leave me feeling great about myself! If anything, the feelings of wronged indignation have only grown stronger over time.

Making Different Choices

Because of the way their families made them feel dirty, inferior, punished, and shameful, Shabana and Nadia decided to approach the topic much differently with their own children.

Nadia says:

I'm certain that periods and particularly periods in Ramadan needn't be an issue, and certainly never a taboo. Age-appropriate explanations are always at hand, if we think carefully enough and work to each child's understanding. Younger children need only be told, “Sometimes ladies don't need to fast for a few days,” or “Women get something called a period which makes them too tired to fast,” and work from there. For a very young child, “Mummy doesn't need to fast today” is sufficient explanation! Children are very trusting. I have been blessed with three young girls, and have applied similar explanations myself, adding more detail about the biological attributes of a period as the need grows. I don't see why it needs to be any different for sons. It's only our own, culturally-learned squeamishness we need overcome.

Shabana adds:

Years later when I met my husband and started learning about Islam, I found out the real rules and regulations around menses. So I decided that my children will know the real Islam. As for my son, I told him that women have periods, which is a blessing because that is how I got him. Also, we spoke freely about any questions he had in the light of Shariah. Nowadays in my household, my daughter is the only one having periods. She does not have to wake up for suhoor and pretend she is fasting. In the beginning, her brother would ask at suhoor time “Where is my sister?” and I would say, “She does not have to fast.” That was it; he would not question it. Now he does not even ask. He knows and even sometimes asks her to taste whatever he is cooking.

Shabana does not think the cultural shaming of menstruation has ended, even in 2023. She says:

I know there are some households that are still practicing the same ideas: "When you are on your period, you are najs (impure).” This is not true, Islamically. There is a hadith where Aisha explains,  "The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, used to lean on my lap and recite Quran while I was in menses.” Many women are still not talking to their sons about periods, even though youngsters find out everything at school or on social media.

Asma, born and raised in the U.S. by a Turkish father and American convert mother, is the mom of three young children. Her approach to explaining menstruation to her sons is very clinical and direct:

I don't address it with much delicacy when it comes to my sons (6 and 8). I tell them that I'm on my period and that is when I oversee their prayers rather than praying with them. I have even shown them the pads and how I put the pads in underpants and shown them what blood on the pads looks like. Some people may think this is going too far, but I think that these are things that people should know, without either grossed-out dramatics or morbid obsession. There's no need for any weird mystery around any of it. I tell them the reason for the blood is that a woman has a womb inside her which is like a little home, like a balloon, for a baby to grow in. And every so often it sheds its lining, like its walls covered in blankets, and cleans itself out to get ready just in case there's going to be a new baby growing, so all the old bloody lining comes out, and women are not supposed to pray and fast during this period. I tell them that they grew inside that womb when they were babies, and it is tough for women to do this, but Allah tests us all in different ways. Honestly, they don't care about it much and they are not surprised at this point, and my older son has gotten pretty good at leading his younger brother in prayer.

Like Shabana, Asma looks to Islamic history to see how menstruation was approached at the time of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him:

I have been less clinical and forthright in explaining other related things to them at this stage because I don't think they're mature enough to handle that information, but there is nothing sensitive or tricky to handle about how periods work. During the time of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, women would ask very blatant questions about various discharges right in front of everyone, and this was fine and important. There's nothing wrong or shameful about it, and it is not some complicated issue that is difficult for kids to navigate.

Moving Forward

Even if we were raised in a culture that made our menses feel like a taboo, we can flip the narrative as adults. Part of this process is educating ourselves about the actual Islamic rules around menstruation. Another component is crafting a way to educate our children about women’s cycles in a way that demystifies and destigmatizes them. Finally — and crucially —  many women need to find a way to heal from the unkind, unhealthy way they were treated by their own family. If they still feel dirty, guilty, or inferior because of their monthly cycle, or resentful of their family’s treatment of them, they should acknowledge these emotions and handle them with compassionate self-acceptance, prayer, therapy, or a combination of all three.

Author’s Note: While two of the three sisters interviewed are from Pakistani background, difficulty discussing menstruation and taboo practices surrounding it are not relegated to South Asian cultures. There are many factors that influence a parent’s comfort with the topic. And much of the challenge comes from a lack of factual information.

Here are some suggestions to expand your knowledge of women’s health concerns from a physiological and Islamic perspective.


Period and Ramadan – Can We Talk About It?

How Islam Destigmatized Menstruation

A Women's Guide to Spirituality in Ramadan during Menstruation and Postnatal Bleeding


A Muslim Woman's Guide to Menstruation Rulings by Naielah Ackbarali

Fiqh of Menstruation Simplified by Naielah Ackbarali

Laura El Alam is a first-generation American Muslim and the author of over 100 published articles. She has written a children’s book, Made From the Same Dough, due to be released in 2023. You can visit her online at


Add new comment