A young Pakistani-American girl encounters a coming-of-age and awakening into womanhood, by experiencing menstruation for the first time.
Zahara squatted onto the toilet and looked down as the light from above was shining down on her, leaving a golden glow between her legs. It drew her attention to a red flower-shaped stain in the center of her underwear.
She started to panic and her heart skipped a beat.
Am I dying? she thought.
Then she remembered the instructional video her health teacher made the class watch a few months before. In it, a girl of about her age was talking about her first “period.” She seemed to recall that, at a certain stage of development, all young girls would eventually start to bleed, from somewhere painfully private. She remembered the girl in the film talking about the importance of this experience in the beginning of womanhood; a coming-of-age process that is supposed to make each and every girl feel “wonderful and special.”
Zahara did not feel wonderful, or special, for that matter. She wasn’t exactly thrilled about this new development. And considering that she had just made her unnerving discovery in the bathroom of her local mosque, she realized that she would now be considered najis, or unclean, and would therefore not be allowed to do namaz (pray) or touch the Quran (the Islamic holy book) in her current state. She suddenly felt dirty, ashamed of her predicament and guilty over the idea that now she would be thought of as being impure; she felt as if she had done something wrong, and wondered what she would have to do in order to spiritually ‘disinfect’ herself. What would she have to do to redeem herself; to absolve herself of whatever sins she would be exposed to committing, now that she was finally a “woman”? She felt embarrassed as images of leaking naked statues drifted through her mind, and reprimanded herself for the present inconvenience of being a girl. She imagined herself as a faceless statue, a massive fountain without arms and a constant trickle of blood meandering its way between two pristine legs. Zahara was far from ivory, she had more of a golden caramel pallor. An inner light seemed to emanate from her skin.
Am I still just a girl, Zahara thought as she stared at the red blossom in the center of her panties. She wondered what it would feel like to be a female of a different species; to be a mermaid that lives wild and without a care. To have a sexuality that is not forbidden. She imagined that perhaps mermaids can be careless because they intrinsically know that to be naked is to be free. No one has exposed them to the shame that comes with being a mortal woman who belongs to the human race. Civilizations are founded upon the existence of this shame. And they also crumble because of it. Most human women and men know that their sexuality is a responsibility. But to be an imaginary creature like a mermaid, which lives under water, would that make one innocent of things like sex and sin and secret bodily secretions?
Do mermaids have periods too? And how would one menstruate underwater, she wondered. Suddenly she imagined herself as a tall volcano spewing forth its fiery lava. Now that I’m a woman am I as dangerous as a volcano, about to erupt? Am I now toxic? Zahara posed these innocent questions to herself. She imagined the warm wet blood between her legs taking on the element of fire, burning anything and anyone but herself, like lava. It would certainly be a good defense mechanism or repellant, in case she would ever get accosted or approached by someone with sinister sexual intentions. Perhaps now she was a kind of volcano. An upside-down volcano that had been dormant for the first thirteen years of her life. She wondered when and how she would eventually erupt, and whether anyone would be affected by her impure emissions.
Zahara felt confused, clumsy and awkward, unsure of how to balance herself as she stood upon the edge of her newfound physical maturity. She imagined what it would be like for her to remove her own sexuality. To permanently erase that stain of blood; to keep it from ever happening again. What is it inside of me that makes me this way? She thought. Was this bleeding she had to endure a punishment for some misdeed that did not belong to her? A penalty for a sin she inherited from a dead ancestor? She wondered if the original sin of Havva, the first woman created by God that she had learned of in Sunday school (also known as Eve) was the reason for this nuisance. But was it acceptable to blame Havva over the fact that girls and women all over the world were destined to bleed from somewhere deep within because it was she who fed the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge to Adam? And did other women of the world blame Havva for inheriting what seemed to be a shameful secret that she now had to keep concealed from the rest of the world?
