You Are a Woman, Do Not Tell Anyone!

zarwana

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! 

By Rahela

Photo: Emily Chilson


Comments

  1. Dearest Rahela: This is important storytelling, told in a clear, direct, and beautiful way. These moments, these changes you describe, are so fundamental in our lives, but too many girls are made to feel ashamed. Is is cruel that this that gives us power and beauty is turned against us. Thank you for sharing your story so honestly–doing so, you will no doubt educate and comfort others. I am very proud of you, Rahela. I will share this now with others–I hope many, many girls and boys, women and men, learn from your teaching, from your generous spirit! All best, Stacy

  2. Lithia Brigan says:

    Rahela: Brilliant, brave, beautiful woman. Thank you for using your voice and speaking your truth!

  3. Dear Rahela,
    Thank you for sharing this post and for describing what the “consequences” of a girl’s menstruation are. I think no matter where you are in the world, this sign of a girl’s passing into womanhood is often met with consequences and negative responses. In the “western world” women are often ridiculed during their menstruation cycles and become the center of jokes on our attitude which all leads back to a sign of weakness on our gender. I am happy that you have decided to share this story because you have pointed out how not addressing this issue causes societal and sanitary issues. Menstruation is a sign of womanhood which is a sign of life.
    Please share your thoughts on how to educate women around the world on this issue.

  4. What a clear, well-written essay! Thank you for sharing your experience and giving a voice to so many silent women in your country. Women like you will bring about change in Afghanistan — I’m sure!

  5. Rahela – thank you for this window into your world.

  6. Elizabeth Titus says:

    Dear Rahela,
    I am so pleased to see your essay published! It was my pleasure to work with you on it. As the others have noted, it is such an important topic. The article below might be of interest!
    Liz

    http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/27/a-biological-ritual-experienced-through-different-cultures/

  7. rahela,
    i am glad your mother never hit you at any other times and that she told you to keep quiet about it so you would not have to get married that early… i wish you a happy life, sister, with people treating you with respect

  8. This a lovely piece, Rahela!
    Thank you for sharing this story and for telling us how menstruation is perceived by some in Afghan culture. You’re absolutely right that becoming a women should be something to celebrate, not to shun. Women shouldn’t be ashamed of having a period, nor should they be meant to feel “dirty” every time they have their period.
    In fact, according to an article about menstruation, in some places in Africa, when a girl first starts to menstruate, she spends the day with her female relatives and they talk to her about its meaning. Plus, they even organize a party to honor this new stage in her life. In certain areas in Asia, a girl is served a special meal. Even in Native American culture, having a period symbolizes power and is seen as a time of reflexion. ( http://www.scarleteen.com/article/body/on_the_rag_a_guide_to_menstruation) .
    Again, thank you for having written such a thoughtful essay and for having the courage to speak out! Great job!

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I think this site is very inspiring.

  10. Suzanne Horrocks says:

    Thank you for being so courageous and sharing this story. I am reading this story from Austin, Texas, U.S.A. Your messages are getting out.

  11. Thank you so much for your nice comments. :) A special thank to Afghan Women’s Writing Project.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for writing this! It is very well written and enlightening. My mother was too embarrassed to talk to me about menstruation. When I experienced my first period, I thought I was dying!

  13. this is a very touching story. i would like to use this story in my paper. i would like to know if this was before or after the Taliban rule?

  14. Thank you for sharing your story, Rahela.

    As an American, and a man, your experience is quite alien to me, and I certainly learned a lot. Education is always the first step toward improving the world. I don’t know how Afghan women will overcome the forces arrayed against them, but personal stories can be powerful tools for change. I hope you’ll keep sharing them.

  15. Andrea Hernandez says:

    Dear Rahela,
    This is a beautiful story, thank you for sharing it with many other woman out there. I think its amazing how you speak not only for yourself but for other Afghan girls and women. I hope that this tradition comes to an end soon so that many people including yourslef could have the option of getting married.

  16. Ali Shahidy says:

    Dear Rahela, this is such a fabulous and vivid piece of writing. Your outspokenness is admirable. Menstruation, unfortunately, in our culture causes numerous restrictions on women’s behavior and activities. In some cultures it is even deemed to be a danger, or gloomy and to bring about bad luck. I am so glad that you talked about this, and I hope it encourages more of our women to speak up.

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