Today I want to talk to you about periods.
Yep, you read that right. This is a guide to the biggest mystery for a boy growing up around Muslimahs: their period.
What is a period?
Put simply, it’s the release of blood and other icky stuff that flows out from between a girl’s or woman’s legs, once a month. Female bodies go through monthly changes (both physical and emotional) during a process called the ‘Menstrual Cycle’. The bleeding is often referred to as a ‘period’ or ‘hayd’ in Arabic.
Where does the blood come out?
Well, there’s an opening between where females pee and where they poo – a third opening from where this blood flows. Interestingly, it’s the same hole from which you came out of when you were born (more about this later).
Is it natural? Does it happen to everyone?
Yes, periods are a normal part of growing up for girls and it is not something that they can start and stop on demand. There is nothing shameful about periods either. It is as natural (except in certain medical cases) as it is to sleep and eat. Islam considers the blood to be impure but not the women from which it flows, so there should be no shame or guilt attached to experiencing a perfectly natural bodily function.
Allah (SWT) has created the female form in this way and also given exceptions to make it easy for them to follow Islam, whilst they are ‘on their period’.
Do they know this is going to happen?
Mostly yes, some girls have a lot of knowledge about periods and others will have little guidance or in some cases hold myths and fears about periods – depending on their culture, education and background.
So what’s the science?
Every female has two egg sacs – one on each side of the body around the hip area- also known as an ovary- that releases one egg each month. This alternates each month between the two ovaries. This egg travels down a tube (fallopian tube) into a chamber called the uterus (womb).
When it gets down there, if the egg isn’t fertilized, i.e. if it doesn’t meet any sperm cells – the equivalent male cells which come from a male (the ones being produced in testes), then the egg is not needed by the body.
In the meantime, the chamber or womb prepares itself by thickening its walls, just in case an egg does become fertilized, (when it becomes fused with a male sperm cell) this will normally go on to develop into a full-sized baby. This baby will pass down the birth canal or vagina and come out from that opening.
Because the egg doesn’t often get fertilized, it is not needed and so the egg along with all the blood and cells that have been used to prepare the womb are also no longer needed and are expelled from the body. The contents of the womb flow out through the hole (vagina) continuously for about a week, until everything that needs to be removed has flowed out of the body.
What’s a monthly cycle?
The whole cycle takes on average 28-30 days and that’s why it is often referred to as a ‘monthly cycle’:
Day 1-7: Period/menstruation- flow of blood
Day 7-14: Proliferative phase- lining of the uterus starts to thicken and the egg matures
Day 14: Ovulation- the egg is released
Day 14-28: Secretory phase- lining of the uterus carries on thickening and egg travels to the uterus if not fertilized
How do girls and women know when to have a period?
They don’t. Chemicals in the body called hormones control changes in the body and a hormone called Oestrogen causes the ovaries to release the egg, usually around Day 14. This marks the start of puberty. Males produce a hormone called testosterone during their puberty.
Women and girls can predict when they will have a period, as they get used to their own periodic cycles. Not every cycle is exactly the same, it can be 28 days, shorter or longer. Some people note their period start dates and there are even apps that help track a woman’s period, so that she can predict her dates more accurately. Knowing when their period is likely to start helps women to plan, for example they may avoid swimming lessons, skip strenuous exercise sessions or decline social invitations. Girls are usually quite self-conscious when they first start their periods and it may take them months or years to settle into a routine as they get used to their bodily rhythms.
So their whole life revolves around periods?!
No, life carries on as normal, but women and girls are mindful around the time of their period because they know they may experience a number of symptoms. They learn to manage and adapt their lifestyle and choices (such as diet and clothing) to accommodate their period.
All females experience different symptoms, but some of the common ones include backache, bloating, cramps, tender breasts, mood swings, nausea, headaches, diarrhoea and constipation.
Is the blood constant and can it be controlled?
The blood, unlike pee and poo, cannot be controlled and flows out in stops and starts. At the beginning of the period the blood is usually dark and thick. Towards the end, the blood flow becomes lighter, fresher looking and more watery.
Do all girls bleed?
Yes, unless there a medical problem, all girls will get a monthly period right up until menopause (more on that later).
How long do girls bleed for?
It can be different for different girls and women. It’s usually about five to seven days but some periods can be as short as three days and some as long as nine days. For Islamic purposes the minimum period has been designated (by some) as one night and one day and the maximum period as fifteen days. The rulings on length and duration of a period can be quite complex – it’s sufficient now for you to know that a woman can carry on bleeding well outside the normal ranges. Any bleeding outside the agreed range is called ‘istihadha’ and a different set of Islamic rulings will apply. The rulings for hayd and istihadha affect a woman’s salat, fasts, hajj, intercourse with her husband (the physical act of getting the male sperm cells into the vagina) and divorce.
Don’t their underpants get dirty?
As soon as a girl realises that there is something wet between her legs, she will use a sanitary towel and put it in her underpants to catch the blood and protect her clothes. Some women and girls choose to use a sanitary product called a tampon which is an absorbent tube, placed directly into the canal that absorbs the blood before it can leave the body. They will change their protection regularly and put the used towel or tampon carefully wrapped up, and put it in either a normal bin or a sanitary disposal bin which are found in most public ladies’ toilets.
There is no warning sign for when a period will arrive, so most will carry a spare towel or tampon in case their period starts early. It’s common for them to lend their products to other women or girls who have been caught out. All this is done very discreetly which is why you are probably unlikely to see evidence of sanitary products lying around the house.
Does it smell?
Yes. The discharge of blood and mucus is bodily fluid, so there will be unpleasant odours. Females will change their sanitary protection often – every three to six hour s- more frequently in the earlier part of the period when the blood flow can be heavier and smellier. It’s a good idea to consider frequent toilet breaks, particularly when travelling with females, even if you don’t know whether or not they are on their period. This will allow her to change her sanitary protection regularly and prevent discomfort and leaks.
