There is a gooey, sticky hot knot wound in my throat - like a heavy swirl of burning marshmallows that has lost all its sweetness and cedes to curdling into a warm wart of sour confusion.
I am sitting at a table on grass with seven others chairs, but I am alone. The hill upon which this backyard is perched frames the suburbs below and city beyond, as lights flash and flicker and flurry. Abandoned plates of samosas and chicken tikka as orange as the sun was the moment we broke their fasts with dates and almonds and water - the scraps, they sit with me.
Outdoor California, at dusk, in August - nothing should be more pleasant, warm, welcoming. The sky shimmers purple then bleeds pink then bleeds ink red like STOP, red like wrong, red like incorrect, red like blood.
I have lost the energy to cry. Every shred of my conscious and subconscious funnels into an obsessive concentration to derive some sort of rational basis to justify the knot that is now bubbling and swelling in my throat, in my thoughts. This isn't a party. This isn't the Ramadan I know; the Ramadan I love.
I hate myself. I hate my twelve-year-old self.
I was sitting next to Mom that afternoon of the sermon, and I rocked back and forth on the mosque's red-creme carpet to combat the foreign cramps that crippled me for the first time. Soon, crackling Arabic from booming speakers signaled the start of prayer, but I couldn't move. I wanted to stay still, to sit next to Mom as she soothed me, "This happens;" as she scared me, "This will continue to happen." I couldn't move, but a stranger lady in the reshuffling crowd tugged my arm, "It's time to pray!"
"I can't," I was supposed to say. But I couldn't swallow, so I shook my head, and then she knew. And she said, "Peechay peechay, back, to the back." Did she think I was dumb or could she read the newness of this hell in my eyes, because then she added, "You're not clean to pray; you're dirty, peechay." She added. Or took away, perhaps. She yanked me. and the world dropped inside of me; gravity drained more from my empty stomach, my empty body.
The emptied body of a twelve-year-old - a shell. A shell that is cracking.
But Mom has assured me, "This happens." I looked at the women. Didn't it happen to her? Tears clouded my eyes, but I still looked at her beyond the welling water that blurred my vision. She was rough from age and experience - and absorbance.
I stumbled to the back wall and lurched against it next to the others, next to others to whom "this is happening," to whom "this will continue to happen;" next to the older women in chair to whom this already happened, to whom this already continued but ceased to happen.
The women's hall I stare at from the back up is lined with the rows and rows of worshippers, clean in a way I cannot be, I cannot control. Not dirty in the way that I am.
We are home, and Mom served me, just me, a turkey sandwich at lunch. I cower along in the dining room, blanketed in sweat and humiliation. My younger sisters can't know; my dad can't know.
A turkey sandwich at lunch - oven-roasted leftovers from the fridge that won't really be touched this month, not until Mom's turn at least; cheese, mustard, a sorry slather of mayonnaise; lightly toasted bread. Chips, water, Advil. Two Advil.
I don't touch the thin films of turkey, the shattered puzzles pieces once a singular slab of Swiss, the mustard, the pity mayo, the chips, the lightly toasted twins. I take the Advil. The two Advil. I dry swallow and reach for the glass and dip my tongue just enough to plunge for a dab to drench the dry desert that sears the tastebuds, burning less than only the dissolving Advil searing my hollow stomach. When my lips meet the cup, my tongue grows feeble, numb, dumb. It can't move.
I place the full water cup back next to the thin films of turkey, the shattered puzzles pieces once a singular slab of cheese, the mustard, the pity mayo, the chips, the lightly toasted twins.
The Arabic is looping again, and I sit alone at the table - me and the seven chairs - and my stomach is empty. No, I am not trying to fake a fast; I'm unappetized by my filth, and the reminders of it.
My femininity is filthy, and I hate it. I hate my femininity. I hate my filth. But my femininity- that is me. I hate me. I hate my filth. I am the filth I hate.
I'm supposed to be eating right now, just like I was supposed to be this afternoon - apparently one of the reasons God "blesses me with this break" each month, now here in Ramadan - to give me rest, to let me refuel, to nourish me.
But all that's been eaten are my thoughts, my mind, my confidence. Chew, spit, shit, probably even bled out, seeing that that's where all of me is defined, is drained, is dead.
