Dana: Hey everyone, my name is Dana Ballout and I’m editor and producer at Kerning Cultures. I’ll be standing in for Hebah this week. Our episode today is about one thing that happens to every young girl that in some cases – and especially in the Arab world – sets the tone for how you feel about your body for the rest of your life. And, in honor of international women’s day, we’re doing this a little differently to our usual episodes.
Anon: Hi, okay. So let's get started sorry I am sending this in so late. Okay.
Dana: Our producers Darah and Shahd, who you’ll meet later in this episode, they came up with this idea of asking a bunch of Arab women to send in anonymous voice recordings in response to some questions we had around their periods.
Anon: Okay, periods.
Dana: Yeah, periods. You know, that thing happens to females once a month? Our episode today is about that moment, that first moment.
Anon: I'm trying to remember as much as I can from that day.
Dana: When you look down and you see red. I’m Dana Ballout, and you’re listening to Kerning Cultures. Radio documentaries from the Middle East.
Today’s story comes from producers Shahd Bani Odeh and Darah Ghanem. And a little disclaimer for those of you that may be a little squeamish: this episode acknowledges the existence of periods and therefore blood. Alright, let’s get to it. This is Shahd.
Shahd: Many people don’t really know how does it look like when you first get your period as a girl. It’s the day that you’ll actually never ever forget. You remember every detail, from the time and date, to where you were, what you were wearing, who you first spoke to and what you felt.
Anon: I was wearing a white miniskirt and a green one-shoulder top. I remember this because I was really obsessed with this outfit for some reason. My family and I were traveling the next day to Syria. I remember that summer I was feeling really good about myself, so I was into dressing up looking good and wanting to buy new outfits, so I was really happy while packing and getting ready for our vacation. And then I remember that I went to the toilet and I found out that I was bleeding.
Anon: I woke up on the day of my birthday, my 11th birthday, with blood all over the beds and in my underwear, and I woke up very early and went to my Mom and said, Mom, I got my period. My mother lost her temper than in there in a really bad way and said, why did you have to get your period now?
Anon: We were flying back home from I think it was Jordan. I had got it on the plane, but I didn't realize at the time although I did have a funny feeling that something wasn't quite right down there, so I went into the bathroom, pulled down my panties and saw that I had been bleeding. And I immediately knew what was going on.
Anon: I somehow covered myself with embarrassment. I was trying to hide it, I didn't want anyone to know. And somehow I didn't talk about it or express, but my reaction was anger and shyness at the same time.
Anon: She handed me a pad and told me to go put it on and the bathroom, but she didn't give me an instruction and so I put it on the wrong way. I stuck it to myself. So the tacky sticky bit is meant to go on the underwear. I put it the wrong way around and then had to embarrassingly pull it off when I went to ask for help, saying I don't know what I'm doing.
Anon: I remember that day, urgh, I panicked so much, I was like no the bloody monster is here. Why? So I see it and I'm like, okay, I cannot tell anyone. So I hid my period from my family for two years.
Anon: I made my mom swear she wouldn't tell anyone, especially my dad. I didn't want anyone to know they have gotten my period and I even made her pack the pads in her bag and not mine. Like, I was somehow ashamed that I had gotten it this young.
Dana: This is our new producer Darah Ghanem.
Darah: As young girls, we’re introduced to taboos from a young age. A lot of the girls felt the need to hide their periods from their fathers, brothers, family members, male friends. Through indirect, and also direct, ways we are told that our bodies and their functions are shameful. We are told that our bodies are not our own – they are to cover, to hide, to stay quiet. A word that kept coming up in the interviews was “3eb” – the Arabic term for “shameful”
Anon: I do remember that it was very important to keep it discreet. As if it was a secret. I was always told to be very careful what I'm saying. I was always kind of hushed when I was saying period or pad like loud in public. And if I needed anything I had to be very discreet when I asked my Mom. For example, I'd have to whisper something to her or I'd have to pull her to the side to talk about it – I couldn't just ask openly. And I guess that kind of showed me that it wasn't something to be happy or proud of. It was something a bit more shameful, like a secret like a dirty secret that you can't tell anybody.
