by Sumaya Teli in Identity on 4th April, 2022
We all know how loaded this question is and, if unprepared, answering can be awkward, to say the least. Yet, it’s not just young children who might be the ones asking!
I grew up with a father who never thought periods were shameful and married a man whose family ethos is the same. However, there are fully grown adult Muslim men who have no idea about menstruation or the rulings of how it affects the spiritual dimensions of the women in their lives.
For sure, every Ramadan the topic comes up. We are already seeing it doing the rounds with our friends and fellow Muslim Mothers asking the same –
My monthly friend is here what do I tell my seven-year-old?
Aunt Flo is visiting – how do I explain to my eight year old why I’m not joining in prayers?
Mashallah our nine-year-old is praying regularly now and wants to know why sometimes I miss my salat.
You may know of women ‘pretending’ to fast so that the men and boys in their family won’t know that they are on their periods. There is so much baggage to unpack in this very cultural practice that hides a woman’s bodily functions in the name of ‘haya’ or ‘modesty’. Oftentimes perpetuated by the women themselves. Especially in joint families, who wake menstruating daughters up for suhoor- where to let a father-in-law or a brother know that one is not fasting due to periods is considered in bad taste and shameful.
Really what it boils down to is women making their own lives more difficult for the comfort of men.
This ‘comfort’ is short lived and detrimental. What would happen if these men had been taught from a young age to respect the changes a woman’s body goes through? Maybe the ‘haya’ should be instilled into the men – in order to be the sort of man that doesn’t gruffly question his mother/ sister/ daughter in front of other family members as to why she is not fasting/praying?
One way to do this is to instill it from the very beginning. That is why your child’s question is so important. ‘Mama, why aren’t you praying?’ – doesn’t have to fill you with dread – anymore. Here are some practical pointers on how and when to explain menstruation to our children;
‘I told my daughter I’m not well, I didn’t explain how or why… just that Mummy’s not well and doesn’t have to pray’
But this might lead to confusion for the child who may believe its ok to miss a daily prayer or two if they are unwell.
I’ve heard of women telling their children that there are times of the month when a woman is ‘unclean and impure’ so she’s not ‘allowed’ to pray. But what message does this really send to our children? That a woman’s spirituality is judged by her bodily functions? That she is barred from communicating with her Creator for certain times of the month? That Allah swt just won’t be listening for those few days? We know that we can make many acts of worship during this time, and so to indicate that the relationship with God is affected is not accurate.
Still, yet, there are others who will say – ‘let them be little’, the child doesn’t need to know yet – let them be little” I agree. So when is the right time to explain? The answer is simple –
The right time to explain to a child is when they ask. With some exceptions, this is a good rule to work by.
Your 3 yr old may notice you ate something while you were supposed to be fasting – and call you out on it, ‘Oh no Mummy you put something in your mouth isn’t it Ramadan anymore?’ Some three-year-olds wouldn’t realise or care. We don’t need to start answering questions that haven’t been asked but when they ask they deserve the truth. The age-appropriate truth. So that they don’t grow up to be the women who hide and the men from whom it’s hidden. So they grow up to be men who are comfortable in talking to their own daughters about this topic, and in facilitating ease for them and their wives with their knowledge. So they grow up to be women who respect their own bodies and embrace the rights that their Creator bestowed upon them. So no one needs to pretend and have to lie about an act of worship in one of the holiest months of the year.
You might think talking about the body and biological details will be easier when children are older – but actually, it’s the opposite. It will be harder. Much harder.
The thing is, reader – it’s not just about Menstruation and Ramadan. This is about being able to communicate with your children in the Sunnah way. The prophet Muhammad (saw) never encouraged lying to children. In a hadith where he saw a woman say to a child that ‘come here – I will give you something’, he told her had she not truly given the child the thing it would have been written down as a lie and a sin.
The Prophet Muhammad (saw) never shied away from any kind of question. Women used to bring their ‘sanitary cloths’ to show him and ask questions about the degree of discharge. We all grew up with some percentage of shame surrounding bodily function but there IS a different way and our spiritual tradition teaches that no question is too ‘vulgar’.
A young man was bold enough to ask the Prophet’s permission to commit Zina (sexual intercourse before marriage) this says nothing about the young man except that he was a normal young adult with sexual urges, but it does say a lot about the Prophet (saw) – a leader who was approachable and kind enough for a teen to feel comfortable in asking and who was wise and knowledgeable enough to be able to answer without shaming or shunning the questioner. Isn’t this what we aspire to as parents and guardians?
