“Woman is a pain that never goes away.” – Menander
Ramadhan mubarak, everyone! ❤ I wish everyone a beautiful month that inspires compassion, love, and gratitude in all of us. I’ll be writing more Ramadhan-related posts this month – or I’ll try anyway, inshaAllah – but this particular topic has been bothering me for some time now and it’s been long over-due – and it keeps coming up in conversations with my women friends – so here it goes.
Before, I begin, though, please note: All relevant disclaimers apply! (I need to update the language here to acknowledge that the word “woman” is exclusionary in my discussion here. I’ll do so ASAP. – December 2019) I don’t accept the traditional binary system of gender or even sex, so my use of “woman” here is not exclusive to heterosexual cis females. I do not mean to erase anyone’s sexuality or being or existence, and I do not mean to suggest that all females menstruate or that all those who menstruate are females or women. Not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are female or women. Transmen menstruate too.
Also, of course, not all menstruating women suffer the same level of pain or any pain at all, not all menstruating women hurt emotionally or physically in the same ways.
Listen, universe. You’ve failed women for about 200,000 years so far, and I wish I were hopeful that you’d fix your act.
Humans in our current form have been in existence for some 200,000 years, and most women still suffer tremendously at least two days every. single. month. And women still ask around what can heal them, with different women recommending different things that, unsurprisingly, don’t work for all women in the same way(s), from ginger tea to Tylenol to Advil to cinnamon tea to back. (Girls and women who menstruate, please – please feel more than free to share what works for you.)
Every month, many of us go through this unbearable pain that is dismissed as “oh, you’re on your period. Don’t worry – that’s normal.” Or “Don’t worry; it’ll be over soon.” It is constantly being dismissed as a normal part of life, something we have to deal with on our own. What exactly is normal about going through so much pain every single month that hardly anything can heal it? What’s normal about staying up all night long holding your tummy, turning and tossing in bed in these weird and uncomfortable positions in case one of those might do the magic trick of making your pain go away? What’s normal about constantly googling “how to get rid of menstrual pain” and then trying out every one of those tips? And when it’s not the pain – or, for many women, in addition to that pain – dealing with the general horror of menstruation is a whole ‘nother set of issues: While the world wants to dismiss it as “PMSing,” it’s actually real feels. Some months are worse than others, for some of us, especially in terms in terms of the emotions that menstruation brings but relatively better when it comes to the physical pain. In the months when some do experience physical pain, it’s so bad we ache all over, we vomit, we black out when we walk or stand. And this happens to women of all races and skin color and backgrounds and ages. (Except for that one time when a white girl was so shocked this happens to anyone that she dismissed it as “Um, I think it might be a cultural thing. This doesn’t happen to white girls.” LOL. Except, it does. One of my white girl friends suggested that my other friend doesn’t know this because Muslim women are more likely to talk about their period than non-Muslim women are, particularly in the context of prayer. Like, “Hey, you wanna go to Jum’a?” “Na, I’m not praying.” And it’s understood, in most cases, that the latter person means she’s on her period. It’s also more acceptable in some cultures and communities and settings to talk about your period than it is in others. But anyway.)
And we’re told that something like Tylenol should work for this. I’ll have you know that in some cases, with the severe pain that so many women go through, Tylenol and its equivalents don’t work. Not 2 at a time, not 4 at a time. For my mild pains, I take 2 tylenols (or its equivalent), and they work for about 5-6 hours. BUT it takes a good hour for it to settle in. (For the more severe pains, nothing works, actually.) So for those reading this who menstruate and whose pain during menstruation is unbearable, perhaps this might work for you as well, but just know to take it as soon as you start feeling the initial cramps. But also please be aware of the health consequences of taking this much Tylenol et al (depending on the amount you take, they can severely damage your liver).
And they tell us this is normal, that we should just live with it like our foremothers have had to all through history.
Of course, women are generally not taken seriously in other areas of life as well, so menstruation is not an isolated case at all. And I don’t mean to present as such. But when it comes to menstruation and our pain? Here’s how it’s all received:
– “Oh, here we go again.”
– “Are you PMSing?” (This is also what men in bad moods are told offensively. Actually, no, you wish you were PMS’ing, dealing with this and still getting your shit together.)
