MABROUK, You are now a woman

The menstrual cycle, as the Urban Dictionary defines it; “a period of pure agony for a female, lasting way too long. Signs of this state include screaming at anything that moves, rolling around on the couch in pain, and spending hours with cold water and stain remover.”

Having your period for the first time is a big deal to most, it’s known as the passage from childhood to womanhood. For some cultures, it’s celebration worthy, for others it’s a shame, a stigma, something you will carry with you for the rest of your life. It’s just uterus lining, yet it holds a certain significance.

We contacted North African women from across the region to ask them about this rite of passage:

I was eleven. I got my period as soon as I got home from school. I didn’t know what it was but I remember my mum always told me to be careful when I played sports. I like doing the splits and used to pretend I could do karate and I’d fall, so sometimes I would bleed.
I thought I was bleeding because of sports, I was very confused and embarrassed. I told my mum right away because I was worried and I didn’t know why I was bleeding.
She said “congratulations” and tried to calm me down, explaining that it was normal and what it was.
She said it was just my body rejecting dead layers of tissue or something like that.
I was sad about it for years, I felt like I wasn’t a kid anymore.

— Sara, Tunisia

I came home and told my mother, she told me to shut up and just put a pad on. She didn’t let me ask any questions, I found out on my own in school the next day from friends who knew what it was.
My mother doesn’t talk about periods or sex, or anything like that, she says it’s shameful.

— Romaissa, Algeria

My mum didn’t really make a big deal out of it. Her best friend was at our house for tea when it happened. They both kept telling me to eat sweet things for some reason.
Later that night, my mum told me that from now on all my deeds (good or bad) would be recorded so I needed to be more careful.
One of my mum’s friends talked to me about it and explained that it would happen again in the near future and that I shouldn’t worry when it did.
I was excited, I associated it with growing up and not being seen as a child anymore, and I noticed my relationship with my dad changed.
He became more laid back and started treating me more like a young adult rather than a kid. Before it happened, he’d give us all the same amount of money. After, he’d always secretly give me more and tell me to save some.

— Alena, Morocco

I didn’t know much about it beforehand so I was a little scared. It happened while my mother was on vacation. My dad went and got me some pads and painkillers.
He asked my grandmother to explain it to me, she told me it was completely normal and that I shouldn’t be scared. She explained that it was just my uterus cleaning itself and that I should rest and make sure I eat well because of the blood loss.
They planned on explaining it to me before it happened but since I’d just turned 10, they figured they’d have more time.
I do have friends who, after they had their period, were stigmatized and couldn’t play with their brothers anymore like they used to. I have friends who were referred to as ‘dirty’ or ‘ill’ when they were on their periods and they had to start wearing a gandora indoors around their fathers & brothers.
I guess I got lucky…

— Israa, Morocco

I got my period on the last day of middle school. I didn’t even realize I had it until I got home, so I was thankful I had chosen to wear dark jeans that day.
My mum told me not to tell my dad or brother. She never explained anything to me, I had to figure it all out myself.

— Amira, Algeria

It was just me and my dad.
I remember it felt like I’d peed myself, so I went to the bathroom and found a very light flow. I instantly felt sick. I was 13, naked, and shaking in my bathroom.
I heard my dad on the phone to my mum, so I started screaming at him. At first, he got angry that I was shouting in the house, but he eventually realized it was a lady emergency and passed my mother.
She started laughing. She got my dad to get me a clean pair of underwear and some sanitary towels.

— Sunnik, Libya

I didn’t know anything until one of my teachers in school told us about it. My aunt explained the rest. She told me what it was, how long it typically lasts, and how to do proper Wudu after.
My mum changed.
She started insisting that I take praying more seriously, that I do house chores. She suggested that I wear the hijab.

— Mena, Sudan

More than 60 women were contacted for this small project, but the ones featured are some of the few who agreed to speak to me about this topic. I was cursed at, reported, blocked, and even accused of being a male pervert preying on girls, for reaching out to these women.

It made me realize how much stigma the menstrual cycle represents for certain parts of the community. It makes you wonder how and why such a natural bodily function, that half of the world’s population experiences regularly in their lifetime, can be surrounded with so much shame that few are willing to talk about.

The problem is not that these women were reluctant to speak to me, the problem is that this 7shouma means that women who are having trouble with certain parts of their body are often too ashamed to seek medical attention. The problem is that there is a lot of false information being spread around in the form of old wives’ tales. The problem is that women who carry this stigma can often unknowingly endanger their lives, or the lives of others.

In a society where some of us are made to feel shame for the way our bodies function, there is often room for tragedy to strike.

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