In 2015, Kiruba Munusamy, a human rights lawyer and Dalit activist, had just started a much-sought-after career as a Supreme Court junior advocate in Delhi when she was fired by her male superior for taking a day off on the first day of her menstrual cycle.
Speaking to News18, Munusamy, who hails from Salem in Tamil Nadu, narrated the years of discrimination she had had to face as a young female Dalit lawyer.
Munusamy, who has now been practicing law for over 11 years, said that she had been a part of two landmark cases in the Madras High Court before setting her eyes on the apex court.
She had been the petitioner in the landmark 2014 Nangai VS. Superintendent of Police case where she defended a woman who was labelled as transgender when she applied for the position of a woman constable. As part of her training, she underwent a medical examination where the Medial Officer declared her as 'transgender' and directed further medical examination. The Tamil Nadu Uniformed Services Recruitment Board terminated her application saying she falsely applied under the quota reserved for women. The case was also one of the first instances of a High Court acknowledging that Indian laws did not accommodate gender fluidity of transsexual persons.
Little did Munusamy know, that despite her victory in numerous high profile cases, she would still be discriminated against on grounds of her caste and gender.
"In 2014, I was working under a senior Supreme Court advocate who objected to me keeping my hair open at work. He did not like the idea of a dark-skinned Dalit woman with hair open in the courtroom and deliberately kept me from it. Let it be noted that the SC code of conduct mentions no such rule about hairstyles," Munusamysaid.
In January 2015, Munusamy started working under another male senior advocate in the Supreme Court, but things weren't very different from what she had experienced previously.
"Back then, I used to suffer from really severe migraine and menstrual cramps. One day, I took a leave owing to migraine. The following day, I had menstrual cramps and told my superior that I was unwell. In the evening, he called me and fired me," she said.
According to Munusamy, the advocate told her that this is why he avoided hiring female juniors. "He told me that women take a week off for period pains, then a month for their wedding and then six months for their maternity leaves. He said that hiring male juniors was better because they could work all the time," she said.
The advocate also told Munusamy that she should ask her mother to find a bridegroom for her and get her married for she did not deserve to be a lawyer. Munusamy's humiliation did not end there. The advocate went on to tell her that he had only hired her because she was a Dalit and he pitied her. He told her that she did not really deserve to be working for the top court.
"Ironically, both the senior advocates who discriminated against me had daughters," Munusamy recalls.
When food delivery firm Zomato announced a 10-day 'Period Leave' for its women and transgender employees, there were disgruntled cries from certain communities.
Social media soon saw a flurry of opinions, mostly unsolicited, and a heated debate began questioning how fair this leave policy would be and whether it would deepen the stigma and increase discrimination. Many also said that this may discourage employers from hiring women employees.
READ: We Don't Know Who Needed to Read This, But Here's Why Women Deserve Period Leave
READ: Why Menstrual Leave Shouldn't Just be a Corporate Policy but Legal, Social Right
A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2019 showed that menstrual symptoms like heavy bleeding, cramps and PMS (pre-menstrual symptoms) can result in at least nine days of lost productivity every year.
The study, which studied over 30,000 women, linked absenteeism, or taking off from school or work to menstrual symptoms. Only 14% women said they were able to take time off of work citing menstrual pain while 80% claimed that they continued to grit through the pain or discomfort because they knew they would not be granted a leave.
Now, that should not really be the case, isn't it?
Since then, many women have taken to social media to share their own period stories.
Munusamy shared her story too, with the hashtag #DalitWomanMenstrualExperience, which seemed to irk many. For several Twitter users, unsurprisingly mostly men, it was baffling as to why Munusamy was linking caste with menstruation.
Plz don't make this abt Dalit stuff.. It's a women centric.. And would like somebody like you to take it to SC judges.. — Another AshWin (@Ashjrk) August 13, 2020
Why only dalit women? — Shirin Khan شیرین (@KhanShirin0) August 14, 2020
How's that related to dalit? Other women doesn't menstruates? — Aatmanirbhar Bhopali (@100percentharam) August 13, 2020
Women, irrespective of caste, bleed every month and while it may seem menstrual discomfort does not have anything to do with one's caste, it is in fact deeply connected.
In India, only about 12% women have access to sanitary napkins or period products. Even while menstruation continues to remain a taboo in the country, menstrual experiences are largely different especially since the caste system is deeply embedded in the Indian psyche.
Discrimination on account of menstruation may last for five days a month for many women, but for Dalit women, social segregation is an inherent part of their lives.
In an article in Feminism India, author Shradha T K Lama wrote about her friend, a Dalit woman, who told her that if sanitary napkins are handed out for free to her family, they would sell it to feed themselves. That explains how caste and menstruation are mutually interconnected.
"There's nepotism in law too. I am a first generation lawyer, but most female lawyers around me had relatives practicing law. Dalit women are already oppressed, the taboo around menstruation just adds to it," Munusamy said.
The problem of stigma around menstruation is deeper than what it appears. Munusamy said that she had consulted over 30 doctors to treat her cramps. "All the doctors I consulted told me I should get married and have babies if I wanted the pain to go away. But that's just the mentality of Indian doctors, I guess," she said.
Upon being asked if she thought the Supreme Court would ever implement a "period leave" policy like Zomato, Munusamy said, "The Bar Council has to take care of that. Women working in the Supreme Court have only just begun speaking about things like sexual harassment; if such serious issues are ignored, who will care about menstrual cramps? While there are policies for the welfare of lawyers, there's nothing specifically for female lawyers."