– “Get over it. Every woman goes through that.” (Correction: Not every woman menstruates. But one issue at a time, patriarchy. One fucking issue at a time.)
– “It must be that time of the month again.”
We’re told women’s emotions are taken more seriously than men’s, but actually, we’re mocked for ours. As Leslie Jamison, in Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain, notes, women’s experiences with pain are mocked and we’re fooled into silence. Quoting from her piece:
I think dismissing female pain as overly familiar or somehow out-of-date—twice-told, thrice-told, 1001-nights-told—masks deeper accusations: that suffering women are playing victim, going weak, or choosing self-indulgence over bravery. I think dismissing wounds offers a convenient excuse: no need to struggle with the listening or telling anymore. Plug it up. Like somehow our task is to inhabit the jaded aftermath of terminal self-awareness once the story of all pain has already been told.
This mockery has serious consequences, including medical – such as doctors’ not taking women’s emotions, feelings, and *pain* seriously, or there being dangerously little research on menstruation. (For more on this, see below.) All this, while men can have free condoms delivered to them, while Viagra is covered by insurance (depending). Hobby Lobby, for instance, covers vasectomies and Viagra! I also like the title of this article – “Erections get insurance; why not the pill?” To quote from it: “Studies have shown that women of reproductive age spend about two-thirds more than men on out-of-pocket health-care costs. Birth control and reproductive health-care services are believed to account for much of the difference.”
I remain amazed that in a universe with men and women, men’s pleasures are taken this seriously, even treated as urgent, while women’s *urgent needs* are ignored and mocked.
Why, yes, yes, it’s that time of the month again. The emotional trauma that so many women go through during menstruation is a serious deal, and it needs to be taken seriously. For some women, their depression worsens during menstruation; for some women, they suffer from depression only during this period. And this happens whether or not they are in physical pain.
This is why it’s not okay to comment with things like “she’s PMSing” or “she’s bleeding again” or whatever else your way of mocking women’s emotional, physical, mental and other pain is.
As tempted as I am to talk about the history of dismissing menstruation as an impurity, I must not – not right now, anyway. (But P.S. There’s a bunch of history of that, much of it framed in religious contexts that want women to believe that it is actually God, their Creator, who thinks they’re dirty and unworthy of God during menstruation, and so they must not touch Holy Scriptures, or pray, or attend or even set foot in places of worship, or partake in other religious rituals that are otherwise obligatory and essential to their religiousity and identity.)
One of my girl friends, when we were talking about this, pointed out that, of course a woman should and does hurt during this time, whether emotionally or otherwise: Every month, our body builds and prepares a home for a baby that it has to then destroy. (This is not to say, shame on us for not having the babies our bodies worked so hard to create a home for – wait, what? What’s that possibility even!)
I was hanging out with a couple of friends recently, one girl and one guy. Menstruation came up, “PMS’ing” came up, and so on. We were discussing the reality of what menstruation does to a woman’s emotional, physical, and mental health and state. The guy was listening, and at one point, the girl turns to him and says, “Oh, hey, by the way, that day I was really grumpy and I told you I didn’t know why? Yeah, it later occurred to me it was because I was about to get my period. But I didn’t wanna tell you because I didn’t wanna be that stereotypical girl who PMS’s and takes it out on people.”
This was just heartbreaking to hear. BE that stereotypical girl! Hurt if you need to hurt! Express that hurt if you need to express it. Feel it. Vent. Do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself, and please, please don’t deny yourself the space to deal with it as you need to. There’s nothing irrational about feeling grumpy during your menstruation or before it or after it. It is because we’re not given that safe space to even admit to it — because its a weakness, when it should really be seen as a strength–that it spills over to other parts of our lives. If we were afforded the space to deal with it as we need to, and if that space and that dealing were recognized as acceptable, I highly doubt it’d be affecting so many other parts of our lives.
Also, some women’s period pain is even worse than labor pain. Others’ is comparable to labor pain. Other women’s is comparable to a heart attack, or even worse than. I’ve come across several good articles recently that explain why doctors are not taking women’s period and period pain seriously at all, and why we know so, so little about menstruation. Here are some great reads:
- Period pain is officially as bad as a heart attack – so why have doctors ignored it? The answer is simple (Funny story: Under this article, some dude comments that “obviously, the pain isn’t really worse than or comparable to a heart attack; the headline is just sensational” or some BS like that. Aaaaand ladies and gennelmenz, case in point.)
