What critics of 'period leave' ignore: Fallout of inherently gendered world impacts every aspect of women’s lives

Predictably, the pushback to Zomato’s seemingly progressive step typifies the usual response to any reproductive health reform with women at the centre.

Anvisha Manral August 17, 2020 17:45:54 IST
What critics of 'period leave' ignore: Fallout of inherently gendered world impacts every aspect of women’s lives

In a move aimed at busting the stigma and shame around menstruation, Indian food delivery giant Zomato announced a new ‘period leave’ policy on 8 August, swiftly reviving the long-running discourse around the polarising subject. Allowing up to 10 additional leaves a year for menstruating employees, including transgender persons, the policy was extolled — and denounced — on social media timelines, exacerbating the gulf between those on either side of the debate. I, for one, was on the celebratory end of the spectrum as memories of my teenage body writhing in pain and hot water bags held against my throbbing abdomen came flooding back. (Or of the day when, at 16, I had to be carried by a male teacher to the medical inspection room, after fainting from a loss of blood.) But I wasn't surprised by this seemingly irreparable divide on opinions about 'period leave'.

Predictably, the pushback to Zomato’s seemingly progressive step typifies the usual response to most health reforms with women at the centre. And as observed in previous responses, the chorus opposing the reform comprises men and women. In this case, scores of people have already come forward to declare that menstruation has never stopped women from going to work in the past, so why introduce the room to rest now? It is this all too familiar confidence, which dictates that governments, institutions and men, understand a woman’s body better than the woman herself — a fallacy that has come to colour the ‘period leave’ debate as well. Unfortunately, several women have also joined this fold, which has made it easier to invalidate individual menstrual experiences. Moreover, women who suffer from debilitating period pain, or even disorders such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis haven’t featured adequately in the discourse. Either they are absent from the narrative or the narrative is dismissive of their experiences, as if they are miserable for envisaging a corporate structure where their needs are automatically accounted for, in the form of menstrual leave.

Among the misgivings expressed about providing menstruating employees the ‘option’ to avail of period leave, is the increased possibility of discriminatory hiring policies within organisations. Many seem to be of the opinion that implementing such a policy would engender bias in promoting or employing women due to the reduced hours of work. However, in adopting this line of reasoning, the onus of not being discriminated against is placed conveniently on the menstruating person, and not the organisation itself. Needless to say, it is the company that will need to ensure that no menstruation-based differentiation is upheld within the workplace, because in the absence of an open dialogue within occupational hierarchy, women and transgender employees would continue to run the risk of bearing the unfair cost of having access to paid leaves for menstruation in an unconducive environment.

Another interesting response that has more takers than it should, is the idea that women will somehow find a way to ‘misuse’ the ‘period leave’ policy. It is important to remember that this isn’t an isolated thought – it is the absurd yet dangerous supposition that women aren’t reliable sources of their own experiences and more prone to tell lies. This baseless assumption, which finds a whole chapter in Rebecca Solnit’s landmark collection of essays, Men Explain Things to Me, impedes feminist movements across the world, now including the menstrual movement, and was most recently observed in the #MeToo wave. Another telling takeaway from this dialogue has been just how central work is considered to men’s lives, while on the other hand, women must go beyond the practice of going to work to prove they are as career-driven – as if they are wired to find excuses to slack off at work.

Additionally, over the past few days, a rather unsettling trend of disparaging ‘privileged’ working women for hailing and demanding menstrual leaves for the private sector has gained considerable ground on social media. This sulphurous rhetoric, which most women experience in the real and virtual world for asking for something outside of what’s been handed to them, has been decoded by Solnit in her book: “Women get to choose between being punished for being subjugated and the continual punishment of subjugation.” Similarly, in viewing paid leaves for menstruation as a ‘luxury’, critics of the policy have decided that urban women, who haven’t faced distinguishable oppression, are undeserving of it. It’s almost as if the system recognises that women’s lives are built around the struggle to secure ‘access’, but it keeps that access – to rights, spaces, opportunities – beyond their reach through conscious gatekeeping.

Also in the large chorus of protesting voices, seem to be those who believe that taking a day or two off in the middle of the month will ‘ghettoise’ women in the professional landscape. Meditations like such sometimes ignore the fact that our world is inherently gendered, and that the fallout creeps into each aspect of women’s lives – the workplace not being impervious to these prejudices. Therefore, furthering the notion that it is not these existing prejudices which can affect the trajectory of women’s lives in the workplace and outside but just the things women do to circumvent them, makes it difficult to hold the system accountable. This reasoning is further explained in an essay on maternity rights in Feminist Perspectives on Employment Law by Anne Morris and Thérèse O'Donnell, which proposes that it is often assumed that “any lingering inequalities must, by definition, result from the choices which women make rather than from conscious or unconscious bias”.

Morris and and O’Donnell’s observation leaves us with troubling questions about what the road looks like for menstrual reforms: Will not having a period leave policy in place somehow remove the prejudices entrenched in the networks women function in, or make it easier for women to circumvent them? Can accepting biological differences do more good than relegating them to the background while pretending they do not impact our lives if left undisturbed? Or is there no bigger danger to the feminist movement than the period leave policy?

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