What has all this got to do with Islam?
The onset of periods in girls (puberty) turns her into a responsible adult or what is known as mukallaf, in Islam. This means that salah and fasting become obligatory; i.e. they have to do it now. Girls who experience some form of blood loss before age nine and women after the age of 55 are not considered to be menstruating.
What about wudhu and ghusl?
The Qur’an states in Surah Al-Baqarah (2.222) that the bleeding is a ‘hurt’ and a ‘discomfort’. It is not a curse as observed in some other religions and cultures. Rather, it is a mercy from Allah (SWT), and as such they are also excused from all activities which require wudhu and ghusl. These include salah, touching the Qur’an, and fasting.
Because of the constant blood flow during a period, every wudhu and ghusl would be broken straight after it is completed and therefore girls and women complete a purifying ghusl at the end of their period.
So they get to skip salah?
Yes, there are more detailed rulings about when a period is a period and when it’s an istihadha, but essentially, yes, they don’t have to pray the salah during a period. They don’t have to make these up later. On the other hand, any fasts missed during Ramadhan have to be made up later.
What can they do then?
Dhikr; du’a (make supplication); sujood (prostrate) and some Muslimahs depending on what rulings they follow will read the Qur’an ‘in their heart’ i.e not out loud; read sections for the purpose of teaching Qur’an and listen to Qur’an.
What about hajj?
Women can do all the activities of hajj and umrah except tawaf (going around) the Ka’bah.
Is it painful?
It depends, as well as the symptoms mentioned, it can be particularly painful for girls and teenagers who are just starting to get their period. Women can suffer too, with cramps and fatigue on or around the day before they start their period.
Is that why they get moody?
Kind of. The menstrual cycle is controlled by the balance of four hormones which in turn play a part in regulating the body. In the week or so before a period starts, girls and women often suffer mood swings and other emotions which are largely controlled by these hormones. These hormone levels rise and fall in the same sequence during the cycle.
How old are girls when they first start their period?
In rare cases, they can start as early as nine or ten, but most girls will get their first period during their teenage years, around thirteen or fourteen. This period of changes in the body – puberty – is often accompanied by other bodily changes such as spots and pimples, developing breasts, extra padding around their hips and growing thick hair on their armpits and the triangle area at the top of their legs and near the vagina.
Can’t they just take a pill or something to make it stop?
Periods are part of the body’s natural cycle and as such, unless there are medical reasons, most women continue to have their monthly periods, despite the inconvenience. There are contraceptive pills (which prevent conception) that can be taken to stop the egg being released in the first place and therefore prevent a baby being born. There are varying opinions on taking contraceptive pills either for stopping the release of the egg; for treating medical problems such as excessive pimples or for controlling periods during holidays or trips amongst both Muslims and non-Muslims.
It’s worth being aware that there is medication available to stop periods, but the decision and reasons for taking them can be complex.
So, women carry on bleeding for one week every month until they die?
Not exactly. Women are born with 1-2 million immature eggs which are lost throughout their lifetime. About 400 of them mature within the ovaries and are released monthly, so once they run out, she will stop having periods.
This bodily change is called menopause and is accompanied by a range of other symptoms. Typically, it occurs when a woman is in her forties to fifties. After this time, as there are no eggs, they cannot be fertilized and therefore they cannot have babies. This is why women cannot have children after the menopause. By contrast, men continue to produce sperm cells well into later life, so older men are perfectly capable of fertilizing eggs and therefore becoming fathers even in old age.
What has any of this got to do with me?
A lot really. You’re already a son, perhaps a brother and at some point in your life, you may become a husband. Some understanding about periods and how female bodies work will go a long way to enhancing your relationship with the women in your life.
You will be able to understand why she is unable to pray, touch the Qur’an or undertake other Islamic acts of worship that you take for granted. Allah (SWT) has given women certain exceptions, and you knowing about them can help towards avoiding embarrassing questions and situations and even enable you to offer some comfort or practical help during her period.
So next time, your mum (or sister) looks a little worse for wear with no obvious symptoms, show a little empathy; because if it weren’t for periods, you probably wouldn’t be here reading this article.
Adolescence: the change from childhood to adulthood
Amenorrhea: Absence of periods in women (This can be normal or abnormal. Women do not normally get periods if they are pregnant or are breastfeeding).
Fallopian Tube: The tube which runs from the ovary to the womb.
Hayd: Arabic word for normal period blood flow
Istihadha: Bleeding that happens outside the normal period times
Menopause: The time in a woman’s life when her periods stop (usually around 45-50 years)
Menorrhagia: Abnormal menstrual bleeding
Menstrual: Anything to do with periods
Menstrual Cycle: The repeat action of releasing eggs and bleeding in females
Mukallaf: A young person who becomes accountable to Allah at the start of their puberty
Oestrogen: The female hormone which tells the ovary to release an egg each month
Ovary: The organ that holds all the eggs until they are ready to be released
Puberty: The time when girls and boys reach sexual maturity and become capable of reproducing i.e. conceiving a baby with their male and female cells
Testes: The plural word for testicles – the organ that produces sperm and testosterone
Testosterone: Male sex hormone made in testicles. Also produced in the ovaries in smaller amounts.
Uterus/womb: The chamber in which preparations for a fertilized egg are made every month by a thickening of the lining. It is also the place where a fertilized egg will grow into a baby
Vagina/Birth Canal: The bit of muscle tubing that leads from the uterus to the opening
Sazida Desai is a married mother of two boys from the North West of England. She works as a Press and Community Liaison Officer to a British Member of Parliament. In her spare time, she likes to sew, garden, write and knit.