Motivated by a desire to explore and connect with people and wild places, Israh has travelled extensively. Her journeys have included travelling the Silk Road, trekking in New Zealand, the Middle East, Central America and Europe, and recently she completed the Pacific Crest Trail, a six month trek through wilderness from Mexico to Canada. She is a qualified Mountain Leader and trained in Outdoor Environmental Education, and has lead expeditions worldwide. As a trained midwife she has also worked with remote tribes in the Afar region of Ethiopia and in Zanzibar’s government and bush hospitals. Her passion for the world outdoors began as a child living in Arabia, India, Turkey and Spain and now at every available spare moment she walks, climbs, canoes and kayaks. Israh also runs the WildTime self development programme for young women aged 13-16 years which aims to explore issues teenage girls face in the modern world without the pressure of a classroom. The next Wild Time adventure weekend for teenage girls on the 24th – 27th August 2017. You can learn more about it here.
What are your experiences of menstruation in different cultures around the world, and do you think this has an impact on how you feel about your menstruation now?
Yes definitely! Growing up, I’d always had such a positive experience of menstruation. I was brought up in Islam but I never felt that not being allowed to pray or fast whilst on my period was a negative thing, more that it was empowering to have the time to look after yourself. Despite my periods being horrendous until I was about 24, I was lucky in a way because my mother encouraged me to look deeper and to seek holistic ways to help so I feel now that having a period is a doorway to a lot of learning about oneself rather than something I should just take a pill for.
“It was empowering to have the time to look after yourself.”
The first time I had an issue with menstruation whilst I was travelling was when I was 18 years old staying with a lovely local family in rural Nepal. I don’t know how, but my host mother somehow found out that I’d got my period and her demeanour completed changed almost instantly. She gave me a bucket and motioned me to a hut, explaining in very broken tribal Nepali/ English that I could not stay or eat with the family whilst I was menstruating. I think that was the first time that I got the impression that being on your period was dirty and I felt hurt and confused about her actions in a culture I found to be incredibly mystical and spiritual – it seemed juxtaposed that the culture saw menstruation as being a negative experience. But of course I acknowledge this may also be my reaction to these actions- rather than the actions themselves being negative.
Whilst working as a midwife in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa I have found that the subject of menstruation is very private and yet whilst caring for women I often came face to face with some of the difficulties women experienced. This was particularly true for women who had FGM and experienced many problems such as infection, extreme pain and even fertility problems as a result. Over time and once a trust had built I was able to talk to women about this and there seemed to be a great hope and wish that more could be done to help women and educate the community as a whole about the complications experienced.
“[Some] believe that because menstruation is linked to the cycles of the moon, it has a spiritual and earth based significance.”
I’ve also spent time living with the Kalash people in Northern Pakistan. The Kalash have a menstrual hut/red tent where women go to whilst they are on their periods and for some time after birth. I was privileged enough to be allowed in once I had spent some time with the women and I can’t say too much because I feel like I’m betraying their trust, but time spent there felt like such a gift. Women have time to reflect and to reconnect with their body and each other. I got the impression through some discussions that the Kalash people honour this time of the women’s cycle in trust that there is a deeper meaning to this cyclic connection. Perhaps similarly to some Native American tribes who believe that because menstruation is linked to the cycles of the moon, it has a spiritual and earth based significance. It has often been described as the moon time – a time when women have a particular spiritual sensitivity and should be supported to respect this and have time alone and in silence where they may be more receptive to this inner connection. In some communities both ancient and modern – the practice of bleeding onto the ground is seen as an offering and a symbol of gratitude for this sacred time.
How do you manage menstruation in adventure, including dealing with menstrual waste, and how is this different to daily life?
Personally I use a mooncup and pads so it’s not hugely different from my day to day life – I always show girls on the expeditions I take that I have a ziplock bag for menstrual waste within another zip lock bag which also contains wet wipes, hand sanitiser, spare pads and pain relief. I’ve also found that doggy poo bags are great for carrying used tampons/ pads/ wipes as they’re lightweight, have a scent and are dark coloured! My periods do also tend to be lighter on expedition which I put down to the change in environment, diet and activity – for example I had extremely light and quite sporadic periods for 5 months when I walked the Pacific Crest Trail! This is important to tell girls/women as often their usual pattern changes. If I’m working with girls and younger women on expeditions, we always sit in circle before and talk about their experiences of their periods and what concerns they have. I find that if I ask the group first what they know of periods that I have a good basis as to what I can offer and support them with. Often we tend to agree that it is important to have someone in the group to be conscious of the impact of periods and to take it as their role or part of their role to check in with their fellow team members to see how they’re doing and to offer support/advice if needed. Surely it is about empowering all of us? From both my personal experience and from witnessing other women both in this culture and beyond feel the empowering effects of having periods I feel it is important and an opportunity to bring that into the conversation as well, rather than just focus on it being a nuisance and needing to simply ‘practically manage it’!
“Surely it is about empowering all of us?”
What do you think about the culture surrounding menstruation here in the UK and is there anything you’d like to change?
I think that in the UK there is such a lack of access to menstrual education and it’s appalling that 90% of young women feel ashamed, dirty and unsupported during their first period. I do feel very lucky that my Mother thought it was a wonderful thing and deserved celebration: she wanted to throw a party for me, although I’m not sure my moody teenage self appreciated it at the time! Looking back now I’m just really grateful that I was seen and celebrated in some way, acknowledging it as an important Rite of Passage and not left to deal with it on my own.
