How Being South Asian Affects Your Period
By Hiyah Zaidi
In South Asian cultures, periods are a taboo secret – for mothers and aunts ears only, never to be discussed outside home. Never to be discussed in front of men. With the shroud of secrecy, different myths and habits have cropped up like weeds in spring. For some people, it’s ‘using tampons is haram’ and for other people it’s ‘no cutting nails/ shaving.’
People on their periods were often dubbed as impure, being left to stay outside the house, often living on their verandas. Films like Padman (based on true events) highlight the horrid cultural practices some women endure.
But with time comes a slow and hopeful progress. We have spoken to 6 British South Asian women to find out more about their period habit, and how being from a South Asian background has affected their monthly gift from mother nature.
Sumaiyah, 24 – British Pakistani
It was 2am, I knocked on my mum and dad’s door and had my little bag I got from school’s sex ed classes. I was like ‘mum I think I’ve started my period’. She taught me how to put pads on, gave me a hot water bottle, and then I got back into bed. Over time, I realised my periods were heavy and I struggled with them. Because of that, I was open about periods with my family. Their openness was also influenced by their parents, who knew periods were normal and natural. I think that affected their attitude towards me and what I was going through.
There’s a bit of British culture where sometimes we think are very open, but you don’t realise you never talk about anything, like your period, so you assume everyone is the same. Being South Asian and Muslim, the only thing I was told was that I couldn’t pray. I spoke to my mum and she said (one is) still clean enough to go into the mosque, you’re just not supposed to pray. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised some Muslims in general hide the fact they’re on that period during Ramadan, some people would pretend to fast in front of their fathers and not eat all day even though you’re exempt. So there is still that idea you have to hide your period from your family, which amplifies a suggestion of impurity.
Raman, 24 – British Indian
When I started my period, it was treated as normal. I called to my nan and she explained what I had to do because I was going to school within an hour or so. There was nothing untoward about it.
In Sikhism, there is no limitations – some people might choose not to pray or go into the temple if they’re on their period because of personal reasons or preference. I feel, in terms of talking about periods, our communities are more reserved, especially with men in the room. A lot of people won’t be comfortable to say ‘oh by the way I’m on my period’, even myself actually, if my dad was sat there I might say I’m not feeling too good, but wouldn’t say ‘I’m on my period’. It’s the older generation and the way they think. More so, if you are from ‘back home’ (place of ethnicity). Because now I say that about my dad but my mum is the same generation and she’s open, but women do talk about periods amongst themselves. I feel we don’t have that many problems about being ‘unclean’ or not speaking about it, being born and raised in Britain. But some people are not open to speak about their periods, and they wouldn’t want to come forward to discuss their period habits – so it would be hard to gage.
Zarah*, 20’s – British Pakistani
My parents spent time in culturally diverse environments, and with their family dynamics, they were quite understanding of periods and didn’t consider them to be impure. In our house, it’s something you can openly talk about as it’s natural. But there is an element of privacy. I don’t like attention on me if I’m on my period, I just like to go about my business. Women mostly speak about periods amongst themselves, and the men don’t ask any questions. You’re completely fine with doing whatever you want to do on your period, there’s just a few limitations when it comes to religion, because before we pray, or before read Quran we perform ablution and with your periods you’re not in control when your body is releasing fluids.
When the topic was about periods at school, only girls were gathered together with the school nurse, but at home, it was different. My mum didn’t speak about periods in her childhood – when it happened to her she went to her mom and her mum showed her how to handle herself but there wasn’t much of a discussion. So with my sister, my auntie helped out my mom and so my mom knew what to say to me. It was a progressive learning thing for her. With my dad, he gets the hint, he notices when someone isn’t praying or something but we never directly say it to him. Generation wise, there’s a difference –younger generations are more open to speak about periods.
Neelam, 31 – British Indian
I have a very different upbringing to a lot of people, as my mom used to be a school nurse teaching things like sex education. My friends of my age had a complete different experience to me. They were taught to hide it, but it wasn’t hidden in our house. When I got older, I got into a relationship and it was my then partner’s mom who said you shouldn’t be in the kitchen when you’re your period – the food gets spoiled because of the energy. With Sister – a charity working with people of colour around menstrual well-being, reproductive and mental health, I learned people couldn’t talk about it within a family household setting – it’s a woman’s time, a woman’s problem. I’ve got endometritis and PCOS, so my periods are extremely debilitating and they’re really heavy. I know I can pick the phone up and say, I don’t feel well – my dad knows me well enough to know I want KFC.
I think if my mum hadn’t been a nurse, then the conversation would’ve been different. In the community, there are people who suffer from excruciating pain, and people who think the pain doesn’t exist and you shouldn’t be talking about it. There is a generational difference but I also think austerity and poverty plays a part in this because those from deprived areas, education around things like periods is very different to somebody who isn’t struggling and they don’t have the same access to education in the way we do. That creates that generational divide as well, and it keeps the same generational patterns and issues around periods, continuing.
Priya*, 28 – British Indian
I feel (the idea that periods make a woman impure) is a very outdated way to think of periods. Given the knowledge we have of human anatomy it’s surprising some still believe this. Even worse is the feeling we have to abide by these ridiculous beliefs to keep others happy. I wouldn’t want to upset my mum by attending a religious event while on my period even though I don’t believe in the reasons behind it. In my culture we are not allowed to attend religious events for the first 4 days of your periods regardless of how long periods last. My periods normally last longer – meaning I could attend events on my last few days of my periods. To me this makes no sense. This just proves it’s a purely historical belief with no reasoning.
I do not feel my periods affect my level of hygiene. I had my 1st period just before my close cousin’s wedding and couldn’t take part in some of the wedding functions. I felt left out since my entire family were enjoying the festivities whereas I had to make sure I didn’t get too close to the main stage. I had difficulty explaining these taboos to my non-Asian friends. I can openly discuss periods with my mum but never discussed it with my dad or brother. Previously I was a little more reserved about it but now I am more open.
Aanya*, 28 – British Indian
It makes me angry that women are thought of as impure and dirty when they are on their period. As if it is a choice we have, as if life could continue without us having periods. I’ve almost rebelled at the idea of it, I still go to the room in our house which has a temple in it, even if I’m on my period and I still partake in religious activities. I feel like it’s more of a historical cultural taboo rather than anything to do with religion. I don’t think being on my period has an impact on my level of hygiene.
I was very young when I started my period, around the age of 9 or 10. We hadn’t been taught about it at school yet, and it wasn’t something anyone ever mentioned at home. So it was a pretty traumatic moment, to say the least! If the stigma of talking about periods hadn’t existed, I am sure it could have been a much more normal experience. I don’t know what it is, but there seems to be some unspoken taboo against South Asian mums teaching their daughters about tampons. Sanitary pads were the only option I was given growing up, until my non-Asian friends educated me. I am definitely more open with my mum than my dad. I grew up with 2 older brothers so I never spoke about it openly, only with my mum when no one else was around. However as I have gotten older, I’m more inclined to say ‘I’m going to bed early because I’m on my period’ rather than covering it up as a headache or just being tired.
*Names have been changed for anonymity
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