- ‘It’s just lady pains’: Are doctors not taking women’s agony seriously enough? (and this extends to other health concerns for women, too, more than menstruation. In this case of 16-year-old Kirstie who kept going to her doctor with her pain, and whom the doctor kept dismissing, she ended up eventually being diagnosed with cervical cancer. Her father, acknowledging the patriarchy behind her doctor’s decision not to refer her to a specialist despite the girl’s insistence that she knew something was wrong: “I’m a 52-year-old man and my GP has never thought twice about referring me in the past….” And this is not an isolated case of one doctor not taking one female patient seriously. There are numerous accounts like this, and Kirstie is only one of them; her father discusses more. From her father: “A number of women tell me they’ve gone to their GPs in serious agony only to be sent away with painkillers and advice to ‘use a hot water battle when you have period pains.’ Yep – it must be period pains, and period pains are no biggie, so just take an advil.And, from the same article above, more on the patriarchy of not taking women’s anything seriously:
Scientific studies have proved that there is a definite gender bias when it comes to pain. A 2001 University of Maryland study ‘The Girl Who Cried Pain’, found that women were more likely to be treated inadequately by health care providers then men.“There are gender-based biases regarding women’s pain experiences,” the researchers concluded. “These biases have led health-care providers to discount women’s self reports of pain at least until there is objective evidence for the pain’s cause. Medicine’s focus on objective factors and its cultural stereotypes of women combine insidiously, leaving women at greater risk for inadequate pain relief and continued suffering.
- How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously (This is a really important read about how hospitals and healthcare providers and examiners and specialists whose job and responsibility it is to provide support and help in such needs fail women. What can we do – we’re just over-dramatic crazy hysterical people who will even cry pain for attention. Even in emergency rooms.)
- Period pain can be “almost as bad as a heart attack.” Why aren’t we researching how to treat it? From the article:
Over the past two years, my period pain has become as severe as a slipped disc. I speak from experience, having had two slipped discs in my life, and doctors were so convinced I had a third that I was referred for an MRI. Every month I spent hours lying on the floor, unable to move, and literally crying out in agony. My hip and back muscles went into spasm, so that my body was twisted in an S-shape contortion whenever I stood—a condition that didn’t disappear when my bleeding ceased, but had to be treated with visits to a physiotherapist every four weeks.
Before I had my MRI scans, I told my primary care doctor that the pain seemed to be triggered by my period. He didn’t think this was relevant and ignored the comment. Later, when scans showed my discs were in place, the specialist said my pain was likely due to nerve inflammation—just one of those painful things that someone with my history would likely suffer from time to time. Once again, his eyes flicked to the side and he waved his hands dismissively when I asked if it could be connected to my menstrual cycle.
Next stop was the gynecologist, who gave me an ultrasound, told me everything looked normal, and, after a follow-up appointment when I said I was still in pain, suggested I take birth control without any breaks (the idea being that I would stop having periods altogether). When I asked about the risks, she told me it could lead to blood clots and increased risk of breast cancer—but that one in eight women get breast cancer anyway, so I shouldn’t be overly worried.
Expert Compares Period Pain to a ‘Heart Attack,’ Says It Needs to Be Taken More Seriously
- And, finally: Worst Period Stories Archives
To end on an un-miserable note, though: hugs to all menstruating women who experience anything uncomfortable, painful, unbearable, and especially agony. I wish you comfort ❤ I dream of a universe that pays fair attention to our concerns.
Let’s also end on a humorous note: Check out this brilliant piece called If Men Could Menstruate, by Gloria Steinem. From it:
So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?
Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event:
Men would brag about how long and how much.
Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.
To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps.
Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of such commercial brands as Paul Newman Tampons, Muhammad Ali’s Rope-a-Dope Pads, John Wayne Maxi Pads, and Joe Namath Jock Shields- “For Those Light Bachelor Days.”
Statistical surveys would show that men did better in sports and won more Olympic medals during their periods.
Generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (“men-struation”) as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat (“You have to give blood to take blood”), occupy high political office (“Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?”), be priests, ministers, God Himself (“He gave this blood for our sins”), or rabbis (“Without a monthly purge of impurities, women are unclean”).
