Posted by Shradha T K Lama
In the past weeks, the urban feminist circle has erupted with hues and cries over journalist Barkha Dutt’s article on period leave. Within days came in a series of counter articles condemning her stand. As a mere spectator to all the havoc, I decided to pen down my uneasiness over the debate, its elite nature and the serendipity with which women from marginalised sections fail to see themselves as part of a discourse that is supposed to be a big concern for all women.
Let’s start with the realities at ground zero; sanitary napkin in India is accessible to only 12 percent of the female population. The increasing price over the years has made it more and more inaccessible to a majority of women. Speaking of inaccessibility, to dispatch to a deeper ground, let’s talk about the social order incumbent in India. Caste forms the basis of the social order in North and South India and the North East with its various tribal societies has its own culture and practices.
The experiences of menstrual taboo have been different for women from diverse sections. The social segregation faced by upper caste women wasn’t faced by lower caste women. In the case of Dalit women, the social segregation faced by them was not just for few days of the month but was part of their day to day lives and not only part of their lives but also that of their male counterparts.
Since the debate is centred around leave in work space, let’s talk about women and the right to work in India. The right to work demand is no doubt upper caste in nature because Dalit and tribal women have always worked to feed their families. The question is which strata of women occupy the suave jobs. No matter how heroic their stories may resonate, the upper strata suave jobs are inhabited by upper caste women and we need not dwell on the social frameworks that make these spaces and opportunities accessible to them.
The demand for right to work is upper caste in nature. Dalit and tribal women have always worked to feed their families.
Just a small anecdote before the accusations of me trying to create rifts in ‘progressive feminist’ debates pour in, here I am not trying to deprive savarna women of the experiences of humiliation they’ve had to suffer under the false placard of menstrual taboo but what I hope to achieve by the end of this article is to rejuvenate the voices of oppressed women no matter where and which ego of privilege I might be infiltrating into.
To begin with the ‘personal is political’ slogan, I have over the weeks tried to place the idea of period leave within the day to day lives of the women of my community. Will period leave ever be an option for thousands of Nepali women working as domestic help in the elite colonies of India? If one calls herself feminist then it is necessary to talk about women in the lowest strata of the society. Will period leave ever be an option to those thousands of women cleaning dry latrines everyday and earning a mere INR 120? Will period leave ever be included into the lives of women who for the upper caste elite happen to be in invisible? The maids, the hawkers, the factory workers, the manual scavengers, the contract labourers? The women who if fail to come for a days work have to endure a lump sum cut in their mere salary.
I have often heard a lot on the issue of “choice” in feminism. How feminism is about choice and how it’s wrong to label the feminism of others. I want to ask my upper caste feminist comrades, does the woman who comes to clean your house have anything close to “choice”? Will you avail your maid, your sweeper, your female cook the benefits of period leave?
For the oppressed women, feminism is not about choice, it’s about existence.
Bringing the discussion to the most basic component of menstruation. The inaccessibility of sanitary napkin being incumbent but to also bring to the forefront the power dynamics of cloth and underwear being an alien concept to majority of tribal and Dalit women. In case of Rajasthan, Dalit women used their cholies to soak their blood during their periods till their entire skirt was beyond use. This is also to keep in mind that these same women had no choice to take a day leave and sit at home. They had to work day in and out to feed their families. Those who do avail underwear do not have the luxury of cloth. They have to wash it had reuse it again and again till the very end. The power dynamics and inaccessibility of cloth to both Dalit men/women is known. It is important to remember the history of inaccessibility in terms of small luxuries that were of no avail to marginalised women.
In conversation with a Dalit friend who shared with me her insights on this debate, she told me how if given sanitary napkin for free to the women in her family, they would rather sell it to feed their family than use it. She also told how sacrifice among Dalit women is so natural and selfless. There is no hesitation. The capitalist Brahmanical structure infiltrates the very functioning of the minds and actions of the oppressed. And this very nature of sacrifice has allowed savarna women to occupy such large amount of space in feminist debates. This system built to oppress has turned large population of women into mere statistic. Mere quotations of “I understand the experience of dalit/tribal women” (honestly you don’t, give yourself a break sister).
Will period leave ever be an option for thousands of Nepali women working as domestic help in the elite colonies of India?
The feminist movement in India has been devoid of the experiences of the oppressed. A feminist movement centred around the experiences of Dalit and tribal women has failed to develop. There is, as has always been an attempt to universalize the experience of upper middle class women as “women’s experience”. There are various autonomous Dalit organisations who work day in and day out and there are brave individuals who have fought and survived this mayhem.
But the purpose of writing this has been to resist and fight for a voice that has been so dutifully snatched away from us. I have often heard urban upper caste/class women during discussions pool in little bits about their internships in rural areas in their urban English (making Dalit women feel that their experiences amount to nothing). About how sympathetic they felt for the poor and how they had never experienced rural life before. The present debate is nothing but yet another urban middle class debate devoid of 80 percent of women’s experiences. Yet another debate with small anecdotes here and there about how they “Realise that the lives of the poor is different.”
This is my attempt as a first generation educated tribal woman to resonate my experience and that of the women in my community, to get into the larger picture and stray away from the one line sentences that have described us for years. This is for those oppressed women who work day in and day out to feed their families, for those strong willed women who carved out a different life for their daughter deifying our birth instilled fate. We are that generation of oppressed women who have made a pact to defy nature and embark on a separate journey altogether. Be aware for we cannot be silenced. Not this time.
Shradha is a third year History student at Lady Sri Ram College.
Featured Image Credit: Victoria Ly