A Response To Barkha Dutt’s Argument That Period Leave Is Regressive

Posted by Daniel Fernandes in Menstruation, Society
August 4, 2017

This morning I read an article written by Barkha Dutt where she illustrates why she thinks period leave is a stupid idea. This is my response to excerpts from that article and why I disagree with what she said.

“In India, even today, when you purchase sanitary pads from the neighborhood store, you can expect the (usually male) shopkeeper to evade your eye. He will wordlessly get a packet from the rear of the store and slip it into a jet-black plastic bag so that no one can see what you bought. It is like a shroud thrown over your monthly awkwardness. One of the big sanitary-napkin brands is called Whisper, a perfect metaphor for how your period should be spoken of — if you must mention it at all”

Spot on! Bingo! On point! Kaafi astute!

“Our menstruation has been used against us in all sorts of ways — to shame us, embarrass us, sexually repress us and, of course, make us feel dirty. Muslim women have told me they are not allowed to offer Namaz prayers during their period. Hindu women have had to petition in court to be allowed inside temples that bar menstruating women. There are homes where girls and adult women are not allowed into the kitchen during their ‘impure’ days”

Okay so here’s a policy that’s inclusive and progressive and helps tackle that very stigma…

“’First-day period leave’ may be dressed up as progressive, but it actually trivializes the feminist agenda for equal opportunity, especially in male-dominated professions. Worse, it reaffirms that there is a biological determinism to the lives of women, a construct that women of my generation have spent years challenging. Remember all those dumb jokes by male colleagues about ‘that time of the month’ or PMS? Well, this idea only serves to emphasize that there is something spectacularly otherworldly about a bodily function”

While it’s great that we want equal opportunity for men and women, it is important to understand and embrace that men and women ARE inherently different and in doing this, we must make these differences work towards our collective advantage and not marginalize each other in any way. Some of these differences like menstruation are physiological in nature and are very real. This wasn’t some theory that was concocted to get any leverage over the other gender.

To say that this policy only serves to emphasize that there is something spectacularly otherworldy about a bodily function is actually quite correct. As a man I will never know what menstruation feels like. As a man I do know however that if this was something men had to deal with instead of women, we’d have a 5 day leave every month, irrespective of how women felt about it.

“Sure, our periods can be annoyingly uncomfortable and often painful, but this reality usually demands no more than a Tylenol or Meftal and, if needed, a hot-water bottle”

I’m glad that you feel that your threshold for pain and it’s remedy should be applicable to all but sadly from what I’ve been told, that’s not how the world works. Period pain is extremely personal and the best approach to this is to let each woman decide their own threshold of tolerance and give them the option of taking the day off if needed. This form of empowerment that’s rooted in empathy is what pushes us forward as a society.

“Around the world, menstruation has been a basis for barriers. (Who can forget then-candidate Donald Trump’s sexist swipe at TV host Megyn Kelly when he said she had ‘blood coming out of her wherever’?) Girls can be denied an education because of cultural taboos, relative poverty and lack of basic facilities during a period — and here are we, elite and spoiled women, demanding the right to stay at home. Does no one see the irony?”

Irony? The same way we see it when we waste copious amounts of food while kids in Africa go starving or leave the tap on while brushing our teeth while millions don’t have access to water? Understand the difference in your comparisons. Being denied access to basic facilities when you’re on your period is not your choice, strips you of your power and is a regressive norm. Being given the choice to take a day off if you need it is quite the opposite. It is empathetic, empowering and progressive.

“Female labor-force participation has declined in India despite economic growth. Only 27 percent of Indian women are in the workforce, the lowest level among the emerging BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa); among Group of 20 countries, India’s rate is better than only Saudi Arabia’s. Instead of focusing our feminist energy on such alarming statistics, goofy ideas such as period leave create grounds for workplace discrimination or, worse, a denial of some roles completely”

So what you’re saying is that instead of focusing on their own work force and framing policies accordingly, organizations that have feminist ideologies must also now find solutions for increasing female labor-force participation? What is the government going to do then?

Barkha Dutt

With regards to workplace discrimination, any organization that denies opportunities to women because of their gender and inclusive policies like this is no better than the social institutions that say that women shouldn’t be allowed into kitchens or temples when they’re on their period. You’re better off working for someone else.

“Some women have raised the issues of endometriosis and extreme menstrual pain. I sympathize — but those are a basis for medical leave, not grounds to make such exceptions the norm as menstrual leave”

Sick leaves that are made available to most employees are minimal in number and are better suited for actual illnesses. Let’s not ignore the workplace taboo of sick leaves either. Ask around about how bosses in India actually shame their employees for feeling unwell or ask for proof of illness in order to grant this leave. We have a work culture that prides itself on not taking any sort of leave, a work culture where in most cases the only measure of hard work is the number of hours/days an employee puts in and rarely output, a work culture where you are made to feel guilty for asking for what you’re actually entitled to. “But didn’t you just take leave recently?” is the standard response to 99% of leave requests of any sort. Now add the already existing taboo of menstruation to this mix and see how it doesn’t work.

“But for women to use the fight against menstrual taboos as an excuse for special treatment is a disservice to the seriousness of feminism”

You say special treatment in a way that implies that women who take this one day off are planning a trip to Disney Land with their gal pals. They’re not! They will most likely stay at home, curled up on a couch, and find comfort in the fact that there are people in this world who understand their pain and give them the space to deal with it instead of telling them to man up and power through it. A woman who sees this support will most likely give back so much more to her employer. Read up on the correlation between employee satisfaction and loyalty/output.

Another argument thrown at me was “the average Indian male is not sensitized to differential needs of women.” The average Indian male should never be the benchmark for any aspect of human existence. Societies evolve when we collectively strive to appease excellence, not average.

If the price of period leave is a few privileged men who murmur behind your back, so be it. Your pain shouldn’t be outweighed by their ignorance. Let the fact that some men have no empathy be their shame and not your burden to bear.

As a man, if you look at period leave as something women will abuse to enjoy time off work, if you judge or discriminate against women who take this leave then you’re just an asshole. Life will give you many opportunities to not be an asshole. This is one of them. Take it!

To sum up, here’s what I think. Period leave is a progressive policy. I feel more organizations should make this option available to women. Let’s not develop policies that only pander to patriarchy. Let’s develop policies that are inclusive and challenge existing norms. If you as a woman don’t feel the need for this leave, good for you, but don’t shame a woman that could benefit from it. Even in nature, a herd of animals is as fast as its slowest member. This keeps the herd together and helps it survive. In the long run, empathy beats marginalization, every single time.

P.S. A lot of organizations are now endorsing leaves on grounds of mental health. I hope we don’t take umbrage at that as well.

Image Credit: Daniel Fernandes/ Facebook