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Should women be entitled to menstrual leave?

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Last week, Zomato announced a new paid menstrual leave policy for its employees, 35% of whom are women. While this is not the first time that a company is announcing such a policy, it has triggered a sharp debate among women themselves on whether this is a progressive move, mere tokenism, or a regressive move. Barkha Dutt and Kavita Krishnan discuss the issue in a conversation moderated by Radhika Santhanam. Edited excerpts:

Barkha, you tweeted that you are opposed to this policy. Zomato is granting 10 days of leave, and whether women avail it or don’t is up to them; it is a choice. So, why do you think this is a bad idea?

Barkha Dutt: My opposition does not come from the number of days that Zomato has announced; it comes more from what I believe this policy represents. I have had to fight to go on certain assignments, to be assigned certain kinds of stories. I know how tilted newsrooms are towards the casual hierarchical supremacy of men. Women have had to fight twice as hard to get to the same place as men. Because I am inherently opposed to the gendering of the workplace, I see period leave as the gendering of the workplace, as a statement of biological determinism, as using biology against women to offer equal opportunities and assignments.

 

In the nature-versus-nurture debate, I have always been on the side of nurture. I believe that social differences and constructs create our differences, not biological essentialism. And I believe period leave is biological essentialism that my feminism opposes.

But don’t you think workplaces should be designed taking into consideration the needs of women rather than ignoring them?

Barkha Dutt: Your question presupposes that it is the need of all women to have a day off. If a woman has a particularly debilitating period, if she has endometriosis or is in a situation where she can’t work, I believe that should qualify under the larger bracket of medical leave.

I have a problem with all women being generalised as women needing menstrual leave. And if the argument against that is that it cuts into normally assigned medical leave, I do not have a problem if medical leave is extended for both women and men for extenuating circumstances a couple of times a month; leave that a man is also entitled to for different problems that we can’t identify. I have a problem with biology-specified medical leave.

Also read | Chennai-based Magzter joins the menstrual leave pack

Kavita, do you think there should be separate menstrual leave or should women just avail of medical leave if they are unable to go to work?

Kavita Krishnan: I understand and empathise with what Barkha is saying. As women who work in a world which is extremely unfair in so many ways, it is a double bind for many women. Women I have spoken to have asked, do we assert our pain and emotional states around the time of our period or will doing so mean that we are conforming to the patriarchal notion that women are not the same as men or not as good as men?

I would like to understand this as a fundamental issue of the relationship between gloriously diverse human bodies and social selves and the world of work. Should workplaces be shaped only for an abstract and one-size-fits-all capitalism or should they be shaped keeping in mind the optimum productivity and comfort of diverse human bodies and selves?

Also read | Is India suffering from ‘period poverty’?

This is a debate that we’ve been having since the 19th century. The debate has been brought up not just in the context of women, but even when it came to the human right to sleep; for an eight-hour workday; for weekends; for bathroom breaks; for food breaks — all these are seen as time stolen from the labour time that the capitalist has bought. I feel that places of work should be reshaped to acknowledge these social divisions and that will help people be more productive.

Also, I am not at all in favour of medicalising menstruation. I don’t think this is about a medical issue, about debilitating pain. It is about our being differently productive around those times and our being able to avail of those differently productive times.

Could you elaborate on how we should reshape workplaces for diverse bodies and selves?

Kavita Krishnan: Let me quote the anthropologist Emily Martin here: “Women are perceived as malfunctioning and their hormones [as] out of balance, rather than seeing the organization of society and work perceived in need of a transformation to demand less constant and disciplined productivity of a certain kind.”

Also read | Time to talk, period

So, the idea is that women are more creative around their period, whereas meeting deadlines and doing certain kinds of work may not be what those particular women choose to do at the time. And this is about women, menstruating people, people with a variety of different abilities and disabilities. Let me give you a simple example: we say ramps should be in places so that people with wheelchairs are able to access these places. Would that be biological determinism? Would we say then that biology is coming in the way of equality?

Barkha Dutt: I see Kavita’s point about diverse selves and the relationship between diverse selves and workplace. And if that is the conversation, if the conversation was not so gendered, I would have been a lot more comfortable with it. I would have been comfortable with the conversation being about easy access to sanitary pads or separate bathrooms — 20% of Indian girls drop out of school after reaching puberty, according to the United Nations. And in large part this happens because of the stigma that continues to exist in large parts of the country around menstruation. So, the conversations I want to have are about destigmatising menstruation, diversity at the workplace, access to sanitary pads or menstrual cups, why religious orthodoxy looks at menstruation as impure, etc.

Also read | At this startup, there is no debate over period leave

If I am a woman fighting to have women as infantry soldiers in the military, and we have a gendered leave policy, can we as women ask to be soldiers on the front-lines? Can we ask to be deployed in conflict zones? The moment we gender our leave policies, we gender our assignments.

Weren’t these the same arguments that were used even when women fought for maternity leave? That they wouldn’t be able to do certain jobs? But feminists fought for it.

Barkha Dutt: Which is why my battle is for parenting leave. There are people who adopt children and that relationship is also no less. If we are truly evolved, we should encourage the same kind of leave for men.

Also read | Period peace

Yes, but parenting does involve the participation of men and women, whereas only women get their period.

Barkha Dutt: So, even if I have no problem during my period, I should get leave because it is specific to my biology? Even if I have no pain, nothing? Parenting is not the same thing as our monthly period. Even our notions of maternity leave are evolving. The most involved organisations have family leave. If there is no equality at home, there is no equality at work. And if we place the responsibility of parenting entirely on women, through some romantic notion of how our biological differences make us different from men, we confirm stereotypes.

Kavita Krishnan: But we are different. There are biological differences, and not just between men and women. If someone requires a wheelchair, we would expect the workplace to be designed to ensure that that person is able to access the workplace and be their best there. People in wheelchairs will be told they can’t do certain jobs. But would we accept that? No, we should be able to redesign workplaces so that all of us can access those spaces. My arguments are not just about gendered differences. My arguments are that workers in all their diversity need workplaces to acknowledge how they are treated.

And let me tell you, period leave in India isn’t some fancy thing that Zomato has just introduced. In Bihar, government employees have availed of it since the 1990s. They asked for it, got it and have been quietly availing of it since then. We went and asked them about their experiences — has it meant more discrimination, have they been treated more differently — and they argued that differential treatment happened even before they had this leave. That differential treatment requires just various excuses and this is just one excuse among men.

Also read | Batting for right information on menstrual health

Barkha, you had said on Twitter that such a policy would shut the doors for women and that you would shut them too for someone who thinks this is a good time to take off. Do you still stand by that?

Barkha Dutt: I think my comment has been totally misrepresented. I do believe many doors will shut for women with a generalised period leave and I believe that someone like me would no longer be able to argue that all jobs and all roles should be kept open for women. Think once again about reporting or fighting war or going into space. It is not because I don’t report on what could be unique female experiences. During my four months on the road reporting COVID-19 for example, one of my reports was the story of a female nurse and her experience bleeding in a PPE. I also had my period twice while wearing a PPE inside a COVID-19 hospital and it was a traumatic experience but nothing that would make me step back from the chance of reporting that very story with all its difficulties. Again, to repeat, once we start accepting the specificity of gender, it weakens our argument against gender barriers. Let us talk in more general, less-gendered terms of an inclusive, equal work space.

Kavita Krishnan: I would also like to respond to this. Any demand for equality and dignity at work has been a pretext for shutting the door on women. For that matter, even men availing of parental leave are subjected to discrimination. The idea that women demanding or availing of period leave should/would be sacked is much like the idea that women complaining of sexual harassment at work should/would be sacked, or would not be hired.

Also read | How a tactile book helps visually impaired women deal with their period

Isn’t it a biological stereotype to assume that menstruating bodies (or bodies needing wheelchairs) be treated exactly as bodies that do not menstruate or need wheelchairs? I think gender blindness does not bring gender equality. Rather, being blind to gender diversity (and other bodily and social diversities) leads workplaces to be wilfully blind to the various kinds of gender and social discriminations.

Kavita, since you think that period leave should be given, what do you think is the ideal number of days? Do you see this being implemented in the near future?

Kavita Krishnan: I don’t think I or anyone can suggest an “ideal” number of days for period leave. We are in times when employees and workers are having to struggle to defend and implement every single labour law. Even maternity leave and benefits are mostly implemented only where there are unions to fight for implementation. Otherwise, the laws are flouted by employers. The same holds for period leave.

Kavita Krishnan is CPI (ML) Politburo member, and Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association; Barkha Dutt is senior journalist and Editor of Mojo


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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 10:10:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/should-women-be-entitled-to-menstrual-leave/article32407772.ece

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