As the first week of Ramadan comes to an end, Eman Aly talks being Muslim + getting your period, and untangling herself from unhelpful cultural traditions.
OK, don't worry, I didn’t have sex when I was 13. But for me, the line was much more blurred.
Although I was born and raised in the US, my family is of Egyptian descent, and my parents were born and raised in Egypt. We are Muslim, too. The tension surrounding these different identities intersected, constricted, expanded, stretched, and shaped us to be the people we are today, and I would not want it any other way. But that tension was the most strained where my religion intersected with my culture, particularly, my American culture.
Quick side note about being an American Muslim, there is no conflict between being American and Muslim. As one of my teachers taught me, Islam flows over cultures like a clear water, and takes on the color of the rocks and the bank over which it flows.
Speaking of flows, I began menstruating the summer before 7th grade. I was excited for about five minutes, and then I was writhing in pain the next five nights. Between sex ed and my mother, I had some idea about what was happening in my body, but I guess I didn’t know what to expect. As a Muslim, I understood from my teachers in weekend school that getting my period meant that I was now accountable before God. It actually made me a little bit more aware of my actions because everything I did “counted” (as my mother always reminded me).
Early on, my mom taught me that it was wrong to talk about my period. According to Egyptian standards, it is bad etiquette and unladylike, and no one was there to tell me what the American standards were. Also, the line between Egyptian cultural norms and Islamic rulings was sometimes muddled. Often, my mother would tell me something was prohibited by Islam, when in actuality it was just an Egyptian cultural rule. One time my mom told me that girls drinking coffee was haram (prohibited in Islam). Flabbergasted, I asked my grandmother, if a girl could drink coffee, sarcastically exclaiming, “You know coffee? Cream? Sugar?” And my grandmother, seriously, said that coffee with milk was okay. That struggle went on throughout most of my teens and early 20s. I’m sure it rages on in homes all over the country across many ethnicities. I know, you’re still waiting on the virginity story. It’s coming.
Anyway, some time in 7th grade, I decided to try out for the volleyball team. Tryouts were after school and, of course, my new irregular period decided to show up right before tryouts started. I panicked. I was too embarrassed to keep pads in my locker for fear that someone might see them. Thankfully, the school had vending machines in all the bathrooms, but as my luck would have it, this one was out of pads— the only period option I had so far understood. Desperate, I bought a tampon and sat on the toilet, looking at it. I didn’t really understand how I was supposed to use it, or how it worked, but I tried anyway. Needless to say, I didn’t make the volleyball team, and I’ll forever blame it on that poorly lodged tampon.
Later that night, I sat with my mom and my aunt (who, by the way, was the cool aunt, because she went to high school here in the states, and my uncle took her to prom before they were married—shocking, I know). In recounting my day to them, I mentioned the tampon incident, certain they’d enjoy my awkward and funny anecdote. But, before I could finish the sentence, I saw my mom’s hand coming in for a slap in slow motion, her hand trying to make contact with my cheek, and my head pulling away just in time to see her hand pass in front of my nose. She screamed, “You’re not a virgin! You’re not a virgin!!”
Confused, I asked what she meant: How am I not a virgin anymore? My mom couldn’t explain it, but luckily, my cool aunt explained that there is a little bit of tissue, called a hymen, and if it breaks a woman is no longer considered a virgin. Even more confused, I just fell silent. What the hell was a hymen?!
Still unsure of what I had done or what we were talking about, I agreed that I would never use a tampon until I was married (aka, until I had sex, because for our family these two events were synonymous).
Cut to a few weeks later. I was in health class, and the teacher gave us a chance to ask whatever we wanted, anonymously, on a piece of paper. I wrote down: “Do tampons break your virginity?” I nervously waited for her to pick my question, even though I was afraid that all the kids would know that it was me. I was extremely shy back then. The teacher, reassured the anonymous question asker (me) that tampons would not “break” your virginity, but I wasn’t satisfied. I still wasn’t sure about about the hymen, and its connection to virginity. And I was too embarrassed and ashamed to speak up about it.
So, I didn’t use tampons until after I got married, because, you know, just in case. I remember a scene in a movie where Dennis Quaid, playing Jerry Lee Lewis, told his wife, played by Winona Ryder, that she didn’t “move like no virgin.” I harbored a small fear that when I got married, my husband would be able to detect that I wasn’t a virgin because I used tampons.
As I grew older and researched more, I found that this cultural belief about tampons, hymens, and virginity only held water in the imaginations of some Egyptians. The reality is that there is no connection between intact hymens, virginity and Islam. It was a cultural tradition, that, just like coffee for girls, was wrongly appropriated by many cultures (not just Egyptian) and equated with virginity.
This reaction my mother had when I was in 7th grade was traumatic enough that I was scared to tell her anything that I encountered growing up. It would take years, and lots of fighting, for me to be able to have these types of conversations with her.
As a social worker, I always advise parents and children about the importance of communication, especially as they enter their early teens. It really can make or break a relationship.
Should I be so lucky to have a daughter, I’d definitely encourage her to use whatever product she was comfortable with. I’d also give her the space to tell me whatever was on her mind, without fear of her mom freaking out. And I would hope that she would consider me a safe space to share whatever she felt comfortable sharing with me, even if afterwards, I give her crap about cleaning her room.