Anon: In terms of my relationship with my Dad. For some reason, my Mom was very sort of strict when it came to that. She was like, under no circumstances are you allowed to tell your father because this is 3eb.
Anon: Aside from just getting my period like my body was going through these changes and that means I was, I was visibly a woman and especially being a black woman in the Middle East, we’re sexualised because of the colour of her skin.
Anon: Sometimes I'd even be sitting with her and my dad and they would start the talk about being careful of men especially, about how a woman's reputation is the most important thing she has. And I remember my dad specifically like he said once that a woman is like a pearl if she gets scratched nobody's going to want her.
Anon: I had the mentality of a 10-year-old and realistically the body of a 10-year-old. But I wasn't considered to be 10 years old. I was sort of supposed to be put on a higher standard and there was one that I couldn't comprehend really fully because I was just a kid who was bleeding and I didn’t know, you know? All of a sudden you know so many things were 3eb, and so many things were haram and so many of my clothes I wasn't allowed to wear anymore and it just it really became a lot. And what I what I didn't really understand was how I went from being ten years old yesterday to suddenly growing into a woman the next day.
Anon: I think we over-sexualize young girls who get their periods and bestow on them that they're accountable for the assumptions that society imposes on them. Um you know, being told, not talk to boys or interact with them too much and I have to dress differently now because of my period is something that really restricted how I got to express and explore who I am.
Anon: I grew up hating my body and that definitely did increase when I got my period because like my curves just got bigger, and it’s just, yeah, I just felt ashamed of my body.
Anon: You're given a black plastic bag at the pharmacy when you buy sanitary pads and tampons so that no one would know. Guys also shouldn't know you have your period because it's embarrassing and dirty, you know, no one's going to come near someone while they’re menstruating. This idea is very common.
Anon: We always hear the story and even guys joke about it in front of us that we are irrational. This is a story we're constantly told. And I honestly believed that for the longest time.
Anon: The easiest way to really dismiss someone with an opinion, a woman with an opinion is to say that she's overreacting because she's on her period. And so I started to, as a reaction, I starting to talk about it very openly.
Anon: the reason why my mom got so like viciously angry, she also got her period at 11, and so it was almost like she was mad because she was experiencing the entire thing that she went through growing up like the shame of getting it, and the frustration and all that again, but this time through me.
Anon: I think teaching my daughter about menstruation will be an opportunity for me to show her that getting her period can mean anything she wants it to mean and that she can feel free and open to define what it means for her rather than to have to feel a heaviness or confusion about it because of what other people want to impose on her.
Anon: Part of accepting it is understanding why we fear it so much, right? So, why do we fear it so much? Because our parents made it such a taboo, made it such a thing, right? Why did our moms do that? Because it was done to them. And why do men not take ownership or want to learn because as well, they weren't exposed, it’s like I don't want to know about this bloody thing. Just break the cycle, right? That's all – that's that's how you break the cycle. Generations change, we learn from our parents' mistakes. We understand them, we process them, we accept them, and we move forward. So I guess that's what I'm trying to say here.
Dana: This episode was produced by Darah Ghanem and Shahd Bani Odeh, with editorial support from me, AA Dana Ballout, Hebah Fisher and Alex Atack. Sound design by Alex Atack. Special thank you to all the women who contributed and sent in voice notes to share your stories with us.
And a big thank you to all of our new Patrons supporting us on Patreon this month: thank you to Laurel, Timothy, and Cooper. You are making the production of these stories possible. If those of you listening are interested to support Kerning Cultures, visit our Patreon page at P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com/kerningcultures It would mean a lot to us.
Thanks for listening, until next time.