Over a month ago, Malaysians saw red with the breaking news of “period spot checks” happening in schools. Young female Muslims shared their shame at having to prove they were on their periods while at religious classes.
The outer labia was purportedly subjected to swabbing with cotton buds, prodding with fingers, or groping to prove the wearing of a menstruation pad. It was a show-and-tell of the most humiliating kind, simply to prove that they could be exempt from mandated prayer sessions.
Since Nalisa Alla Amin’s first tweet, over 100 stories have been shared from women, and even some males. This appalling yet normalised practice is a mark of an education system that needs a dire upheaval and a long overdue conversation about young women and their rights.
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At The Crossroads of Youth, Trust, Menstruation and Faith
Malaysia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1995. Article 28 states schools can implement discipline in accordance with the rights and dignity of children. Article 37 states children should not be subjected to degrading treatment or punishment. The incidences of ‘period spot checks’ indicate that while the rules are clear, their definition leaves more to be ironed out.
Elly Ellina remembers keeping a period journal while at MRSM Muadzam Shah, allowing ustazahs (religious teachers) to track her menstrual cycle. It may seem less intrusive a method but it isn’t any less traumatic. Little mercy or understanding is shown to those with irregular periods. Punishment, including public caning, is doled out in front of male students who would spectate with glee.
“They didn’t check your menstrual pad for blood or anything, but the emotional and social pressure was tormenting too,” laments the 31-year old freelance copywriter and community manager.
Prayer Isn’t The Only Way To Instil Morals
As a prefect in an all-girls school in Penang, *Kembang has been privy to the frustration of teachers who bemoaned the lack of participation in lessons. While her school has never enforced swabbing via cotton buds, the warning of being subjected to the intrusive spot check has been enough to reduce lying cases.
Prayers make up a brief 15-minute activity in the religious curriculum. Why are students so keen to be excused?
“[Schools] need to see what makes a student not interested to go and pray,” reflects the 25-year-old research assistant. “If a school’s intention is to instil morals into students, there are other positive activities they can do apart from praying, for instance, gardening or communal cleaning of the school”, Kembang posits. With some flexibility and creativity on the school’s part, a student can learn a lesson, and it doesn’t have to be a demeaning one.
Teachers make all the difference. In Kembang’s later years in secondary school, a very empathetic ustazah was assigned to her class. The ustazah, who was a mother to teens herself, took the time to engage with her students which created a very comfortable environment for all. In comparison, her earlier ustazahs were quick to assign demerit points rather than take the effort to listen.
As Kembang astutely sums up, “Teachers should have that ability to understand students better… rather than being strictly forceful.
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Trust Is A Multiway Street
“How can teachers expect students to respect and trust in their teaching when they don’t trust the students?” asks 36-year-old *Mother who attended SMK (P) Sri Aman, an all-girls secondary school in Petaling Jaya.
She is grateful for never being subjected to a body search, as her ustazahs opted to trust a student’s word. Growing up, her mother spoke openly about body parts and taught her actions that may constitute a violation of privacy. Open communication is key in breaking this vicious cycle.
“As a society, we need to teach our children about how important it is to speak up should such instances ever happen to them,” asserts Mother, who hopes to inculcate openness with her two young daughters.
The way forward is complex, but what is clear is this: Encourage our youths to cultivate a voice, rather than punish and shame them for it. The more we have conversations, especially about taboo topics like menstruation and sexual harassment, the better we can chart an enlightened path forward.
“Girls these days are braver now compared to before. I hear their voices, feel their anger, and I too, want justice for them. I hope with their effort, future generations won’t have to go through the same negative experience,” wishes Elly for her 5-year-old daughter’s future.
*Names have been changed at the request of interviewees to protect their anonymity