Up till today in India, when you purchase sanitary pads from the neighborhood store, expect the shopkeeper (usually male) to evade your eye.
He will wordlessly get a packet from the rear end of the store and slip it into a jet-black plastic bag so that no one can see what you bought. 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.
I am an unabashed, proud feminist. But the social conditioning around menstruation in India is so entrenched that, in my younger years, if I suddenly needed to ask a colleague for a sanitary pad at work, I would carry it wrapped in a newspaper or office stationery.
In all sorts of ways, our menstruation has been used against us – to shame us, embarrass us, sexually repress us and, of course, make us feel dirty. According to some Muslim women, during their period, they are not allowed to offer Namaz prayers. Hindu women have had to petition the court to be allowed inside temples that prohibits menstruating women. Homes exist where girls and adult women are not allowed into the kitchen during their “impure” days.
Now comes a bizarrely paternalistic and silly proposal to further ghettoise us. A campaign in India has suggested giving women a day off for the first day of their periods. I didn’t take this idea seriously when I first heard it. It seemed like the self-indulgent mumbo-jumbo of so-called post-feminists. To my shock, the issue has become a major point of discussion. One media outlet has even adopted this harebrained policy for its female employees.
Period taboo ‘endangering women’s health’, finds study
“First-day period leave” may be dressed up as progressive, but it actually underestimates the feminist agenda for equal opportunity, especially in male-dominated professions. To make it 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.
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.
In rural India, girls are kept away from school due to gaps in menstruation hygiene, social stigma, lack of access to affordable sanitary napkins or toilets and an absence of disposal mechanisms for sanitary pads.
According to a UN report, 20 percent of Indian girls drop out of school after reaching puberty; in sub-Saharan Africa, one in every 10 girls misses school during her menstrual cycle. In Nepal there are “menstrual huts” where menstruating women are isolated.
Menstruation has been a basis for barriers around the world. (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”?) Cultural taboos, relative poverty and lack of basic facilities during a period can make a girl be denied of education- and here are we, elite and spoiled women, demanding the right to stay at home. Does no one see the irony?
In India, despite economic growth, female labour-force participation has declined. The workforce consists of only 27 percent of Indian women, 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.
Fight for the right of women to be allowed into military combat, fly fighter jets or be sent into space. The barriers are high enough already; now we want to add a nonsensical new one? When war broke out between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir in 1999, I had to push hard to be allowed to report from the front lines. An initially reluctant army said “There are no bathrooms, no separate beds for women,”. I pleaded and argued my way in. But imagine if this agitation for period leave existed; what might the army have said to me? Incidentally, I was menstruating while reporting from the front lines.
The issues of endometriosis and extreme menstrual pain have been raised by some women. I sympathise – but those only serve as a basis for medical leave, not grounds to make such exceptions the norm as menstrual leave.
Others have noted that maternity leave is also a female-specific benefit and the reason why I don’t object to that is that first, I don’t think maternity and menstruation are comparable; second, I think it’s time for the feminist framework to focus on equality at home as a key component of equality at work. I’d be much more comfortable with the idea of family leave, available to both men and women, so that we finally cross the final frontier of stereotypes.
But it is a disservice to the seriousness of feminism for women to use the fight against menstrual taboos as an excuse for special treatment. Let’s stop this sexism. Period.