Dear Barkha Dutt, By Calling Period Leave ‘Stupid’ You Are Letting Down Women
Bedatri Datta Choudhury
Dear Barkha Dutt,
At the outset, we will confess that we grew up admiring you, wanting to be you. When we saw you reporting from Kargil, we knew for the first time that this was something a woman could do! And it opened up so many possibilities for us and girls growing up with us.
We are glad you are an unabashed and proud feminist, as are we. Which is why it feels weird to have to explain this to you, in response to your less than favourable take on “period leave”.
We as women have been socially conditioned for too long to not even take our own pains seriously. It only gets “serious” enough when we can’t walk anymore, when we are passing out…
One of us would get terrible menstrual cramps when we were younger—lying down on the stomach against the cold linoleum floor and whimpering was the only way out. We have friends who would have to miss school altogether. Later in life, we had female colleagues who would be nauseous and wincing in pain at work—sitting on their computer clutching their lower abdomen on a Friday morning (no one could take unintimated leave on a Friday or a Monday at the workplace). The thing is, if you don’t get painful, uncomfortable periods, you don’t have to take menstrual leave. If you do, then you should. We don’t think that makes us any less feminist, or makes this policy “harebrained” and “stupid” or any of those names you as a feminist chose to call what other women are demanding as a right.
We have the TV telling us we can climb hostel gates on the first day of our period, we can go camping, we can do somersaults but honestly, we are too tired of living up to these expectations of strength.
A friend’s ankle hurt for weeks before she saw a doctor, and the night before her x-ray, she said, “It’s obviously not a fracture because I can walk around.” We as women have been socially conditioned for too long to not even take our own pains seriously. It only gets “serious” enough when we can’t walk anymore, when we are passing out from menstrual cramps and when we just can’t move because our lower stomachs are on fire. Till then, every cure is a dose of Meftal or a dab of Boroline. How long are we going to keep building this pharmaceutical market around our lives and pains, and let people make money off this while we go on suffering side effects and increasing drug resistance? Women who would take one Meftal when they were 17, now take three at 28. Why does anyone need to pop painkillers and get to work if one doesn’t want to or have to?
[T]he idea that biological women have to build themselves around a work culture which won’t acknowledge their realities must also be challenged and changed.
Also, can we stop making women out to be these irresponsible people who are always looking for an excuse to get a day off? We are sure even with the leave in place, deadlines will be met and met effectively. It is all about that choice, about the option being available to us.
A workplace’s policies should reflect the workforce’s diversity and acknowledge that women menstruate every month! If men menstruated or had any other physical condition that altered their hormones, their bodily functions and caused varying degrees of pain every single month, then they too would have been eligible for a leave.
Childbearing and menstruation are both biological realities (and nothing to do with “biological determinism”) , so how are they not comparable? They are not a social or cultural construct we can alter or fight. While (most) women can at least choose to have a child or not, we can’t even choose whether or not we bleed!
Looking beyond the binary, for many trans people, the presence or absence of blood and baby-producing ovaries/uterus can still mark a crucial difference towards transition. It’s sad to know, therefore, that you think these two biological functions are not comparable—some might say it goes against a basic understanding of biology itself.
The idea is not to create barriers, but more enabling spaces. No grass ceiling was ever broken by not talking about it!
Just as the idea that child rearing is not a woman’s job alone, and should be challenged through a family leave, as you rightly pointed out, the idea that biological women have to build themselves around a work culture which won’t acknowledge their realities, must also be challenged and changed.
We don’t think anything can be challenged or changed if we deny our realities just to avoid “dumb jokes by male colleagues” or worry about “what the army might have said”. We’re certain that women engaged in combat will not opt for such leaves when at the frontlines. But should they at least have the option to do so when not engaged in combat? We certainly think so! The idea is not to create barriers, but more enabling spaces. No grass ceiling was ever broken by not talking about it!
One out of every five women who you dismiss as “elite and spoiled women, demanding the right to stay at home” has PCOS in India. That means they have irregular periods, and when they do have them, they can be excruciatingly painful. There is no real cure for PCOS. A co-worker turned to acupuncture when every medicine failed and guess what, no insurance even covered the procedure.
Would you as a female employer, for instance, even with all your views, deny your domestic help who engages in extremely strenuous physical labour, if she demands a menstrual leave?
Imagine! If leading media houses, IT companies, NGOs, decided to offer one day (first or not) of optional period leave to women every month, we certainly think it would help in breaking some of the stigma around menstruation. For those who are concerned that this would be a “financial loss” for companies and organisations, we can only remind them, that the labour movement had to fight for eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, and eight hours to do what you will. What is a norm now was touted as a catastrophe then.
We don’t think women who would opt for a period leave don’t understand or support the struggles of women without access to menstrual hygiene, or those braving social taboos. Feminism, the way we have known it, does not mean ticking one box and forgetting the rest. It is really all about intersectional politics that acknowledges the barriers that women from cross-sections of society face at home and work. Would you as a female employer, for instance, even with all your views, deny your domestic help who engages in extremely strenuous physical labour, if she demands a menstrual leave?
We are grateful you braved out your period and went ahead with work. But this isn’t about you alone—it is about you making life easier for women who come in after you…
We are grateful you braved out your period and went ahead with work. But this isn’t about you alone—it is about you making life easier for women who come in after you, it is about you enabling an environment where they never have to bargain for a clean bathroom for themselves, it is about giving them a choice about whether or not to opt for a period leave. That’s how feminism works. If our great-grandmothers put their foot down and said, “Oh no, my parents paid dowry and so should yours,” neither you nor us would be in a position to have this conversation.
It is sad you had to hide your sanitary napkin at work, and we can only imagine how painful it is to work in sub-zero climates while you are on your period, but we are taking baby steps towards ensuring our younger sisters and nieces don’t have to undergo the same routine just to prove themselves “strong”. It’s sad when you dismiss that. It’s sad how you equate your remarkable yet very limited experience to all women and their experiences everywhere.
So don’t take this tone.