I was outside playing in the yard and I ached all over. I felt like I was in shock, my hands and legs felt shaky and I remembered my mother’s speeches about girls maturing, the marize mahvar. Unsure what to do, I ran to the kitchen, passing my mother on the way. In a moment, she was at the door. She looked at me, then suddenly stepped forward and slapped me hard on the side of my cheek.
My cheek stung. What had I done wrong? I looked into my mother’s eyes for an explanation. She was not angry. But my mother never hit her children so why did she slap me now? Then she handed me a square cloth and said, “Now you are a woman. You can use these for eight days until there is no blood.” She warned me not to tell anyone, and she left the kitchen.
I took the rag cloth and went to my bedroom to lie down. But I hated myself. I hated being a woman. Tears came until I fell sleep, and when I woke up, I found my mother sitting in the corner of the room drinking tea. She asked me to join her. I was embarrassed. No one spoke of these things.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “this is a natural process for all girls called marize mahvar.” The words meant mountain sickness. “There is khone kasif or dirty blood,” my mother explained. “When it happens to a girl, it means she is ready to marry and bear a child.”
Would I have to marry at twelve years old? I knew this could happen. My aunt had to marry after only one month, and many people still follow this tradition in Afghanistan. Now I understood why my mother warned me not to tell anyone: she did not want me to marry so young.
At family gatherings the elder women in my family asked me about my period.
I lied. “No! What is period?” I knew that they were looking for a woman for their sons or brothers to marry.
Girls are not supposed to tell anyone in their family about menstruation, especially not men. Teachers do not talk about it at school and girls are not allowed to pray while menstruating because it says so in the Holy Quran. Sometimes when we had group prayer at school, all the girls would participate anyway, rather than tell their teachers. Some girls even thought marize mahvar was a sin.
Most girls still use cloths unless their mothers go to the shop for them. The shopkeepers are men and girls are too embarrassed to buy pads. I am convinced the unsanitary cloths result in more pain for girls.
Now, after many years, I understand why my mother slapped me that day. It is a tradition that when a girl becomes a woman, her mother slaps her cheek so that it turns red. This is a sign of beauty and a sign that the girl is responsible. My sister did not even tell my mother when she first had her period for months because did not want my mother to slap her.
These old, wrong traditions make these changes girls face even harder. Afghan people continue to follow these customs; there is no one to educate them. This is not just my story. I am giving a voice to millions of girls and women who want to speak out: You are a woman!
Photo: Emily Chilson