As it happens, I read all this just as I came upon this passage in The Diary of Anne Frank (I'm very excited that I'll be visiting Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam later in the summer)--
I think that what's happening to me is so wonderful, and I don't just mean the changes taking place on the outside of my body, but also those on the inside. I never discuss myself or any of these things with others, which is why I have to talk about them to myself. Whenever I get my period (and that's only been three times), I have the feeling that in spite of all the pain, discomfort and mess, I'm carrying around a sweet secret. So even though it's a nuisance, in a certain way I'm always looking forward to the time when I'll feel that secret inside me once again.Isn't that lovely? Those poor Muslim girls--they're not allowed to enjoy menstruation in the same healthy way! That's how everyone reads the picture. For example, here's Heather Malick, whose editorial in the Toronto Star is the source of the picture--
Stigmatized, bleeding mysteriously and bewildered by maternal instructions, these girls are not allowed to pray (I am told other religions require this as well). You can see them in the Star’s photograph, the boys at the front, the girls hidden behind, flattened in prayer, and the girls with periods sitting cross-legged or kneeling.
These girls are in grades 7 and 8. OMG I am like totally remembering myself at that age and I would like have died of embarrassment except that I noticed even then that no one ever actually does. That’s unfortunate.
Now it’s different, of course. Menstruation should be a happy sexy thing, proof of femininity and non-pregnancy, and a harbinger of pleasure.
But here's the thing. You can't read a picture. You can only project--and here it's particularly difficult. We can't even see the girls' faces!
Now, don't get me wrong. If these girls consider prayer a privilege, then it's not fair that they are denied that privilege without cause. If Islam considers menstruation unclean, this is one place where religion has to let itself be revised in light of evidence. And yes, it may very well be embarrassing for these girls to tell everyone they are menstruating.
But the picture does not tell us. We know what Anne Frank felt because she told us in her own words. Malick (and all the atheist bloggers) are merely projecting when they suppose that the girls are dying of embarrassment. There is not a single word in Malick's editorial based on what these girls have written or said about the matter themselves.
"Oh, but it's obvious! They've been told they can't pray because they're unclean--so they've got to feel unclean!" No, that just will not do as a basis for presuming what these girls feel.
Think again about Anne Frank. She had been living in the cramped annex with seven other people for over a year by the time she started her period, with no privacy and few modern conveniences. And this was a Jewish girl, too, a girl who often spoke about God in her diary, and must have know that in Judaism menstruation is considered unclean. We would have no idea what she felt about menstruating if it weren't for the words she put on paper. She did not feel what you might imagine she'd feel.
"But the girls have to sit there, advertising the fact that they are menstruating! How awful, how embarrassing!" But that's just how Malick would feel, within her own cultural setting. In a cultural setting where girls regularly reveal that they are menstruating, it could be different. It's not impossible, is it, that girls secretly enjoy broadcasting their sexual maturity to the group--they might even (if truth be told) like giving the boys something interesting to think about!
As a parent, I have discovered over and over again that what you think young people must feel is not always what they do feel--especially on issues having to do with their bodies. For example, sex education in Texas involves an absolutely batty curriculum, where each kid has to buy a 10 pound bag of flour, decorate it like a baby, and carry it everywhere for a week. This is supposed to teach them not to have premarital sex. I assumed kids would dread and resent this, and find the whole thing a burden.
The truth is that kids take this required class as soon as they can, because the flour baby week is so much fun. They decorate the bags of flour in hilarious ways, and have great fun throwing them around for a week.
So--take the picture with a grain of salt. It does tell you about an injustice. The girls are behind the boys, and the menstruating girls don't have the privilege of praying. It does not tell you what it's like to suffer that injustice. An injustice is an injustice, however it feels, but we do respond differently, depending on the victims' experience.
For example, it's an injustice that girls don't get to put away the cafeteria tables at the elementary school my kids attended. The idea is that they're too weak. Not fair, not true, not a good message, and I think cafeteria duty is considered a privilege. But how strong a response is warranted? You can't know the answer, unless you let the girls speak for themselves. You cannot just look at photographs and pretend you understand.