In Egyptian society, women have traditionally kept silent about their periods, viewing them as a private matter. This is changing with the younger generation.
Last month, Egypt enabled women to take leave during their time of the month, after several women waged a social media campaign urging places of employment to do so.
The public nature of such discourse is highly unusual in this part of the world.
“In the region and in Egypt, women’s bodies are considered sacred and should be covered up,” said Suad Abu-Dayyeh, an Amman-based Middle East/North Africa consultant for Equality Now, an organization that advances rights for women and girls.
“It is taboo to talk about women’s bodies and sexuality,” she told The Media Line.
Gihan Abouzeid, founder of Salemah, an Egypt-based organization for women’s empowerment, explained to The Media Line that the secrecy surrounding menstruation involved women’s bodies and their potential for reproductive activity – and everything else this represents.
“Anything related to the vagina is from one side holy, from one side dirty, from one side sexy – so it’s very complicated,” she said.
Abouzeid noted that while women her age do not talk publicly about their menstrual cycle, younger women are not reluctant to do so. She has seen this in her own family with her daughter, who shared news of her period with her classmates, including males.
“It was very easy for her to say, ‘I’m sorry, do you have aspirin? I have my period,’” Abouzeid recalled. “When I asked her whether it’s easy to share that information with them, she said, ‘Of course, it’s normal. We have studied that and what’s wrong with that? He knows already.’”
Abouzeid remembered that when she was in school, her teacher refused to teach about menstruation.
“When the teacher refused to teach that lesson, we got the impression that it’s wrong to talk about. This is my generation’s impression,” she said.
Abouzeid’s experience of not being properly instructed about menstruation is generally the norm. As Abu-Dayyeh explained: “In the region, we lack the curricula that tackle sex education.”
Abouzeid qualified that the attitude shift did not apply to all segments of the population, adding the changes were seen mostly among the middle class, especially those educated in international and mixed-gender schools.
“It is related to poverty and the social class the girls come from,” she said.
She also contended that menstruation was associated with the ways women are penalized for enjoying their bodies.
“It’s something that comes from the most private area related to women,” she said. “It is from the source of pleasure and the source of big problems as well.”
“Virginity is a big issue,” she explained. “A woman can be killed if she loses her virginity before she is married.”
Shame is a problem for women in the Middle East, she told The Media Line, arguing that this reflected the broader fact that women in the region did not have complete control over their bodies.
For example, she noted, women “do not have the right to an abortion, as it is criminalized in most of the Arab countries. Even when a woman gets married, she doesn’t have control over her body. She is her husband’s property; she has to have sex with her husband even when she does not want to.”
Taboos about a woman’s body manifest themselves in other issues women face in Egypt and the region, especially when it comes to harassment.
“While some women joined in the global #MeToo campaign, many did not because they feared a backlash in a society where even talking about harassment is a taboo, and blame is often placed on the victims and their way of dressing or behaving,” Susannah Birkwood, global press officer for East/Southern Africa and the Americas for Plan International, an organization that promotes children’s and girls’ rights, told the Media Line.
Birkwood also cited a 2013 UN study that found nearly the entire Egyptian female population had experienced at least one form of harassment.
“Many girls drop out of school due to fear of harassment,” she told The Media Line. “In Cairo, 17% of children drop out before completing basic education and 15% drop out in secondary school.”
She contended that parents deal with this in part through marriage.
“Egyptian parents view marrying off their daughters as a way to protect them from harassment,” Birkwood said. “According to UNICEF, 17% of girls in Egypt are married by the age of 18.”
The writer is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies.
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