On 28 September, 2018, The Supreme Court of India announced its groundbreaking verdict on an extremely controversial issue — the court finally struck down the ban on menstruating women to enter the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. This judgement was lauded for ushering in the hope of progressive and feminist judgement from the apex court.
Now, imagine being a lawyer in this same Supreme court and being fired for taking a one-day leave due to menstrual cramps. This is exactly the harrowing experience of Kiruba Munusamy, a young female Dalit lawyer of the Supreme Court, hailing from Salem in Tamil Nadu. How paradoxical.
Unfortunately, Kiruba was on the receiving end of two-pronged discrimination — her identity as a Dalit overlapping with her identity as a woman. Throughout her career, she has had to face immense discrimination based on caste, and her accounts reveal harrowing details of prima facie discrimination prevalent in the apex court. In an interview with The Print, Kiruba said:
“I, myself, in my 10 years of practising law, have faced discrimination as a first-generation Dalit woman lawyer who did not get to join a senior advocate’s office. Most of the time, as a young independent lawyer presenting my case, or when a senior advocate appears as the opponent, I have been literally asked to shut up. Many of my women colleagues have the same complaint.
“On the other hand, the sons, daughters and juniors of the judges and advocates are treated specially, with comfortable jokes and witticisms, inside courtrooms. I have also witnessed judges greatly encouraging those clans by granting stays and positive orders even on occasions where they request adjournments.”
The senior advocate who fired her in 2015 for taking menstrual leave is reported to have said that this constant requirement of leaves for women is why he avoided hiring female juniors and thought male juniors were a better option since they could work all the time. This comment itself comes from a place of extreme privilege and insensitivity as it fails to recognise that menstruation and the associated pains are not luxurious choices made by menstruators.
A 2017 study conducted by the British Medical Journal posits: “Menstruation-related symptoms cause a great deal of lost productivity, and presenteeism is a bigger contributor to this than absenteeism.”
This is natural. If a menstruator is left with no choice other than having to work through excruciating menstrual cramps, it will inevitably affect the quality of their work. As a society, we have commodified human beings to the extent that women are expected to function despite being sick, and when this sickness emerges from menstruation, they are bashed for it.
Dysmenorrhea (or menstrual cramps) is the most widespread menstrual disorder. According to Pubmed Central, almost 84% of menstruators experience menstrual cramps of some form through the course of their menstrual cycle. Symptoms of dysmenorrhea include pain in the abdomen, vomiting, migraine, diarrhoea, low back pain, pain radiating down to the legs, extreme fatigue, etc.
Hence, it is natural that menstrual cramps would drastically affect the normal functioning of the body. In such a scenario, campaigns for menstrual health rightly promote the need for paid menstrual leave. According to non-menstruators, menstrual leave would be an unfair privilege — as if menstruating every month isn’t an unfair “privilege” already.
This could have been passed off as an issue of discrimination based on gender. However, the senior advocate told Kiruba that he had only hired her since she was a Dalit, that he “pitied her”, and that she did not deserve to be working for the top court. Most of us are quite familiar with this popular discourse of attacking Dalits by projecting them as undeserving, be it with regard to the issue of reservation in jobs or admission to educational institutions.
The Constitution was forged with the vision of alleviating social disparities based on caste, but even after 71 years of its adoption, the caste question continues to be a weapon to belittle and harass Dalits in every sphere of their lives. This is precisely why caste cannot be overlooked while campaigning for the rights of menstruators and the sensitivity towards them.
When one is a Dalit, they come under the axe of discrimination based on caste as an addendum to the already existent discrimination based on their gender identity and identity as a menstruator. Conscious and unconscious casteism remains embedded within the social fabric, despite a plethora of affirmative actions.
Apart from actively campaigning for the equity of Dalit women in the workspace, Kiruba is also the founder of Legal Initiative For Equality, a training school for legal activism based in Chennai. Kiruba conducts workshops to educate budding lawyers about the need to re-evaluate their internalised casteism to make the legal space more intersectional and inclusive.
In an interview with Amnesty International, Kiruba spoke about how online spaces aren’t safe for women, sharing her experiences of being trolled for her dark skin and dressing choices. We can only work towards securing a safer space for Dalit women through an approach that celebrates their Dalit identity and does not denigrate it.
In the words of Kiruba, “If a change is to be brought, democratically, structural reforms through proportional representation is the only possible way.“
By Astyartha Das