I am twelve, and I am empty. But I hate my shell, and I am cracking.
In any conversation concerning Muslim women, periods, and the "validity" of a menstruating woman exercising certain religious rituals - conversations that themselves are already breaking hard taboos - there exists an immediate habit for some to commence by firing a spewing litany of religious verses and sayings that supposedly justify the warnings against such acts - from fasting to prayers to reading Qur'an. Many even further amplify these statements with assurance that, "Ah, but it's in the best interest for the women."
While these comments don't solely arrive from male voices, they surely do in a disproportionate sense. These situations of men over-indulging in the mental revelry of their own logic and confidence result in clear notions of self-importance that quickly bleed into trespassing on a territory of experiences which they simply don't understand.
Even despite who is making the comments - it's not to say that textual evidence and interpretations should dismissed from talks. Of course not, they're vital in their own right. But there must be another angle honored that observes the experiences and consequences of these talks. These are not hypothetical lives. They are real, tangible, ours, mine.
This must be further highlighted in the context of the fact that close to all of the scholars behind our Qur'ans, our laws, our translations, our writings - close to all are male, and that's been the case for sadly centuries.
Prayer and fasting in Islam are generally understood as prohibited for a menstruating woman. But why, how come, how justified, how trustworthy - these are the questions that must be up for discussion, not out of a narrow interest of solely undermining them; rather, in order to better understand the significance behind them to ground a more humanizing, natural approach to the topic of women and periods.
As it largely stands right now, much of the logic I heard growing up was "constant bleeding makes you dirty." (As in, it then invalidates wudu.) While such a statement may be attempting to distill a set of stories or concepts, the crude manner in which it is repeated, perpetuated, and culturalized grows quickly dangerous - including countless stories that follow a similar narrative of the shattering of self-perception and self-acceptance of a twelve-year-old.
Why I remain so reluctant to insert constant Qur'anic text of other references throughout this piece is to honor this alternate yet urgent and underrepresented lens. And such a lacking lend to this very lens is not a pure religious issue, but a largely cultural one, as well.
Perhaps the most comfort I felt after my first period, which fell during a Ramadan, was reading Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman in school that year. The main character, fifteen-year-old Vidya, aspires to attend college growing up in British India during World War II. A potent scene in the novel recounts Vidya's time spent outside the home in the family's outhouse for menstruating women. Her experiences far outweighed mine, but the ideas of self-loathing, isolation, and mental absorption of one's own filth and inadequacy continued and still continue to burn with and in me.
Just this past week, the Turkish Language Institute published a definition that elaborates upon the word "kirli" by citing "a woman who is menstruating," while its other two definitions are "stains, filthy, unclean" and "contrary to society's values".
Of course, Climbing the Stairs deals with a Hindu family, while the Republic of Turkey relishes in its self-perception of secularism - but that's exactly the point and why exactly saturating this piece with Qur'anic verse is beyond the point of this issue.
The topic of menstruation has clearly made relative, serious headway in contemporary times, and the medical technology in pads, tampons, and contraceptives has also facilitated a more diverse context to frame such talks. But fusing social progress and modern advancements with more traditional and less easily fluid topics, such as religion, remains challenging. The same types of ideas like social impact, however must lead these discussions, too - because while yes, we are talking about oft baffling books and lofty languages and traditional texts, religion is still also talking about real people and experiences. We are talking about women, and that means women must be talking about women. We talk for ourselves.
The setup and logistics of mosques, fasting, prayers, religious spaces are often inherently based on religion and gender, but labeling something as "religious" does not automatically further categorize it as "stagnant," "unmoving," "undebatable" - especially, again, when those enforcing such harsh rules and concrete borders do not themselves know the reality of womanhood.
Every day countless girls will sit out on their first prayer due to menstruation. And every Ramadan, they'll pass up their fast, too.
For some, sure, it's "nice to have the break" in the thirty days of fasting. But for others, such a perpetuation of filth, isolation, and invalidity foster a broken image of self.
A marshmallow should be sweet, and a sunset should be glowing. A twelve-year-old should be able to swallow her Advil, her mayo-mustard-turkey-on-toast, and her water. She shouldn't have to feel like she must hate herself; her blood; her empty, cracking shell.