I cannot remember when I’ve not had painful menstrual cramps. My 20s were spent making several adjustments, small and large, to my everyday life to accommodate the onset of pain and discomfort that menstruation never once failed to bring. Among other things, that meant ensuring that important reporting projects could not be scheduled around that time and that any kind of travel would only bring additional distress in addition to what I was already experiencing.
It isn’t foolproof though. No matter how much meticulous planning and scheduling goes into ensuring that my periods never coincide with important days and events, my body has a mind of its own, betraying and subjecting me to additional distress that I’ve always felt that I had done nothing to deserve. The nausea, headaches, and cramps are so severe that it is impossible to get out of bed. On good days, I’ll manage to shovel in a few spoonfuls of food and sips of water, but that is about it.
However, when I see people rail against period leaves, I’m not surprised. In the past decade, I may have just about heard all that I possibly could, where women’s experiences with period pain and discomfort are so easily dismissed, not only by men, but by women as well.
So when Barkha Dutt takes to Twitter claiming that ensuring period leaves somehow means that women cannot join the “infantry, report war, fly fighter jets, go into space”, I say, please join that club. Join that club of all those men and women who’ve gone out of their way to dismiss the experiences of others simply because it is unfamiliar to or inconvenient for them.
Sorry Zomato, as woke as your decision on #PeriodLeave is, this is exactly what ghettoizes women and strengthens biological determinism. We cannot want to join the infantry, report war, fly fighter jets, go into space, want no exceptionalism and want period leave. PLEASE.
— barkha dutt (@BDUTT) August 11, 2020
A decade ago when I first heard my closest friend criticise a woman who said she was experiencing menstrual cramps and needed rest, I was horrified. A’s belief at that time was that it was a biological occurrence and that women needed to put up with it. What followed was an intense disagreement and also a sense of disappointment that A had such strong, unsympathetic views regarding another woman’s physical discomfort and biological function. Now, when we recently spoke on the subject, the ten years have changed her—for one, she said that period leaves would be a welcome change for women who need it. Imagine my surprise.
S, a Kolkata-based graphic novelist and LGBTQ rights activist, doesn’t experience menstrual cramps but believes period leaves are not anti-feminist or necessarily a step back for women. “Calling it anti-feminist discounts serious problems that women face due to menstruation…We have different bodies. Nobody is weaker for menstruating. It is a fact of life, as are the problems associated with it. So I don’t think it makes women weaker in any sense to ask for leaves,” S told me.
A few years ago, a man with no medical expertise felt that he was equipped to lecture me about my own body’s functions. You see, periods were inconvenient for him for a gamut of reasons. It gets worse. Not only do I suffer from dysmenorrhea, I also suffer from premenstrual syndrome (PMS), that starts a week before the menstruation descends upon me. But it really gets worse. I also suffer from intense Mittelschmerz pain that arrives in the middle of the menstrual cycle, forcing me to stop everything for 24 hours till it subsides. According to the bizarre calculations of that self-proclaimed male mathematical ‘genius’, these pains meant I wasn’t well for 15 days in a month. Very inconvenient for him apparently, and also an inexplicable number that doesn’t really add up.
“Well, have you tried pain-killers?” No, not at all. In my two decades of experiencing menstruation every month, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to try painkillers, or consult doctors, or try my grandmother’s home remedies, or take doses of Meftal-Spas, or anything I could lay my hands on to alleviate the pain. No, I would have waited for a man to mansplain periods to me in my 20s.
He is hardly the only one to rail about the purported inconvenience of periods. Responses to Dutt’s tweet make for an enlightening read on what some men—and women—think about women getting time off from work due to menstrual cramps.
During a conversation with P, a journalist in Delhi, we discussed how Dutt’s views may just be a result of the work environment she faced when she first started out in her career some two decades ago and the challenges that came along with it. What is difficult to understand is why women cannot be in the “infantry, report war, fly fighter jets, go into space” while also acknowledging that they need a few days off every month? Why can’t women do all of those things but also have the choice of taking time off if needed? Should we be deprived of opportunities because of the biological function of our bodies? Why should women have to face a loss of pay because they need some time off work? Why should women be denied opportunities because their bodies need rest for two or three days? “Demasculinize formal working spaces and make it sensitive to women’s needs,” P said. That starts not just with how we perceive work environments, but also the design of work spaces.
There hasn’t been a lot of discussion on the architecture and design of work spaces and how it is connected to women’s experiences and challenges in that environment. Modern work spaces and offices weren’t originally constructed to accommodate women, primarily because the workforce was largely all-male for a long time. In western countries, women joined the labour force in the late 19th century, but mass employment began in earnest during the Second World War, particularly in the United States.
Despite women’s participation in the workforce in urban and rural organised and unorganised sectors, the spaces themselves weren’t upgraded to accommodate girls and women. That came around in the 1960s. Here we are talking about something as basic as workspaces with toilets specifically for women, for instance. Think about this: are workspaces today really sensitive towards women’s needs and requirements? If yes, then what do you think has been done to create such spaces? Are our workspaces today truly demasculinised?
I’ve come across arguments that have gone as far as to say that period leaves would somehow skew things in favour of women. In 2020, when companies are considering mental health leave for employees, there are those who claim that advocating for period leaves somehow doubles down on the stance that women are physically ‘weaker’. Does my experience of debilitating period pain for two to three days every month make me a “weaker” person? Does asking for time off during menstruation, a biological function, reduce me to my gender, a social construct?
Doesn’t it really come down to this: being considerate about another individual’s health requirements? Perhaps you don’t have painful periods, but Suzy Q sitting near you does. Why deprive women of the ability to make a choice? Shouldn’t a woman be able to take that leave if she requires it without having to make calculations about all the ways in which she may be at a disadvantage if she does need that time off but feels that she cannot without losing out in some way?
Discussing period leaves and the body politics associated with it also comes from my place of privilege where I can even begin to argue that it should be a matter of choice. For so many women in urban and rural areas in India earning daily-wages, forced into modern slavery, this isn’t something they can contemplate. For instance, in Maharashtra’s sugarcane belt, for years, contractors who employ rural women as harvesters in the fields have engaged in a pattern of exploitation by forcing them to undergo hysterectomies so that they wouldn’t take two days off from work during their periods.
There are similar stories from across the country where women’s periods are controlled and stopped by factory owners and contractors to increase productivity and profits. In other work environments, for many women, a loss of a day’s wages would significantly impact her family’s income, forcing her to work in conditions during her periods that may be physically challenging or inconvenient. If a woman needed this leave due to menstrual pain, and would be ensured that her day’s wages would be given to her, what do you think she would have chosen?
Perhaps once we start normalising periods, being considerate towards and getting sensitised to other’s needs, acknowledging that everybody has different requirements, and that cookie-cutter regulations cannot be enforced on people’s bodies, period leaves can then percolate down to the unorganised sector and rural workspaces, where women have far fewer choices and freedoms than I do. It might also just help remove the stigma and the label of inconvenience that has been historically attached to periods.
Why cannot this space exist for women where they have the ability to choose if they want to avail of period leaves? Isn’t that one of the tenets of feminism? Giving women the freedom to choose?
Neha Banka is a journalist based in Kolkata, India.