Male liberals and radicals, however, would insist that women are equal, just different; and that any woman could join their ranks if only she were willing to recognize the primacy of menstrual rights (“Everything else is a single issue”) or self-inflict a major wound every month (“You must give blood for the revolution”).
Medical schools would limit women’s entry (“they might faint at the sight of blood”).
Of course, intellectuals would offer the most moral and logical arguements. Without the biological gift for measuring the cycles of the moon and planets, how could a woman master any discipline that demanded a sense of time, space, mathematics– or the ability to measure anything at all? In philosophy and religion, how could women compensate for being disconnected from the rhythm of the universe? Or for their lack of symbolic death and resurrection every month?
“If we were afforded the space to deal with it as we need to, and if that space and that dealing were recognized as acceptable, I highly doubt it’d be affecting so many other parts of our lives.”
I never thought about it like that. I guess I’m going to start talking about my period more, at least at home.
After years of suffering intense period pain, I had the good luck to go for a pap smear while on my period. My doctor said I shouldn’t be in that much pain during the exam and prescribed BC on the spot. The thing is, I never took my own pain seriously because I was told it was normal. My mom had the same kind of pain and was like, yeah, that’s just how it is.
Good blog. Very important implications.
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Thanks, Caitie! Always!
The women in my immediate and extended families also have a history of thinking of pain as an essential component of menstruation. When I’m suffering from the pain, I’m told that, yeah, that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Also, does anyone else have this thing of not bathing or showering or washing the private areas during menstruation? Or is it just the communities I’m around a lot? I shower during my period, and I’m told that I’m not supposed to because water is not good for that part of the body during menstruation; it supposedly worsens the pain. I’m like, no, my pains are usually bad just the first two days, and I’m fine afterwards.
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Thank you for the very thoughtful and thorough piece! I also blog about menstruation and cycle empowerment over at http://www.reclaimingthevee.net
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Thank you, Franziska! That’s a great – and very useful! – blog you’ve got over there. Just started following it.
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I was on a Muslim forum the other day and one person listed it as a benefit to women that they don’t have to pray on their periods when men have to pray everyday. Like, it’s a “benefit” to be told you’re too unclean to pray or touch a Qur’an. So some, if not many women, actually feel like it’s a detriment to their spiritual and mental health. Not to mention the way women were/are ostracized for menstruation (like menstrual huts) and then to consider ritual impurity and ostracism a benefit, uhhhhhh …
Or even if we view prayer exemptions as a mercy from God, then it’s not really a “benefit” more like evening things out since the basis of the exemption is menstruation which men don’t suffer from, therefore they have no basis for any exemption!
They also listed it as a benefit to women that religious and legal power is consolidated to men because that means women have less responsibility. Among others.
Yes!!! My next blog post is on this issue because I’m so, so frustrated with the way we talk about menstruating (and nursing and pregnant and other) women during Ramadhan and such. Also, the idea that it’s a benefit is so modern/new; textually speaking, we’re declared impure and are actually *forbidden* from touching the Qur’an, praying, fasting, even reading or listening to the Qur’an in some schools! What exactly is so beneficial about this prohibition? What’s so merciful about it? Why don’t I at least get to determine for myself if I’m for fasting and praying and whatnot?
Me, personally, I touch the Qur’an, read it, and pray while on my period. I don’t believe it’s haraam, and esp if those telling us “no, no, no – it’s not that you’re considered impure; its just … God doesn’t wannna burden you” are angered or offended by my choice to pray or fast or read the Qur’an while menstruating, then I know not to trust their words. I mean, excellent – if I don’t feel burdened praying or reading the Qur’an, then stop making it look like it really is that I’m considered impure or whatever.
So while I’d love to see it as a break or mercy, and while I do see it as such personally, I question it when other Muslims say that to me because if it were just a break, I’d be still allowed – not prohibited – if i wanted to pray or touch the Qur’an. Also, prayer & Quran recitation etc is not a burden for some women; we actually enjoy it and love it and look forward to it – I certainly do.
All this said, I’m not advocating for mandatory prayer for all menstruating women. Given how many women suffer in serious ways during their period, I will always promote their comfort & health. But I’m not ok with the prohibition on it. Leave it to us to decide if we want to pray, fast, etc. Who are men to decide whether God will accept these prayers & fasts or not?