2. USE CORRECT ANATOMICAL NAMES FOR BODY PARTS
We’ve all heard that teaching a child the proper terminology for body parts is extremely important. The American Association of Pediatrics identifies that teaching children the correct names for the genitals is a top tip in preventing and identifying child sexual abuse – but how many of us really do it? It’s not easy to explain to your six-year-old that ‘your pee pee is actually called a penis’ but that’s because you didn’t call it a penis from the outset. Trust me I’ve been there. Imagine using the words penis, vagina, sperm, menstruation for the first time EVER with your 15-year-old. Whether it be in English or another language spoken at home, try to make it a norm in your house to use the correct terminology over ‘pet names’. Hide your discomfort. Work through it if you need to and just SAY IT.
It’s easier to explain that question ‘where do babies come from’ to a 5-year-old than explaining it to a 12-year-old for the first time, and the likelihood will be that someone already got there before you. Then it’s a gamble as to what and how much they know.
3. TALK TO BOTH GENDERS ABOUT THE BODIES OF THE OPPOSITE GENDER TOO
However it’s not about ‘getting there’ before someone else ‘corrupts’ your child – because there is, of course, the chance that they will learn about it in a very healthy manner – the point is that they need to learn there is no shame in talking about the amazing bodies Allah has designed, WITH YOU. Especially important is talking about the bodies of BOTH men and women to BOTH boys and girls. Educating your son about his body and teaching him about the opposite gender will not only educate him – but increase his respect and understanding for the women and girls he encounters.
Sometimes it’s easier to borrow words that other parents have used to tackle such hairy topics with very young kids so here I share my approach – by no means am I an expert and many a time what saved me was taking a pause to assess the question and sticking with the basic rule of ‘tell the age-appropriate truth’. My eldest is now eight and our journey with talking about our bodies is really just beginning. I am always asking parents with older kids ‘how did you explain such and such or have you had to tackle such and such topic yet?’
I offer the following as an example of real-life conversations that show progression as the child aged from two to eight years old. I really want to stress the idea that this is just one way to do it for this age range – and I absolutely welcome ideas and comments from parents who have taken different approaches.
Where do babies come from? Be prepared for this question to come as soon as your child can speak.
Babies are a gift from Allah. And Allah decides to whom and when to give this amazing gift.
You can stop there at this very young age. From an Islamic perspective, It certainly answers their question truthfully and age appropriately.
Even the youngest of children are fascinated by the roundness of a pregnant woman’s ‘tummy’. The first time they point it out or it comes up – make an effort to introduce the word ‘Womb’and try to say womb every time instead of ‘tummy’
How does the baby come out?
Here’s where the building blocks come into play on the foundations you have already laid
‘You know Allah designed our bodies for amazing things? He gave us eyes to see with, ears to listen, tongue to talk and taste, nose to smell… well, Allah designed a Mama’s body perfectly for the baby to come out.
For younger children (3-5) ;
There is an opening in a mama’s body called a cervix (the child is likely to forget this exact term but use it anyway) that knows when the baby is just the right size and ready to be born. When the baby is ready to be born this opening gets bigger and bigger to let the baby come out from her body.
Your child may not ask the location of the ‘opening’ – and unless he or she asks, who are you to specify? Remember only answer the question that was asked.
The advantage of only answering the question asked is that there may be months or even years between each question. Children take their own time to process. In our home there were years between the questions ‘where do babies come from?’ and ‘how does the baby come out?’ but a friend told me she was recently deluged with all the questions all at once!
For older children (5 – 7+) ;
Remember I told you about the opening? It’s a part of a woman’s vagina (see here how it’s SO much easier to use this word if it’s already in their vocabulary) there are two openings – one for going for a wee and another to let the baby out when it’s ready. Every woman has these two openings but she won’t use the cervix- the one for the baby – until she is completely grown up and old enough and ready enough to become a mama.
All the while – it’s helpful to ensure you are teaching the child the spiritual aspect –
Isn’t it AMAZING that a baby can be born from a Woman’s body like that? Allah has made mamas to be so strong! She holds the baby in her womb which is a super strong muscle – one of the strongest muscles in the human body! It holds the baby for nine months then pushes it out too when it’s ready to be born. Can you imagine holding something that’s growing bigger and bigger and heavier and heavier for NINE whole months?! You have to be super strong to be able to do that! Sometimes it can be difficult for the baby to come out through that way and doctors and nurses in a hospital can help the baby to come out by opening the mama’s tummy and reaching through to the womb !
If you have already introduced these concepts – it’s an easy step to let the children see realistic animations of childbirth through the birth canal. Of course make sure to watch any videos privately before. Here is a video my children watched with much awe and wonder – I still advise you watch it fully before showing your children as you can best determine if its appropriate for your child.
Why aren’t you praying?