Working in both the outdoor education sector and the health service, I’ve had young women come to me over and over again saying that they’ve just been told to take a pill to control their periods (both at home and on expedition). What I have found interesting is that when you offer another viewpoint of what having your period may mean, they often ask why they haven’t been told this and then question taking a pill to control it. The sad thing as well is that they don’t know any difference or completely understand the impact of taking the pill on their body. I think it’s quite unprofessional and ill thought out for some doctors to disregard the impact and side effects that hormones can have on a woman and I feel like as a society we have this tunnel vision about periods – as if they are just a complication of being a woman, and therefore why wouldn’t you take a pill to control it? Additionally the pill is being given out increasingly not only for its original contraception based empowerment, but also for moods, bad skin and some girls have even reported they have been told it helps control weight gain! I think the potential side effects such as depression and anxiety also need to be more widely published and talked about as I don’t think we necessarily acknowledge the pill as a potential cause of these problems and some women can go on suffering for a long time. On the other hand though, if a woman wants to delay her period for an adventure, why shouldn’t she if she’s tried the pill beforehand and knows that it’s okay for her? For some women taking the pill has helped so much and that shouldn’t be underestimated either. I just think more holistic information needs to be given out!
“I feel like as a society we have this tunnel vision about periods – as if they are just a complication of being a woman, and therefore why wouldn’t you take a pill to control it?”
I’d really love for women (including myself!) to be encouraged to pay more attention to their own bodies and to get to know their cycle. I think it’s amazing that some women can tell when they’re ovulating or if they are feeling run down just by the changes in the colour of their fluid/ blood etc. Some women I know will book into their diaries a day of quiet and chill because they know they are about to bleed and those days can for so many of us be quite sensitive. Vice versa they know when they are ovulating they are usually full of loads of energy and often feel more confident so these are the days to get out in the world!!! I think we’re very mind-heavy as a society and as women, we should learn to trust our bodies more! There are many courses that can help you learn about your cycle which can help you work out when in the month you are likely to be more energetic and when you may just need some down time to replenish. If you know about it beforehand and can plan your life (or an adventure!) with this information, then perhaps it may actually empower women more.
Do you find you feel more comfortable discussing menstruation with different groups of people? And does the gender or age of the people with whom you discuss menstruation affect how comfortable you feel talking about it?
I think I’ve definitely become more comfortable talking about menstruation over time. I still find it hard in some groups of people when I presume that they may not know how to ‘deal’ with it or may just presume I see it as a nuisance. I do also find it more difficult talking to men about it, but I am learning to stretch that as I have found that some men really want to know especially about how else we can view menstruation as a society. I want to support male expedition leaders to feel they can talk about it and give as much information as they can. In fact I think it can be so empowering to have a man talk about periods including the potentially wonderful bits as well as the practical management of it.
I love talking to young women about their periods and I’m always astounded by how well they respond. I think its about how you lead into the subject and what opening questions or creative ways you can get them engaged. As I have been taught I link periods to the cycles of the seasons as a simple map of the month and use that analogy to explain why they may be feeling like they do and how they can support themselves at different parts of the month. Because every woman is different, you really have to check in with them about what they need and what and how they want to involve the wider group in these discussions. Some girls feel offended if we don’t include the boys whilst other girls would be appalled to have boys included. It has to be their choice! I have found that when the subject of periods moves away from merely the ‘bloody bits’ then the boys do have questions and I think it’s really great if we can support them to ask these and be witnessed by the girls in doing so. I also find that when it moves into the ‘emotional’ impact of periods guys often express that they too have emotions and some days they feel great and some not. It’s great to emphasize shared experiences that the different genders may have (such as feeling low or angry sometimes) and to collate ideas from the whole team to normalise menstruation and encourage group wellbeing. For example, on one expedition whilst we were trekking up a mountain, a girl had really extreme cramps and vomiting because of her period. We put her on the horse at the front that was carrying our luggage and the group absolutely loved it. She got to be the scout – shouting things that she’d seen back down the line, and most importantly she didn’t feel left out or like she was weak in anyway- in fact she was the queen of that day!
And finally, do you think that women find menstruation a barrier to participating in adventure and, if so, do you think it needs to be that way?
I would say that menstruation is definitely a concern or an issue for women in adventure, but I’m not sure if it actually stops them from participating. I guess some women may choose not to do things whilst on their period, but often find that women who know they are due will just make sure they have things with them (particularly pain relief jus in case) and may leave some flexibility to see how they feel on that day. But I know this isn’t the case for all, and some women who have really heavy or painful periods do just decide to avoid that time of the month. The problem arises when women don’t really think about it or feel like they can’t ask about what to do, so they aren’t prepared and then they panic when it arrives or avoid going into the outdoors altogether. Some ways we can prevent that is to encourage women to talk openly, to include it within adventure discussions, to talk about the options we have when we are away – whether to take a pill or not, have pain relief at the ready, be flexible with our itinerary, normalise it as part of group care and probably most importantly empower not only women but all of society with education around periods that goes beyond the basics taught in schools. Going on an adventure is one of the best things you can possibly do: it teaches us so much and I would say learning about your periods can also be an adventure – we should definitely be able to combine the two!