A good friend of mine tells me how she never had period pains, but her teenage daughter is always in bed all day once a month. My friend would chide her for making excuses for plain laziness. ‘The pain isn't anything you can’t handle, its just an excuse you use to enjoy a day off from everything,’ she would say. After being bullied on this every month, the 17 year old one day replied, “Are you going to discriminate against me based on how much period pain I get or not?”
My friend was at a loss on how to respond to this. Suddenly she felt she had been very judgmental just because she couldn’t associate with the pains her daughter went through. ‘I didn’t really know how to react to that.” Right now all women of our country are in the same boat as my friend and her teenage daughter. How do you differentiate between what is a genuine physiological need and what is not, when the experience of the same is subjective to each person?
70 years ago, while we celebrated our new found freedom and began the work to lay down our legislation, Japan brought in a law that allowed menstruating women to take days off work. Today, three Indian firms have introduced a similar policy in India. Culture Machine, Gozoop and Mathrubhumi, have introduced a “period day” off every month for all their female employees. The companies advocate it as a policy to fight taboos associated with periods.
This policy exists in many other Asian countries like Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea. Nike has a similar policy and ensures it’s business partners follow suit. Italy is the first western country to incorporate this leave policy this year. While some advocate for it as a fight against tabboos, others see it as a natural biological right while many others think of it a way to increase women’s productivity.
Many more have spoken against this move. Seeing it as an exercise that will lead to reverse sexism. We are all to familiar with the office scene when you get into an argument and someone from the team says, ‘oh are you on your period?’ This question is often barbed with a sense of ridicule. It often derogates a women’s experience, subtly indicates how she might ‘not be herself’ and questions the female colleague’s ability for sound judgement. We all have bristled against such remarks and looked for suitable counters.
It is not just men who have used this excuse as a weapon against us. Many women deploy it behind the backs of their female colleagues too. In such workplaces, actually taking a ‘declared’ period leave’ will only add merit to the case. In workplaces were true gender parity is a distant dream, adding more policies that differentiate between the sexes might not turn out to benefit anyone in the long term.
If I were in pain, and had an important deadline to meet in office, what would I do? A flexibility of work from home might sound better. Many companies advocate for work from home for increasing employee productivity on a whole and not just for ‘those special days’ of the month. If the nature of my job demanded my presence among my team in the office, then perhaps a car to pick and drop would serve to make the woman feel appreciated, important and special.
Asiya Shervani, who is an organizational effectiveness, diversity and inclusion expert says, “I think its a plan to sound as though you care for women. But ultimately 6 month maternity leave and 1 day per month additional leave will keep women away from the meaty roles. There are bigger problems to solve like work environment for women, career growth, building their self esteem and mentoring them" . As part of her consulting work, Asiya provides advisory services and enables women to grow and progress. She feels that those are the kind of enablers which are needed rather than extending leaves. Why are we trying to keep women away from work? If you really care for them provide child care and health care and enable them to manage a good work life balance. Instead of focusing on problems that hinder growth and retention of women in the workforce, let us not give undue importance to non issues. Lets focus on gender pay gaps, adequate maternal support and creches near offices. Yes, if menstruation taboo is what we are looking to break, then how about starting with corporate pressure with a campaign on removing the 12% GST on Sanitary napkins?
(Nazia Erum is a TEDx speaker and author of 'Mothering a Muslim' by Juggernaut Books. She can be reached at @nazia_e. Views are personal)