Zomato announced the implementation of 10 days of period leave annually to cisgender women, non-binary individuals and trans masculine men to deal with cramps and other menstruation related discomforts. This apparently gender-sensitive decision of a corporation, has received mixed reactions from the feminists across the countries. Few years ago, feminist journalist Barkha Dutt took a stance on the concept of ‘period leave policy’ in the context of India’s social conditioning and extended the same to the Zomato’s decision regarding its period leave policy. According to her, supported by a few feminists, such apparently progressive policies in effect will be used against women to shame, embarrass, sexually repress women and, of course, make them feel ‘impure’. The gist of her argument is that period leave is does not make sense as it reaffirms that there is a biological determinism to the lives of women and will be used against women to keep them away from opportunities.
The discrimination against women, though motivated by patriarchal bias, is justified on the basis of such biological differences. Women not allowed to be a part of actual combat divisions of army or women’s careers being affected by pregnancies etc. are some instances of this. However, to what extent and at what cost should the burden of challenging the abusive system be imposed on the women (or any other marginalised sections of the society) who are the subjects of this discrimination itself? The answer to this question is complicated because, when we talk about women in a capacity of a ‘workforce’, the patriarchal bias is also combined with capitalism, where everyone is required to be a ‘productive resource’. In the capitalistic economy, if people due to their menstruation are not at their most productive, then it is considered to be legitimate to keep them out of the sphere of opportunities. Where everything is about being your most productive self, patriarchal bias against menstruating people, often results in stereotypes (for example, “Let’s not hire or hire women because they take pregnancy leave.“), that aggravates the discrimination.
When we say that the period leave should not be provided to menstruating people, as the same will be misused by the system to keep opportunities away from them, we are facilitating the dangerous narrative that the mental, physical and emotional sufferings of menstruating people, induced by biological differences are not valid and they need to ignore those sufferings to fit in to man’s world if they wants to be successful. It gives the impression that biological differences reducing menstruating people’s productivity for a few days of the month is a flaw in that person and to overcome the same, they must ignore the pain.
Instead, what is not being emphasised on enough, is how we need a more accepting approach towards menstruating people, with all its pains and gains. Another aspect is how menstruating people are kept out of day-to-day activities, because they are considered ‘impure’. When we are advocating period leave on medical grounds and not because we consider menstruating people to be ‘impure’ or ‘dirty’, we are in fact, challenging this stigma and bias as well, to some extent.
It is very important to understand that when we ask for equality of access to the opportunities, that does not mean we need to tailor ourselves to the system that gives us those opportunities, (workplace, in this context). Rather we need to challenge and amend the system which is dominated by men and make our own space within it. If we do not acknowledge our biological limitations caused by menstruation in the first place and just participated in the system popping pills, ignoring pain, we are effectively not challenging the system, but merely trying to fit into a structure, dictated by patriarchal standards. Remember those times when women entered workforce and feminists had to challenge the ‘boys’ club attitude’? Modern day workplaces are nothing short of the boys’ club, where men are often the decision makers, rule makers of every aspect of the employment. Period leave policies could be a small step towards womxn creating their own rules and decisions.
Secondly, Burkha Dutt’s statement regarding how periods can be annoyingly uncomfortable and often painful, however could be merely cured by “no more than a Tylenol or Meftal and, if needed, a hot-water bottle”, is to say the least, a blatant generalisation of all menstruating bodies. Every body is different and the pain or discomfort caused to one cannot be compared. Just because some people are able to work through their periods (because of lesser distress or higher tolerance levels, which is irrelevant), the same standard cannot be applied to all menstruating people. The decision to work through periods or not is an individual choice and period leave policy indeed, is a step towards providing that choice. The idea of extent of physical pain induced by periods, could also be influenced by all the advertisements for sanitary napkins we see, where women are shown to be engaging in activities such as, dancing, sports, acing business meetings and are so cheerful all the time. Where in reality, some of us find it very hard to get out of our bed to puke our stomachs out (yes, nausea is a common side effect of menstruation.) Of course corporates are going to portray periods to be ‘easy-breezy’ process, so that those who do not find such experience as ‘easy-breezy’ can be gaslighted into feeling inadequate and forced to ignore their pain in order to be ‘productive’.
Another argument furnished by those against period leave is how such policies would often result in ‘hiring bias’ or ‘promotion bias’ against women. There are various studies conducted in other countries which show that there is a constant decrease in the number of women availing period leaves in recent times. This is because of the capitalism-patriarchy nexus that make women feel ‘impure’ as well as ‘less productive’ and ‘incompetent’, because these are standards set by and in a man’s world. We have to fight this bias not by blaming our bodies but by blaming the system that allows such bias to cause the discrimination.
While opposing the argument of Barkha Dutt, feminists are suggesting that if period leave could be misused by the system to keep women out of various career opportunities, the same could be true for pregnancy leave. In a capitalistic system, while talking only in terms of ‘productivity’, period leave will affect women’s career opportunities the way pregnancy leave has been affecting. Therefore, hiring/promotion bias could be result in both the cases. At the same time, I feel menstruation and pregnancy are not viewed in a similar light by patriarchy. Pregnancy is celebrated as a ‘boon’ of womanhood and, on the other hand, menstruation continues to be associated with impurity and is seen as ‘disgusting’ or ‘embarrassing’ for women. Therefore, even though both menstruation and pregnancy result in so called ‘lower productivity’ by capitalism’s unrealistic standards, accepting and deconditioning of the bias against menstruation is a slightly harder battle to fight.
Implementation of period leave policies is not automatically going to result in elimination of that bias. But it is definitely a step towards acknowledging and validating the pain suffered by menstruating people, which is currently being ignored. Such policies have to be combined with other gender sensitisation measures for all the employees, in order to unlearn the bias against menstruation.
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