A girl’s first period is a major turning point in her life – the moment she crosses the threshold from childhood into adulthood, the moment she becomes a woman. It is a time fraught with anxiety and, often, with a sense of shame. Mothers and older sisters are the first to be told when a girl begins her first period; menstruation is a “woman’s secret” and men are expected to be kept deliberately ignorant of its details.
In many cultures, girls are scolded for letting slip any hints about their menses to the menfolk of the household, who often remain blithely oblivious to the maturation of their daughters and sisters. Should a situation arise wherein the subject comes up, the male reaction is usually one of mortification, irritation and a gruff change of topic.
Yet this awkward, complicated relationship between young girls and the menfolk around them doesn’t need to exist. In fact, shocking as it may seem, a different type of relationship entirely could exist – one of compassion, sensitivity, gentleness and understanding not only between girls and their immediate male relatives, but, in fact, between the unrelated men and women of the Ummah.
The proof for this lies in the seerah itself.
Umayyah bint Qays (radhiAllahu 'anha) was a young girl who had not yet reached puberty, who joined the Muslim army on its way to Khaybar. Rasul Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) had her sit on his she-camel, just behind his luggage and they rode for some time. When they paused for a reprieve, Rasul Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) descended and had his camel kneel down, whereupon Umayyah got off as well. To her mortification, she noticed that the luggage she'd been sitting on was smeared with blood - her first period.
Umayyah sat back on the bag, leaning forward to try and hide the blood stain, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment.
Rasul Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) - ever keen, ever kind - noticed both her actions and the bloodstain and said gently, "Perhaps this is menstrual blood?" Umayyah nodded in confirmation and Rasul Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) suggested kindly, "Attend to yourself, then take some water, put some salt in it and wash the bag, then return."
Umayyah followed his instructions and was once again seated upon Rasul Allah's camel.
After the Muslims were victorious at Khaybar, Rasul Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) chose a necklace from amongst the spoils of war and summoned Umayyah, then placed it around her neck with his own hands. She wore that necklace until she died. (Al-Muhaddithat; al-Tabaqat al-Kubra by Ibn Sa'd.)
1) Umayyah was what we would think of as a 'tween' today - a young girl straddling the line between childhood and womanhood. Whereas most girls of that age today are pushed away by their fathers and brothers to "go be with the women", Rasul Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) fondly had her accompany him on his own camel. Considering that even the great men of the Sahabah vied to be in Rasul Allah's presence and thought of it as a great honour, this shows how much Rasul Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) valued every member of his Ummah - male and female, young and old.
Can you imagine how thrilled Umayyah must have been to be given this honour, how confident she must have felt at being chosen to ride with the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) himself? Every young girl wants to feel special and valued and what better way to make this young believer love Allah and His Messenger than to choose her out of the throngs of adults who made up Rasul Allah's closest advisers and warriors?
The gentle, compassionate and respectful relationship that Rasul Allah displayed with this young member of his Ummah was also emulated by his sahabah (radhiAllahu 'anhum ajma'een). Abu ad-Dardaa’ (radhiAllahu 'anhu) used to be the guardian of an orphan girl and he would bring her to pray with him amongst the men, wrapping her in his own cloak. When she attained puberty, he gently sent her to pray with the women, but continued to look after her carefully. She later became known as Umm ad-Dardaa’ as-Sughraa and one of the great scholars of the Tabi’een.
2) A girl's first period is a major turning point of her life. In many cultures, it is treated with shame and embarrassment, made to seem as though it is something evil or unfortunate - something to be hidden amongst women and kept a secret from men.
Imagine how mortified Umayyah was - not only had she just started her first period, but she wasn't even with her mother or other women. In fact, she wasn't even with a male family member! She was with the Messenger of Allah r and her menstrual blood had stained his luggage.
If Rasul Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) was like many other men, he could have gotten angry and upset or shooed her away and made her feel ashamed for what had happened. Instead, he was soft, gentle and understanding; he didn't blame her for anything, didn't demand angrily "What have you done?! What is this mess?!" He didn't even ask her for an explanation; he provided one for her and was incredibly sweet about it. In fact, he gave her simple, practical advice on what to do and actually told her to return to him.
3) After the expedition of Khaybar was over and the Muslims had won the battle, Rasul Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) didn't simply forget Umayyah and never think of her again. On the contrary, he hand-picked jewellery for her, brought her forward to him again and gave her the necklace himself. What better way to warm her heart and remind her of an experience that could have been a source of lifelong embarrassment, but was instead one of the most wonderful events of her life?
Rasul Allah's behaviour with this young girl holds so many lessons for Muslim men on how they should deal with their sisters, daughters and, in fact, any young girl at all, whether she is related to them or not.
His actions are an example of how every girl should be honoured and treasured as valued members of this Ummah. Rasul Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) and his sahabah (radhiAllahu 'anhum), such as Abu ad-Dardaa’, displayed how a relationship of compassion, gentleness, respect and dignity between men and women, and boys and girls, is possible and, indeed, necessary. Considering the current state of gender relations in the Muslim Ummah – whether it be extreme, harsh segregationor unhealthily close relationships, the balanced, positive example of Rasul Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) is one that we must follow. In fact, it can be said that acting upon this sunnah is imperative for the psychological health of the Ummah.
As Muslims, we should endeavor to create a safe and healthy environment in which even a young pubescent girl in a sensitive or difficult situation can feel comfortable enough to turn to her brother in Islam – even if he is an unrelated male or older than her in age – and trust that he will care for her with the compassion, respect and dignity owed to any fellow Muslim, whether male or female.
The honour and dignity of Muslim men and women, which they hold within themselves and accord to each other, is something that is unique to the Ummah of Rasul Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam). Although many Muslims appear to have forgotten about it, preferring flawed cultural notions of ‘honour’ instead, it is up to us to reclaim this beautiful aspect of our Deen and follow in the footsteps of the heroes and heroines of Islam.
Zainab bint Younus (AnonyMouse) is a young woman who finds constant inspiration in the lives of the Sahabiyaat and other great women in Islamic history. She hopes that every Muslimah is able to identify with the struggles of these inspirational women and follow in their footsteps to become a part of a new generation of powerful Muslim women. She blogs at http://www.thesalafifeminist.blogspot.com