Siti was just 14 when a teacher made her queue up with her classmates for a period spot check, a purportedly common practice in schools to make sure nobody was lying about having their menses to escape the daily Islamic prayer.
There were times when her schoolmates would falsely confess to lying about having their period out of fear of physical harassment, said Siti, who would squirm at the thought of her ustazah invading her body under the guise of school discipline.
“I will grope your vagina to check if you are wearing pads or not,” Siti quoted the teacher during a recent Coconuts interview, shuddering as she spoke those words.
The checks would happen at least thrice a week, said the former student of Penang’s St. George’s Girls’ School, where Muslim students were required to perform evening prayers during Islamic studies. In Islam, Muslim women who are menstruating are not allowed to pray and were required to rest. In Siti’s school, however, those who had their period were at risk of being groped. Penang’s St. George’s Girls’ School did not respond to requests for comment.
Siti, now 25, recalled feeling “super grossed out” at the thought of her teacher feeling her up.
“Because if I am menstruating but I use a tampon.. then how? Would she then finger me and feel me up?” she said, declining to elaborate further on what happened next.
Whenever someone admitted to lying about having their period when they weren’t, the teacher, with a triumphant, smug expression on her face, would escort that person to the prayer room, Siti recalled. Praying during menstruation is also considered sinful in Islam.
“I remember feeling very indignant, you know? … But also not feeling pressed enough to tell my parents,” she said, adding: “I think it’s intimidation and horrible that it comes from a teacher to young women.”
‘Period-checks’ in schools across Malaysia
For years, female students in Malaysia have been making allegations about being forced to show proof of their menstruation. Besides being groped, some mentioned being subjected to vaginal swabs or exposing themselves in front of teachers.
Since last week, Twitter users @TerryDieHeiden and @Nalisaa shared over a hundred screenshots of conversations about the so-called “period spot checks” that apparently came from students all over Malaysia, including those claiming they were accused of conspiring with their schoolmates to share period blood. Some of the exchanges also alluded to sexual harassment, molest, and sexual grooming at the hands of teachers and boarding-school wardens.
More than a dozen schools, including boarding schools, were named in those exchanges, such as “MRSM.” Mara, the governing body behind MRSM boarding schools in Malaysia, has begun an internal investigation into allegations of period spot checks and sexual harassment.
Other schools that have been outed on social media were located in various states including Johor, Pahang, Selangor, and Negeri Sembilan. There were also students from Perlis, Sarawak, and Melaka that came forward. Coconuts was not able to independently verify the claims in those screenshots.
“It’s clear that it’s not just happening in boarding schools, but also public schools, both urban and rural,” Izza Izelan, 33, executive director of the Women:girls nonprofit told Coconuts. “These cases are not discriminatory of their origin.”
Izza herself was subjected to period spot checks more than 10 years ago.
“The teachers or warden don’t believe the girls who say they have periods because, for them, it is an excuse for the girls to skip praying,” the former Pahang boarding school student said. “So in order for them to kind of verify [a person’s] period, they touch your butt to see whether you have your pad on, and actually give you tissue paper for you to swipe your vagina or your panties to show that there’s blood.”
Daily prayers weren’t the only excuse for such checks, according to Izza.
“For boarding schools, you have to participate in sports every Monday to Friday, at 5pm. Some girls get terrible cramps when they are on their periods, and because they can’t participate, they will be checked too,” she said.
Another former student from a Terengganu boarding school, SMK Mak Lagam, who wishes to be known as Mawar, claimed that the warden from her dormitory would poke their private parts with a clothing hanger.
“Our dorm warden was a woman who terrified us. She would use a hanger and poke our vagina to see if we were really wearing a pad, which usually happens to people who didn’t go for maghrib (evening) prayers,” she told Coconuts, recounting the 2006 incident.
“Some of my dorm mates had to show if their pad had blood. They would be reluctant and ashamed to show it. As a student, I just felt scared and ashamed,” Mawar, now 30, said.
For students who may still be at risk of period checks and sexual harassment in schools, Izza urged them to confide in someone they trust or confess anonymously online.
“Find someone that you trust, confide in that person, and tell them so at least you are not carrying this burden of guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation all by yourself,” she said, noting that NGOs like Women:girls, Sisters In Islam, and Awam are also here to help.
“Make the NGOs your friends. Tell them, ‘this is happening to me, what can I do? What’s the next step? I want to remain anonymous, but what can what kind of actions can I take?’” she said, advising victims to come forward or write to an NGO. The Women:girls nonprofit is currently working on a nationwide campaign to educate both students and teachers on the matter.
“We need a nationwide campaign in education, not just for students, but also for adults, because as you can see, the adults are the perpetrators,” Izza noted. “Adults like the teachers, are mostly the ones being given the power and also to care for these children. Although we have our personal and religious views, no matter what it is, you should not impose them on the students.”
As for persecuting the perpetrators, Izza admits that the lack of evidence makes it difficult to hold people to account, “which is why a lot of cases are not being solved.”
But help may be on the way for students, starting with those in boarding schools.
“Mara will not compromise on any misconduct involving those working for Mara, especially when it involves the safety of students at Mara educational institution,” Mara chairwoman Azizah Mohd Dun was quoted as saying on Thursday, while announcing the launch of an investigation into allegations of period spot checks in Mara’s schools.
The Ministry of Education has been silent about the matter. It did not respond to Coconuts’ requests for comment via email and phone since Friday.
Other stories to check out: