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#Voices: No, Granting Period Leaves To Women Employees Isn’t Sexist And Won’t Hurt Equality. Here’s Why.

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Zomato, one of India’s biggest food delivery companies, announced period leaves for its female employees. Cue in a debate that’s been ongoing for quite some time. Some say that paid period leaves could hamper the equality movement and is quite anti-feminist. Employers will hesitate from hiring more women if on top of maternity leaves, they have to give additional 10 (more or less) leaves to the female workforce for periods. Others believe it is a step towards de-stigmatising menstruation, and making the workplace more attuned to its employees’ needs. What do I think? I think, how can you write a restaurant review when you haven’t even sampled its menu, eh? Let’s nibble at all the arguments, shall we? Before we give our ratings.

Also Read: #Trending : Zomato To Now Give Its Female Employees 10 Extra Period Leaves A Year. Finally, A Step Towards De-Stigmatising Menstruation!

It was a Friday when I got my periods. So I decided to work. It’s just one day before the weekend hits, after all, and I’m working from home. It’ll be fine, I thought. Narrator: It wasn’t fine. A couple of hours into the work day, and Aunt Flow cast the Cruciatus Curse on my uterus. I was writhing in pain, unable to sit on my comfy couch with the heat-emanating laptop so close to my abdomen. The dining table chair hurt my back, and all I wanted to do was lie down. I popped a Meftal for the pain. But then, the Dementors came. I felt irritated from a horrible mood swing that couldn’t keep up with my slow Internet. Even dark chocolate didn’t help.

Resignedly, I called in sick for the rest of the day, but not before specifying explicitly that it was because of ‘really bad period cramps’. Did I need to? Not really, I could’ve said “I am feeling under the weather’ and nobody would’ve questioned it. Then why did I do it? Maybe because I wanted to indicate that I wouldn’t waste a leave on a Friday for anything less serious than excruciating pain. Or maybe because, what if I wanted to take a day-off next week and was told, “Oh didn’t you just take one on Friday?” Or maybe I didn’t want anyone to think I was weak to not handle just a little bit of pain. That too while I was in the comfort of a work-from-home setup.

Ever since I read this fan analogy that compared PMS to the dementors from Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, I’ve never felt it better articulated. As someone who has always had annoying periods because of my weight, I’ve always been told I should rally through them because I’m not the first woman in the history of womanhood to have them. The fact that I don’t even have PCOS (not that women who do get any more tact) is further reason for people, even other women, to dismiss my period sufferings as easily manageable.

As Barkha Dutt put it in her Washington Post article that called period leaves ‘stupid’, 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.”

Sure, ma’am. Been there, done that. Still hurts like a b****. You’re lucky if yours don’t or you can manage with a painkiller. I don’t need to conform to the same idea though.

Reading this made me feel like Harry Potter, who thinks he is weak for fainting at the sight of dementors. He is ashamed until Professor Lupin tells him that he suffers worse because he has more horrors in his past that his schoolmates can’t even fathom. Just chocolate won’t do, hon. You need to learn how to ‘Expecto Patronum’ and cast a Patronus that can chase those dementors away.

And that, my friends of all genders, is why it isn’t wrong for women to Expecto Period Leaves. Paid ones. 

Periods are such a subjective experience that women have. From pain to low blood pressure, nausea, cold sweat, digestive issues like gas and acidity, pain, irritability, mood swings, drowsiness, diarrhea, headache, acne, bloating, sore breasts, muscle fatigue…. And then, there are those who actually resemble the carefree young women from those sanitary pad ads, who happily go on dates, wear white pants and win competitions during their periods. On the first day of my period, I want to curl up in my bed, with my teddy bear, some chocolate and an episode of The Vampire Diaries (so bloody, it’s cathartic) because Damon Salvatore’s ‘eye thing’ can make me flip the switch on my pain and feel nothing. But the very next day, I might be up for some cooking, feel extra creative and write an excellent blog post, or even go out dancing with friends.

Every woman has a different period experience, every month. Does that mean I get to be judged for wanting a period leave on some days? Umm, definitely not. And here’s the thing. We don’t need to categorise how individual women feel about during their periods, whether there is pain or not, or whether their periods are discomforting to a degree of needing a day off or manageable enough to slog through a few hours of work. All women bleed! And it is a huge deal which, unless you go through it, you wouldn’t understand. Therefore, we cannot dismiss period leaves as an option simply because some men’s feelings are going to be hurt by it. 

It would’ve been the same with maternity leaves, had the pain that women go through during labour not been witnessed by us in reality as well as on screen. Had a mother’s role not been deemed more crucial than a father’s, we’d be fighting for equal durations of maternity and paternity leaves too. Unfortunately, we’re discouraged from talking about menstruation, and masquerading our pain with “not feeling well” often. As for the rest, PMS-ing is now used to belittle and dismiss women’s reactions as ridiculous. 

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But you know what? No matter how many times I’d argue and say, “No uterus, no opinion,” the men who want to get offended, will get offended. And I get it, we’re striving for equality here, so their voices must be heard too. So I asked men and women both what they thought about women being given additional period leaves. The general consensus was not a surprise. Most men and women were very tactful when it came to understanding what women go through during their periods. I read how fathers, boyfriends, husbands, brothers, coworkers, guy friends believed period leaves were a great idea because they saw the women in their lives struggle hard to slog through a day of pain and discomfort, or just basic lack of motivation to get work done.

However, both men and women agreed that this would deter employers from hiring more women in the workforce, This phenomenon is already rampant because of maternity leaves and other domestic obligations that can cause female employees to be perceived as less committed to their jobs, and therefore, a bad investment.

Also Read: #Culture: Female-Led Workplaces Have So Much Potential, If Only We Could Get Rid of Toxic Femininity. Why Do Women Bully Women?

However, when women responded to my question with the above answer, I almost always detected an undercurrent of support for period leaves. “I think this is a great idea but what about the men who don’t understand…” or “We’re still going to get trolled about demanding equality but asking for period leaves….” And this puts the elephant in the room right in the spotlight. We aren’t worried that period leaves would be considered inequality. We’re still bothered by how men would perceive us taking leaves because we bleed once a month and it hurts. Women who walk into war, sports fields and boardrooms are often told to not show weakness, because that is the biggest detriment to our demands for equality. How can you be equal to men if you are weak? How can you ask for the same salary, promotion, position, roles, as men, if men think you are weaker?

As always, Gloria Steinem to the rescue. Her brilliant 1978 essay, ‘If Men Could Menstruate’ is an eye-opener for every man, woman, troll who thinks period leaves are stupid. And her concluding line is a favourite:

“If men could menstruate, the power justifications could probably go on forever.”

And that’s so darn true, isn’t it? If now, tomorrow, by some miracle because it is 2020, men began bleeding on a monthly cycle, within days you’d see reforms pop up. That blue stain in sanitary pad ads wouldn’t just turn red, it would be a ghastly sight because men would want you to know the exact specifications of the trouble they’re going through every month. And if a man worked a 12-hour shift on their first day of periods, he’d want a comp-off the next day. He’d probably get it too.

Alas, women get both, the period pain and the judgement for seeking relief. And men get to make even this women’s issue about them and say things like, “Employers won’t hire women then…”. I hear a lot of that from men who claim they’re talking from a place of concern for women’s equality struggle. What I don’t hear are arguments from men saying, “We’ll make sure period leaves don’t get used as a discriminatory policy against hiring, paying and promoting female colleagues,” or “Hey, as an employer, I’ll ensure that my male employees don’t feel overburdened by additional work just because I’ve allowed my female employees to avail additional period leaves.”

If a workplace like Zomato wants to try and implement this policy, and show the rest of us if it can successfully troubleshoot any issues that might arise, shouldn’t we be the least bit curious and encouraging as opposed to narrow-minded? The onus here isn’t on the women to prove they are productive employees despite getting extra leaves. The onus is on the organisation and us as a society to ensure effective removal of bias from this situation and normalise it. If you think I am being overly optimistic, you’d do well to remember that the 40-hour work week wasn’t always the norm. It became one after workers during the Industrial Revolution rallied for it together. If weekends off can become a normal justified expectation, then why can’t period leaves? Menstruation is as much a corporeal issue as physical and mental exhaustion from labour is. It may seem bizarre now, but once we get used to it and the novelty wears off, we won’t give it a second thought. As for the haters, they’re going to hate, no matter how many eons have passed. Aren’t people still complaining about the length of women’s skirts on the tennis court and stuff like that?

All that being said, one of the biggest arguments against period leaves is, pretty much, ignorance. The stigma attached to menstruation ensures that most women in our country don’t even want their families to know that they have their periods, much less inform their employers and colleagues about it. That taboos that are in place—from not visiting temples to isolation and shunning—ensure that women are made to feel dirty and diseased when they are menstruating. In fact, the rules of quarantine isolation amidst this coronavirus pandemic are pretty similar to what women are made to go through during periods! Don’t touch this! Stay inside your room! Use separate utensils! Don’t let people know you are positive/on periods! Sigh.

So enough of complaints. Do the debates offer up a solution? Luckily, there’s one particular suggestion that I’ve constantly come across. Most men and women believe that period leaves might not be in the best interest of gender equality. Instead, we could focus on a more holistic approach and grant a fixed number of leaves to all employees, under ‘Mental health days’ or similar. This helps women who might not be in the zone to work during their periods, and pacified men who might think they’re getting ripped off because they don’t bleed once a month. If you ask me, this solution could act as the Meftal or hot water bag for this painful debate. But while it does soften the blow, it doesn’t really solve the main issue.

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Women make up 40% of the global workforce. And yet, just to pander to the ego of the majority 60%, we’re being asked to squirm ourselves into whatever space they deem fit to give us? Women have periods. Men don’t. If men did, and the leaves were granted just to women, that would be discriminatory. But that’s not the case, is it? The reason we need separate period leaves is because taking ‘too many sick leaves’ could be perceived a major issue at workplaces. And it’s an issue faced not just by women but men as well. Look at us, still killing off our distant relatives to avail leaves for days when we just don’t feel like working, want to take a spontaneous getaway or are feeling peckish but not really sick. Corporate culture has drilled it into our heads that people who take leaves are not ideal employees, and unless the situation is really dire, taking a leave is a waste. Maybe if that changed, if we had four-day work week, or if we were okay with a relaxed workload on period days/when employees need to take a breather. If talking about periods was normalised as an inevitable occurrence as opposed to a sudden bout of illness…. Maybe then, we won’t need those leaves.

But until we can normalise menstruation, I’d like my paid period leaves to be used (or not used) at my discretion, please. Period.

Also Read: Instagram’s Censorship Of A Black Plus-Sized Model’s Photo Raises Concern. Do Its Policies Have A Racial Bias?


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