This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Daniel Fernandes. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

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

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
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  1. Evana Mukherjee

    Barkha Dutt has had some controversial opinions in the past. This, however, is not one of them. Period-leave IS regressive as a policy, and I, as a woman, would be much better off without it.

    That you pointed out how if men had to undergo the monthlies, they would be granted leave without a care in the world about what women think, is in itself a very good point that invalidates your entire response. The world we will in today, and have been living in since time unknown, has been largely male-dominated. Given the circumstances, and ignoring the utopia that you’re dreaming of, a period-leave policy for women will not only allow men to curtail our involvement in the corporate world but also allow companies blatant preferential treatment of their male employees. Office space is a brutally political environment and any excuse that deems an employee unfit can and WILL be used against them, regardless of their gender. Let’s not forget that companies only care about bottom-line, and if 50% of the workforce (presumably women, although that is a very exaggerated %) starts taking leaves depending on when their cycle takes place on the calendar, you’ll be left with a LOT of employees with a LOT of holidays throughout the month. That in itself is a very big liability. This threatens corporate women more so than sexism ever has, because it looks like WE, the feminists who yell equality day in and day out, came up with it.

    Also, a little bit of biology for you ; period cycles vary from person to person i.e., some women have cycles lasting 15 days, and some have cycles lasting 28 days or more. Do you know what that means? Some women could be taking 2 days off a month alone.

    Dutt is right in having pointed out that women who experience extreme pain during their monthlies should be allowed leave due to medical reasons. The period-leave puts all women under one large umbrella of adults who cannot function due to being “on the rag”. The world will continue pandering to patriarchy, whether or not this policy prevails.

  2. Tamal Sheikh

    Mr. Daniel seems like a male feminist who doesn’t know how sexism works in practice and especially in the brutal corporate world.

  3. Nayan Bhushan

    Its unbeleivable how a man understands the sentiments of most women when some women themselves are against bettering their own lives. This is the reason women have been left behind, not bcause of men but because women themselves have no unity amongst them and sadly dont empathise with fellow women in pain. You sir are a gem and wish we had more men like u! 🙂

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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