Mar 172014

By Sameera Qureshi

“Because girls are dirty”, was one response a grade five girl gave to my question.

We were talking about menstruation and praying, and that Muslim females are excused from performing the five daily prayers and fasting when they are menstruating. But hearing a young girl call herself “dirty” was heartbreaking. Even more heartbreaking was the fact that this young girl most likely formed this attitude because of messaging she received from her family and cultural context.

I took this opportunity to speak with the entire class and challenge the idea that girls are dirty when they menstruate. The Quran uses the term “impure” and I had to explain what that meant. So I took the positive approach. I told the girls that God did not give periods to women to then treat them as dirty. Rather, when they menstruate, it may be a tough time physically if they have pain or are not feeling like themselves.  Despite the fact that they cannot perform their prayers, I reminded them that they can still be mindful of God while they are menstruating. A girl’s period is a powerful sign that she will someday in the future be able to bring life into this world…what’s so dirty about that?

Another of my students showed me that her mother had slipped something into her backpack and she didn’t know what it was or how to use it. She pulled out the pad her mother had placed in her backpack, and I was surprised that her mom had not taken the steps to educate her daughter and instead just put it in her backpack. When I explained to her that it was for when she would get her period, she seemed confused. It seemed too abstract when we spoke about hormones from the brain and puberty and the myriad of changes she would soon experience. So I sat down with her and drew it out…yes, I drew what a period was and what happened, and she understood it! Especially when I whipped her pad out and showed her how to place it on her underwear, her face lit up because she now had nothing to worry out when she first saw a red spot on her underwear in the future.

And thus began my journey educating Muslim youth about their reproductive health. It will be three years this September that I came across a colleague, Val Barr, from the Calgary Sexual Health Center and  we started talking about the lack of sexual health education in schools with Muslim students. The schools didn’t even cover curriculum material that was mandated by the province for health class. The boys and girls were not learning about their sexual and reproductive health, and it was obvious from the incidences arising that parents weren’t filling that void either. And so, we decided that it was time to seek out an Islamic-friendly curriculum for these schools.

Except there was one problem – there wasn’t such a curriculum publicly available anywhere. We contacted other Islamic schools in the area, researched online and spoke to staff and the Islamic school in our city. Nothing had been formalized and the staff each did their “own thing” with students, mostly basing the information they provided on questions that the students had. This did not prove to be effective as it could be since classes didn’t receive consistent information and there were a lot of important topics such as self-esteem, identity, values, and media critiquing skills being left out.

It took about a year and many meetings with the Islamic school staff to re-work the provincial curriculum into something that had an Islamic framework. The result was a five-lesson curriculum based on physical, spiritual, and social/emotional changes, and we called it the “Gender Education Curriculum.” This initial curriculum focused heavily on educating girls about the physical changes, since we realized that the vast majority had not received this information before. And so in the spring of 2013, we ran this version of the curriculum across all grades and developed a version for the boys, which was implemented by the male (Muslim) physical education teacher. The feedback from students was great and we were surprised at the 75% consented enrollment rate across all grades. While there were a few parents who were concerned about which topics we would cover and not cover, the majority were very supportive and we were incredibly transparent about what the students were learning.

Not surprisingly, I have spent much of my time debunking myths during these sexual health education sessions with Muslim girls. What’s even more challenging is the amount of time it takes for girls to shift their thinking. I find it quite interesting that while most mothers admit to spending only a few minutes to talk to their daughters about menstruation and how to use a pad, should a girl be so lucky, the strength it takes to break these myths makes me wonder how many times they’ve been exposed to this misinformation. Among the myths I have heard are the following:

  • Hygiene-related: taking a bath/shower when menstruating will slow down the flow and therefore lengthen the overall menstrual cycle for the month
  • Religious-themed: girls should pretend to fast and pray so that the males in their house aren’t aware they are menstruating
  • Relationship-related: It is improper for a Muslim girl to feel attracted to a boy
  • Virginity-related: tampons are haram – impermissible – because using them makes one lose her virginity.

Even upon explaining to girls how these myths are false and have been circulating for many generations prior to theirs, it takes a while for them to come to terms with the fact that what they’ve been learning from their families and cultural context is inaccurate. The work around myth busting will always continue. I have found it useful to refer to religious texts to overcome these cultural myths, but that’s a whole other blog entry in itself.

The more I work with grade five students especially, who are learning about their “private parts” for the first time, the more I am validated in my belief that this information is long overdue. The girls already have so much shame and embarrassment around their reproductive system, and I suspect this shame would not be quite as strong if girls were learning about ALL of their body parts from a much younger age. Children should be learning this important information as early as the age of two, which is what many professionals recommend, especially for child sexual abuse education. Some girls can be quite vulgar and crude when they talk about their bodies, which may deter parents from letting their girls begin learning this information so early. Girls need to be matter of fact about their sexual health, the same way they are when they get a cold or a nosebleed: there’s a process on how to seek support if needed, but there’s also a simple process that will help girls understand what’s going on with their bodies, why, and what they need to do.

And so, for those of you reading this entry, what can you do? The first step, whether you do or do not have children, is to assess your comfort level and knowledge of your own bodies and to seek out information you’re missing:

  • Do you know the scientific anatomical names for our external and internal reproductive system structures? And their functions?
  • Do you know the stages of the menstrual cycle?
  • Do you know why some women get cramps while others don’t, and where those cramps originate from?
  • Do you know how to determine when a woman is ovulating?
  • Do you know why and how to track a menstrual cycle?
  • Do you know healthy and unhealthy signs of menstrual cycles?
  • Do you know how to identify common medical conditions such as urinary tract infection and yeast infections?
  • Do you know the importance of women seeing a gynecologist, regardless of whether they are sexually active or not?

For myself, it wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I understood what the menstrual cycle was, in all its amazing intricate details and stages! We can’t expect to teach our children about something that we are not comfortable with. I strongly recommend the resource Menstrupedia and a book by the Boston Women’s Collective called Our Bodies, Ourselves. Both are reliable and evidence-based, and written from a sensitive and easy to understand approach.

While there may be initial discomfort in learning about our reproductive systems, the more you learn, the more this feeling will subside. With the girls I teach, I remind them over and over again that God created them in His perfect image, and menstruation is something to feel empowered about, not stifled by. The more we learn and talk openly about a natural and powerful process that women have gone through well before our own time, the more we will break down the walls of shame and embarrassment around ourselves and other girls and women in our lives.

And if you’re wondering how to talk with your children (boys and girls) about puberty from an Islamic perspective…stay tuned for this discussion in my next blog post.

Sameera Qureshi, MScOT (c) is an Occupational Therapist and currently manages a mental health promotion project that is school and community based, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  Her work over the past six years has been primarily with Muslim populated schools and their families. Since 2011, Sameera has been working to implement Islam-oriented sexual health education programs both within these schools and the greater Muslim community. Her work includes developing the curriculum for both genders and teaching the curriculum to girls in grades 5-9, running parent sessions, collaborating with multiple Calgary agencies around sexual health, and making her work available to interested community member and professionals. She also maintains a blog called Muslim Sistah and can be found on Twitter @muslimsistah 

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