Maybe now that I’m a woman, I’m closer to becoming a goddess, Zahara thought. She had come across a compelling assortment of creation myths in her history class at school, and clandestinely appreciated the various gods and goddesses that she had learned about. I wonder whether any of them had ever menstruated, she thought, and if so, their sacred eruptions must have been divinely dangerous and quite sensational, to say the least. As a young Muslim girl living in America, Zahara was aware that it was probably not socially acceptable in her Islamic community to openly believe in such deities, but she also understood that she was tolerant and open-minded about different customs and beliefs, and she strongly believed that no one could keep her from learning new things and making her own discoveries of the world around her. On her own, she delved into quite an eclectic and independent self-education. By age twelve she had read the entire translated Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Hindu scripture. She hid it inside of a book cover of the Quran, which her parents believed she was studying. But instead of reading the Islamic holy book, she was secretly learning about other cultures and religions. She would also use this time to read about the theory of evolution, science and the history of humanity according to various other Eastern philosophies. She was fascinated by the inner workings of the universe, and often questioned the things she learned about in Sunday school at the local mosque. Every night, at bedtime, she would hide under the covers in the quiet darkness of her room and read about various cultures, the advancement of mankind throughout time and the turning of the earth’s orbit in space, with just a small flashlight to illuminate her way. She would simply pull the blanket over her head and enter new worlds, by reading books and learning about various schools of thought.
While Zahara’s parents were immigrants from Pakistan, their only daughter was born in America. They identified as Pakistani-American; however, Zahara herself hardly felt in tune with either of these two halves that seemed to make up a part of her cultural identity. She noticed that whenever she would visit Pakistan with her family, many of her cousins from the motherland would harp extensively on how “American” she was. Yet in her American public school, she was not looked at as being American, because her differences were sometimes magnified by the teachers as well as students, so she often felt like she could never fit in. What seemed to accentuate this feeling of separation and otherness was the fact that she was always asked, “Where are you from?” She eventually decided that she didn’t have a forthright answer to this question because, for the most part, she believed that she was more than just the sum of her parts. In light of this, Zahara was unsure of where and how she stood upon the overlapping boundaries that made her border two vastly different worlds. To her it seemed that no one else in the small town was quite like her. There was, however, a little Sikh boy from India in her science class, who she also sometimes saw drifting through the corridors of the school, like a ghost or an apparition out of a Rudyard Kipling story. They both seemed to be loners, and had so far never even spoken to one another; perhaps like two orbs spiraling in their own distant revolutions.
Zahara looked around the bathroom nervously, searching for anything that would intercept the bleeding. Rolling up a thick bundle of quilted toilet paper, she placed it between her legs as a temporary solution. She suddenly felt overwhelmed, as if she was now an explosive geyser spurting and overflowing for all of the world to witness. She wondered if this experience was her retribution for not being a good enough Muslim. Had God heard the doubts she had and was earnestly trying to keep secret, about having to be a proper, devout little Muslimah, when most of the time she really just wanted to be herself?
Meanwhile, the other girls were performing their daily namaz in the women’s prayer hall of the mosque. Zahara could smell the fresh sandalwood incense burning on the mantle of the prayer room and the pinkish, spiced chai with cardamom that the aunties were preparing in the kitchen. She was just a few feet away from the other girls, yet she felt so different and isolated from them. The young girls she went to Sunday school with were mostly interested in competing with one another over how much sawaab (reward for good deeds accrued) they could accumulate to ensure their debatable entry into heaven. Zahara often felt alienated from them as they would argue over whether or not wearing nail polish was haram (prohibited) in Islam, and how old a girl should be in order to get married. When they asked Zahara where she would like to have her own wedding, she replied, “I wouldn’t really mind never getting married. I would rather travel around the world by myself and write about my voyages and explorations, than settle down and become one half of a pair for the rest of my life. Who knows, I might even discover something new!”
This response seemed to annoy the other girls, who looked at her as though she had an arm growing out of her head. It was common knowledge that many of the girls in her Sunday school were already anticipating that their marriages would be arranged by their parents or close family friends. Now that she had officially (and secretly) started her period, she decided not to tell any of them, because she preferred to keep it private rather than be fussed over by everyone. She began to think that now she would feel set apart from them to an even greater extent.
Zahara felt stuck between two worlds, not quite like the other Muslim girls from the mosque, and not quite like any of the American kids in the public school she attended. She thought about her Pakistani skin. Its slightly caramel color separated her from the masses of suburban white children that she went to school with. She felt like she was drifting in an in-between space, a sort of cultural limbo where she didn’t quite belong to any particular group or segment of society. Although she was both Pakistani and American, the dual sides of her identity were so contentious that they seemed to create a third space for her to exist in; a previously unoccupied and untouched no man’s land that floated like an island between the two cultures.
