It’s 2020: The idea of menstrual leave is long overdue4 min read . Updated: 20 Aug 2020, 09:32 PM IST
Feminism has changed. While some of us were busy being super-women, a generation began pushing the boundaries for women being accepted as different from men but equal
Tucked away in the folds of the debate last week on menstrual or period leave was a silent signal that a generation had moved on, a stubborn taboo smashed. A good thing to happen in a pandemic-induced locked-down year that has seen increased violence against women.
When Zomato’s chief executive officer told his women employees they could take ten days leave a year without having to explain themselves, he sparked off a raging debate—especially among urban educated women. Conservatives were expected to argue with liberals, men were expected to spar with women, patriarchy was supposed to fight feminists. Yet, women fiercely drew verbal weapons against women.
One side vehemently argued that menstrual leave turned “a normal biological experience into a monumental event", “ghettoized women" and would create gendered workplaces where women had fought for decades to be treated at par with men. The other side saw empowerment in women claiming or companies granting menstrual leave. They backed it up with personal accounts of excruciating pain during menstrual cycles that made it impossible to get through a regular work day. Women on both sides were feminists.
There’s the rub. Feminism in 2020 has evolved from what it was in the 90s. While some of us were busy being super-women, juggling homes and babies while trying to be like men in the workplace, dealing with periods and other body changes in a seemingly nonchalant way, a generation of women stood on our shoulders and discarded this idea. They are pushing the boundaries for women being accepted for who we are—different from men but equal. Menstrual leave fits perfectly into this paradigm without shaking feminism.
The challenge is now two-fold: for workplaces to revise their organisation structures and HR practices to embrace this, and for older women who began working back in 1980-90s to accept, indeed welcome, the generational change. We recognized and accepted—howsoever grudgingly—that the workplace then was a male domain, made for men by men, and welcoming of men. To fit in here, to claim equal opportunity, plum assignments, and leadership roles, we were better off initially leaving our femininity at home and becoming one of them—in dress, with language, during smoke breaks or beer nights. The latter were seen as marks of emancipated women at work.
This template worked for many of us then, but it meant papering over or delegitimizing anything that made us different from men or women-like, including periods. Only when they were unbearably painful did we call in sick and filled leave applications with random creative excuses. Had I told my chief reporter then that I could not travel to cover L.K. Advani’s rath yatra because of “those days, you know", I would have been marked as a young, enthusiastic, good reporter but lacking the reliability quotient that my male colleagues brought to the newsroom. So I gritted my teeth, stocked up on supplies of sanitary pads and painkillers, and hoped I would find usable washrooms on the route. Had I let go of that assignment, who knew if I would be handed other major assignments with the possibility of a front-page byline? My male colleagues did not have to worry about this. They smoked in office corners, casually chatting about the sexiness of women colleagues; it was uncomfortable to hear, but better than being the object of such unwelcome attention. I squirmed, protested; they laughed.
Like this, in discomfort or pain, with gritted teeth and the ideal of being like men burning bright, one went on and on. I had bylines on the post-Babri Masjid riots in Bombay, the 1993 serial bomb blasts and its trial that involved the drama around Sanjay Dutt—which meant long waits on pavements outside Arthur Road jail—earthquakes, floods, police encounters, Bollywood-underworld links, Kumbh Melas, the election campaigns of politicians, and more. Women like Barkha Dutt reported from the war front. How could we allow menstrual cycles to get in the way of all this?
The new generation of women say that they do not have to be like men to be considered capable. They are right. When I felt that, I mostly kept quiet because that was the workplace architecture then. Workplaces—certainly new-age, formal ones—have evolved since. They now need to be more inclusive of women’s needs. In 2020, menstrual leave cannot be a privilege, given that millions suffer dysmenorrhea and endometriosis; it must be mandatorily offered. It’s up to each woman to avail of it or not.
The debate is not new, but it has acquired urgency. Menstrual leave is now a powerful concept, a way to re-imagine workplaces as less patriarchal, make them more human and equal. This should not mean fewer work opportunities for women, and the concept should ideally be extended to informal work too. There’s a bill in Parliament, and there are examples from Japan and South Korea, even Bihar, to show that menstrual leave does not affect workplace productivity. Why dither now, why spar?
Smruti Koppikar is a Mumbai-based journalist and columnist writing on politics, cities, gender and the media. She tweets @smrutibombay