I grew up in Pakistan and was taught to keep my periods a secret. It was “essential for my dignity,” I was told. I never talked about it to any of my family members or friends, which led me to build a ton of insecurities surrounding menstruation.
For years, getting my period is something I dreaded. I was told to hide my sanitary pads in a small hidden compartment of the closet. I thought of it as a restrictive natural phenomenon that comes with cramps, bloating and extreme mood swings. For some reason, it never got easier over time—the pain and discomfort actually got worse. As I’ve gotten older, my mood swings and cramps have worsened. That is, until, a hiking trip forever altered my perspective.
Walking in the woods is where I feel my best. Being surrounded by nature and moving deeper through it without knowing what the final destination gives me a sense of thrill and excitement. At places where I feel tired, all I have to do is just look around and inhale the fresh air. Listening to the sound of my breath in silence helps me in regaining my motivation to move forward.
A few months ago, I woke up in the enchanting lush green forest of Golden Ears Provincial Park, in British Columbia, ready for a full day of adventure, when I realized my period had arrived. Suddenly, I began to question my capabilities and strengths, wondering “Can I do this strenuous hike while bleeding?”. It was a heavy period—I felt drained.
My anxiety and self-doubt started to take over, but I cut through the noise to tell the I can’t voice that I can. Or at least, I could give it a try.
You may not have ever questioned your abilities while menstruating, but my mind kept returning to scenes from my youth where my period was something to hide. I get flashbacks from the time when my mother made me skip the sports week in school because she was scared that a 13-yr-old girl would be too careless to worry about the stains she might get on her white sports uniform. The judgemental looks from everyone that would follow was my mom’s worst nightmare. I remember crying every day that week, cursing my periods.
Now, as a grown woman deep in the forest with my period, I found those negative memories of haunting me, filling me with self doubt and looping in my head.
In Pakistan, menstruation is still taboo, at least beyond the boundaries of the metro cities. Talking about anything related to menstruation is highly frowned upon in Pakistani households. Thankfully, things are changing. Annual events like Aurat March, held in big cities across the country are gradually giving public space to women to talk about menstruation and the stigma related to it, amongst many other things.
Because menstruation is viewed as debilitating, a woman’s body is expected to be fragile. When she bleeds, she is thought to need more care, and rest. This is the norm I have grown up with, and while I somewhat agree with it, an often overshadowed part of menstruating is the unseen strength it gives us. Think about it—we wake up every morning during those seven days of bleeding and go about our day just like any other day. We take care of our families, go to work, take time to exercise, shop, eat, all while iron is pouring out from us. To me, this is the strength that comes with periods that no one talks about.
I was lucky to witness this strength in my own body. On the hike, my brain was continuously telling me to rest, but my body was wanting to move forward, despite the bleeding. At that moment, I realized how healthy periods are a positive sign of good health and a fit body. But mainly, this strength came from hiking with four amazing Canadian women who entirely changed my perspective towards menstruation. My fellow hikers were middle-aged women who had years of hiking experience across the globe under their belt. “My periods never restricted me to venture in the wild,” one of them told me. Meghan, the oldest of all in the group, told me how she trekked for days in the Himalayas while being on her period. The stories from my fellow hikers ingrained a lot of mental strength in me and I started to look beyond my periods as some restriction affecting my ability to do physical activity.
Equipped with all the hiking gear, a few snacks, and lots of tampons, I set off on the hike. “My favourite mythical creatures are the happy girls in tampon commercials,” was my only thought while looking ahead at the slippery rocks ahead of me. My body continuously felt heavy and a couple of miles into the hike, I almost stopped feeling my lower body completely.
As we progressed in the dense forest, the air got colder, making it harder to breathe. A pinching-like feeling turned into pain, which engulfed the lower half of my body. I could feel each step and every single ounce of energy that my body is exerting for myself to move further. I chose to slow down and take my time before eventually stopping, to give my body the break it needed.
As I sat down hugging my lower abdomen, I couldn’t stop but think of all those times when my boss assigned me to do a field trip while I was heavily bleeding, or the day when I was forced to go grocery shopping without any energy left in my menstruating body. I haven’t been stopped by my period before, so was I making it such a hurdle for myself now, I wondered.
I have been bleeding every month for some good fifteen years now – I did manage to go through those days of the month each time. There must be some kind of energy in it, which has enabled me to go about my days despite the bleeding. Feeling more determined than ever, I resumed the hike, this time not dreading it because of my periods, but thinking of them as my core strength for moving further.
The air continues to get colder as our destination draws nearer. Somewhere along the path I found solitude and peace with my period, and my life changed at that very moment. When I reached the end of the hike, sitting on a wooden log with a panoramic view of the lake and the surrounding mountains, I felt this gush of energy flowing through my body – energy of excitement, accomplishment, resilience, and confidence. For the first time I realized that I am good enough to handle almost anything, menstruating or not.
I sat there reminiscing my childhood memories of going about ‘those days of the month’. I wanted to go back to tell my younger self that periods are natural and it helps a woman to be physically healthy, not the contrary. It’s not something to hate. I want her to know that no one will mind a blood stain on a 13 year old’s clothes, and even if they do, it shouldn’t stop her from partaking in physical activities. All these overwhelming thoughts brought tears to my eyes but also a grin on my face because at that very moment I realized that I had transformed my biggest mental barrier to my biggest strength, and this new realization will stay with me forever.
Rahma Khan is a travel writer and an independent journalist from Pakistan based in Vancouver, Canada. She uses her travel blog thesaneadventurer.com to share the stories of her travel adventures and experiences of traveling as a woman of colour. Her work is published in Independent UK, Open Canada & Passion Passport among others. Follow her on IG @thesaneadventurer.
This story was selected as part of Shedoesthecity’s New Voices Fund, established to help continue offering opportunities to talented emerging writers with less than 20 bylines. More info here.