The next day in science class at Zahara’s middle school, Mrs. Cathy was explaining the lunar calendar, which is charted and followed religiously by Muslims all over the world: “Zahara, you’re moz-lum why don’t you tell us what it is?”
Dick, a boy who picked on Zahara often, spun around eagerly and drooled from chapped lips.
“What’s lunar calendar mean?” he demanded with a sneer.
“It means we live by the moon.”
“Like the man on the moon?”
“There is no man on the moon,” Zahara said, irritated.
“Well someone should send you out into space because my dad says your family is aliens.” His mouth sputtered open and shut, like a loose sphincter.
After class the little Sikh boy walked up to Zahara and said, “You should ignore that kid. He’s stupid.”
“Ok. What’s your name?” she asked.
“Vikram. What’s yours?”
They stood together, silent for a while, as she searched her mind for what to say.
“I just got my period,” she said.
“What is that?”
“I’m not sure,” Zahara said, slightly embarrassed. She held her abdomen as she felt a slight cramp in her stomach.
“Ok. Hope you feel better,” Vikram said, and walked away from her, joining the rest of the children as they walked outside towards the school buses.
The next day, Zahara was walking just outside of the school when she saw Vikram being picked on by Dick and a group of boys in the yard. They were all jumping around him in a circle, passing his turban around like a hot potato. She felt sorry for Vikram. The little Sikh boy was the most visibly ‘other’ kid in the school, and she could understand how it felt to be considered different.
“Stop it!” Zahara shouted.
“What are you gonna do about it, Za-ha-ra?” Dick said, intentionally mispronouncing her name.
“If you ever touch him again you’ll be sorry!” She said angrily as she grabbed the turban from one of Dick’s cronies.
“Oh, I’m really scared!” the boy said mockingly. “Let’s get outta here and leave these two terrorists alone. Maybe they’ll get married and have little terrorist babies,” Dick said, laughing as he left the schoolyard with his small gang of trouble-makers.
“Thanks,” Vikram said as Zahara handed him the turban.
Embarrassed, he readjusted it onto his head.
“You shouldn’t worry about those guys. In ten years they’ll be losers,” Zahara said.
“They already are losers,” Vikram responded.
“Yeah, you’re right. They’re just jealous of us. Wait and see, they’ll probably never even leave this small podunk town. I bet we’ll have a better future than those guys. I feel sorry for them,” Zahara admitted.
Vikram stooped down, picking up a small, closed up rosebud he had plucked from the ground: “This is for you. Thanks for helping me,” he said shyly, and then walked off into the distance.
Zahara looked at the rose, as she felt another slight cramp in her belly. She remembered the flower-shaped stain on her underwear and hurried on homeward before her mother would find out about it.
On the third day of her period, Zahara noticed that she had started to smell like overripe fruit. This transformation of sorts, from girl to young woman, was changing her. Her chest was swelling prominently for a girl her age, and her belly felt fuller than before.
Zahara decided to take a walk. As she passed by an old church, she considered going inside. She wondered if being najis (unclean) mattered to Christian people, and whether or not she would be allowed to pray in the church without getting in trouble for menstruating, and being considered “dirty” while in a holy place. She found solace in old churches. This was one of the many reasons her parents and other family members thought of her as the rather odd one in the lot. However, despite what anyone thought of her, Zahara believed that people of all kinds deserved to be treated with equal love and respect, as she felt that deep down, all people were the same. She knew that Vikram was just as human as she was, and she would never forget that. It was this realization and this honesty that made her feel exhilarated and reassured. She decided that she was growing into a beautiful young woman.
A few days later, when her period was over, Zahara did for the first time what her mother had told her to always do at the end of her menstrual cycle. She stepped into the shower and performed the ghusl, a cleansing ritual, first washing one side of her body from head to toe, and then the other. The flower-shaped stain was still on her underwear. So after doing the ghusl she washed it in the sink, frantically scrubbing out the blotch so that it would disappear. Zahara wondered what her mother would think if she ever found out about the stain, and suddenly she felt embarrassed.
Leaving the bathroom, she walked to her bedroom. On her desk was the red rose Vikram had given her the other day. She folded her clean underwear and placed it in the bureau. Then she took the still fragrant flower and held it to her nose, taking in its pleasant scent. It had blossomed from a tiny bud into a lovely bloom; its fiercely red petals were now open and its face was upturned and unashamed.
What a nice boy, she thought, as she gazed into the center of the flower.
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