With very young children who do notice – may be on Eid or at the mosque and ask why you’re not joining in with the congregational prayer – the idea that you have a tummy ache definitely works, but try following up with –
‘ sometimes ladies get a tummy pain and ALLAH is so merciful and kind he says it’s ok to not fast/pray on those days. It’s a kind of tummy ache only ladies and mamas get every month so it’s ok not to fast/pray on those days”
Avoid saying ‘women are weak and need the rest ect’ why not say instead women are so strong, their wombs are the strongest muscle in the human body that every month ALLAH says they should have some rest time.
For children aged 7 – 9+
This is a thoughtful, receptive age and is when real questions about missing prayers are likely to start and here again is that building block moment.
‘Remember when I told you about times during the month when women get a break from prayers? Well let me explain a bit more
Or if this conversation has not been alluded to before even in the form of a tummy ache – you could begin with saying –
I know you noticed I’m not praying and although you’re right we must never miss our prayers, there is a reason you must try to avoid asking a lady – why she is not praying and the reason is that she may be on her period. Do you know what a period is?
Try to gauge how much a child already knows before talking about potentially complex matter. They might have heard things from older cousins or overheard adult chatter. They might have heard something about ‘bleeding down there’ and be worried or scared about what that means.
You can start by assuring them that what you’re about to explain is completely normal and a part of growing up –
Then go on to explain this new word. You can simply start with –
Every month the womb (womb is already in their vocabulary remember? ) prepares itself to grow a baby – its walls start to grow a really good blood supply and it starts adding soft layers to make the space comfortable for a baby. But if no baby is placed there, then by the end of the moth the mama’s body has to clean out the womb and all that soft tissue and it can take a few days to come out. So just like a lot of bleeding from any part of your body can break your wudhu and you make wudu again, in the same way the woman can’t perform salah until it’s stopped and she has to make a big wudu called a ghusl – which is really like a wudu for your whole body – a bath.
This is a very personal thing for a woman. Just as anything to do with our private parts is not something we like to discuss with everybody (only the few ‘safe’ people in our lives) so I’d like you to remember this before you ask any woman why she is not praying.
I can’t stress enough how important it is that you relay this information to your sons as well as your daughters.
Remember your child will not have any embarrassment or shame unless you signal that there is something shameful and awkward.
Nobody needs a Baba to be born. You just need your Mama right?. What has a baba got to do with it?
I had not yet had to address the sperm and egg discussion, when it arose in a surprising manner. One day while we were re-reading the story of prophet Jesus and we reached the part about the miraculous birth my eldest stated
‘Mama – what’s special about that? Nobody needs a baba to be born. You just need your mama right?’(note we had read and told this story many times in our family, this was not the first time he was hearing it – but it’s the first time he asked such a question – just goes to show that children take their own time to process information)
‘What’s a Baba got to do with it?’
Here was my cue.
Well… actually you definitely do need a baba to be born! You see every person that exists is a ‘mixture’ of their Mama and Baba. We get half of our features and characteristics from our mother and half from the father. To make one whole person! In every human being’s body, there are cells that makeup who we are. It’s like lego, each cell is a block of lego. We have skin cells, blood cells, fat cells, all kind of cells. There is one very special and different cell though and it’s called different things in a man and a woman. This cell inside a woman is called an egg and this cell inside a man is called sperm.
Yup work through it. Say the word. Sperm. You’ll thank yourself a few years down the line when you will be talking about puberty with a preteen.
The egg and sperm are the only cells in the body that are half cells – they don’t have a function on their own – but when a sperm and egg meet – they join together like a jigsaw puzzle and become one whole cell and and this is the start of a baby! This one tiny cell holds all the information to grow into a baby! This egg and sperm cell once joined together is called an embryo and it sits inside the womb and starts growing into a full baby.
Bring it back to the spiritual aspect.
Isn’t that amazing? That is like miracle in itself – but Allah caused the Prophet Jesus to be born without the half cells from a baba – just like He created Prophet Adam without cells from a mama or baba! These are the Miracles of Allah, everything else follows the rules of Allah and every other human being ever born always began with a half cell from their mama and a half cell from their baba.
I haven’t been asked yet ‘how exactly do the egg and sperm meet’ but inshallah I trust that when the time comes to answer, Allah makes it easy for me. I’ll think about what the Prophet would say, and it will be the kind of answer that builds on our conversations and talks about sexual intercourse as a mercy and act of love between two stable and responsible married adults. It will be difficult and inside I’ll be writhing because of my own insecurities about the way sex was always presented as a taboo topic- but outside, I hope to show my child confidence and love and try not to project shame in my voice.
Remember again your child will not feel awkward or embarrassed unless you signal there is something to be ashamed about- Let them be little yes, but also let them be inquisitive, and let them have answers with love, with truth, and without shame.
Sumaya Teli is a British Muslim who now lives in the USA with her husband and three children. She is founder and writer at mamanushka.com ~ a popular lifestyle blog rooted in experiences of being a western, global Muslim, Woman and Mother.’